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September 17, 2023

What is PCOS? with Jen Funsten, MPH, RD, LDN

by Jen Funsten, MPH, RD, LDN

PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is an endocrine disorder that can cause hormone imbalances in women of reproductive age. These hormone imbalances can then cause an array of signs and symptoms including the presence of cysts on the ovaries, irregular periods, acne, hair loss, unwanted face and body hair growth (also known as hirsutism), fertility issues, weight gain, and insulin resistance1. Development of PCOS is associated with certain nutrition-related risk factors, including elevated androgen and insulin levels, overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, and poor eating habits. PCOS can then increase the risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, sleep apnea, and endometrial cancer (2,3). The cause of PCOS is unknown, but early detection and treatment is helpful in reducing symptoms and preventing complications (1).

Nutrition Management of PCOS

Nutrition management of PCOS is aimed at preventing the development of high cholesterol, blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. The Mediterranean Diet (MD) has been shown to decrease the risks of high cholesterol, blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes (4,5). However, I tend to think the “Mediterranean Diet” needs further clarification. People may associate this style of eating with Mediterranean cuisine, like Greek food, for example. The MD that I am referring to is not constrained to one cuisine but can rather be adapted to any cuisine. This is because the MD focuses on foods and food groups. The MD is rich in high fiber foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, as well as low fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, and healthy unsaturated fats while limiting foods high in saturated fat and other highly processed foods. therefore, style of eating has also been shown to help manage depression and anxiety as well, two other conditions also associated with PCOS (6,7). I will therefore explore different considerations of the MD to manage nutrition risks of PCOS.


One common myth about people with PCOS is that they need to eliminate or restrict carbohydrates. In reality, carbohydrates are a very important component of the diet for people with PCOS. Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy. Without carbohydrates, our bodies do not function quite as well. Some people on low carbohydrate diets may experience a “brain fog”. This is because the brain functions almost exclusively on carbohydrates, so without this form of energy, the brain does not function optimally. Many carbohydrate foods also offer additional nutritious benefits including fiber, vitamins and minerals, and an array of phytonutrients (plant nutrients that often offer health benefits).

All carbohydrates are not created equally, however. Refined carbohydrates tend to contain more simple sugars and less fiber. Because of this, refined carbohydrates can spike blood sugar more than other types of carbohydrates. Although blood sugar naturally rises and falls in response to food and hormones throughout the day, our bodies do not like large, quick changes in blood sugar, nor do they like having high blood sugar, also called hyperglycemia. Hyperglycemia triggers an immune response, leading to inflammation in the body (8). Chronic inflammation over time can then lead to other risks, including heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer (9, 10, 11). High consumption of refined carbohydrates can also influence triglyceride levels, which can impact risk of heart disease as well (12, 13). Hyperglycemia also triggers a larger insulin response, which can contribute to more insulin resistance over time (13). Since insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are risk factors of PCOS, it is important for people with PCOS to be aware of refined carbohydrate consumption.

The MD, on the other hand, which incorporates carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, can promote blood sugar control and prevent the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (4, 5). Therefore carbohydrates, in themselves, are not harmful for people with PCOS. People with PCOS should rather be intentional about including high fiber carbohydrate sources to reduce nutritional risks associated with PCOS. The MD encourages at least 3 servings each of fruit and vegetables each day, 3 to 6 servings per day of whole grains and starchy vegetables, and 3 servings per week of beans and legumes, while limiting snack foods and baked goods to less than 3 times per week.


There are two main types of fats present in our food that we need to be conscious of: saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Trans fats are an important consideration as well, but after artificial trans fats were banned in the U.S. in 2018 for health risks, they are not as prevalent anymore (14).

Saturated fats often come from animal sources, such as red meats, processed meats, dairy products, and butter, but are also common in fried and processed foods. A Western style diet is typically high in these saturated fats and is also associated with many negative health impacts including increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes (15). The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to around 10-15 grams/day (16).

On the other hand, unsaturated fats are commonly found in plants and seafood. Plant oils, such as olive oil and canola oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, beans, and many types of fish including salmon and tuna contain unsaturated fats. Many diets that were designed for health promotion, such as the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), and the MD, all promote adequate consumption of these unsaturated fats. Incorporating unsaturated fats in the diet can aid in lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation (which may play a beneficial role in insulin resistance as well), and reducing risk of all-cause mortality (17, 18, 19). One type of unsaturated fat, omega-3s, offer additional benefits for disease prevention, promotion of mental health, and anti-inflammatory effects (20, 21, 22).

Therefore, it is important for people with PCOS to be mindful about the saturated and unsaturated fats in the diet and their impact on health.


In large part, recommendations for protein sources for health promotion for people with PCOS aligns with the dietary fat recommendations. Leaner protein options with less saturated fats and more unsaturated fats from plant and seafood protein sources will provide benefits for people with PCOS. Beyond the fat content of different proteins, there are additional aspects of protein sources of note as well. Higher animal protein consumption creates a more acidic environment in the body, and this has been linked to more insulin resistance (23). Processed meats and red meats have also been found to be linked to certain cancers (24) and are classified by the World Health Organization as class A (carcinogenic) and class 2A (probably carcinogenic) carcinogens, respectively (25). Since people with PCOS are at a higher risk of developing endometrial cancer, reducing these types of meats would likely be beneficial.

On the other hand, incorporating plant-based proteins rich such as soybeans or other soy products has been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular health, insulin resistance, and may play a role in preventing some cancers (26, 27, 28). Also, seafood such as salmon and tuna are rich in omega-3s, as mentioned above, which can provide benefits to cardiovascular health and insulin resistance.

For these reasons regarding dietary fat and protein, the MD encourages incorporating at least 3 servings per week of fish, 1 to 3 servings per week of poultry, 3 servings per week of low fat diary, 1 to 4 tablespoons olive oil per day, 3 servings per week of nuts and seeds, and limiting to 1 whole egg per day and 1 serving of red meat per week.

Lifestyle Factors

Sleep, stress management, and exercise are also imperative for people with PCOS. These factors are all interconnected in reducing inflammation and disease prevention. Exercise, in particular, can also improve heart health and can aid in reversing insulin resistance. High intensity exercise seems to offer the greatest benefit for people with PCOS (29). Sleep issues are common in people with PCOS, so treating this is an important part of managing PCOS as well (30).

In conclusion, establishing a balanced diet rich in high fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with a variety of lean proteins, plant proteins, and seafood will provide nutritional benefit for people with PCOS. This MD pattern along with adequate sleep and exercise will help prevent high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes associated with PCOS, and can provide mental health benefits as well. Schedule an appointment with a dietitian to discuss building a nutrition plan for you to take charge of your PCOS.


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