Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition characterized by hormonal imbalances, irregular periods, and/or the development of small cysts on one or both ovaries. (1)
And the hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, and inflammation related to this condition make it difficult for women with PCOS to lose weight.
Yet, even a small weight loss can improve hormone levels, insulin sensitivity and overall quality of life in women with PCOS. (2)
Here are 9 helpful tips for losing weight with PCOS
1. Reduce Your Carb Intake
Lowering your carb consumption may help manage PCOS due to carbs’ impact on insulin levels.
Approximately 70 percent of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, which is when your cells stop recognizing the effects of the hormone insulin. (3)
Insulin is necessary for blood sugar regulation and energy storage in your body. Research associate’s high levels of insulin with increased body fat and weight gain in the general population, and in women with PCOS. (4, 5)
In one study, obese women with PCOS and insulin resistance first followed a 3-week diet of 40 percent carbs and 45 percent fat, then a 3-week diet of 60 percent carbs and 25 percent fat. Protein intake was 15 percent during each phase. (6)
While blood sugar levels were similar during the two phases of the diet, insulin levels went down 30 percent during the lower-carb, higher-fat phase.
What’s more, a low-glycemic diet may benefit women with PCOS. The glycemic index (GI) is a measurement of how quickly a particular food raises blood sugar.
In one study, women ate their normal diet for 12 weeks, followed by a low-GI diet for 12 weeks. Their measures of insulin sensitivity (how efficiently the body uses insulin) were significantly better during the low-GI phase. (7)
Summary: Eating a low-GI, low-carb diet may reduce insulin levels in women with PCOS. In turn, this could help with weight loss.
2. Get Plenty of Fiber
Because fiber helps you stay full after a meal, a high-fiber diet may improve weight loss in women with PCOS.
In the United States, the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for fiber is 14 grams per 1,000 calories or around 25 grams per day for women. However, the average daily fiber intake for U.S. women is only 15 to 16 grams. (8, 9)
In one study, higher fiber intake was linked to lower insulin resistance, total body fat, and belly-fat in women with PCOS. (10)
In another study in 57 women with this condition, higher fiber intake was associated with lower body weight. (11)
Summary: For women with PCOS, a diet high in fiber may help reduce insulin resistance, body weight, and excess body fat.
3. Eat Enough Protein
Protein helps stabilize blood sugar and increases feelings of fullness after a meal. It may also aid weight loss by reducing cravings, helping you burn more calories, and managing hunger hormones.
In one study, 57 women with PCOS were given either a high-protein diet — more than 40 percent of calories from protein and 30 percent from fat — or a standard diet consisting of less than 15 percent protein and 30 percent fat. (12)
Women in the high-protein group lost an average of 9.7 pounds after 6 months which was significantly more than those in the control group.
If you’re concerned about not getting enough protein in your diet, you can add it to your meals or choose high-protein snacks. Quality, healthy, complete high-protein foods include eggs, nuts, full fat dairy, meat, and seafood.
Summary: Higher protein intake may boost weight loss, especially for women with PCOS. Try adding healthy, high-protein items like eggs, nuts, and seafood to your diet.
4. Eat Healthy Fats
Having plenty of healthy fats in your diet may help you feel more satisfied after meals, as well as tackle weight loss and other symptoms of PCOS.
In one study in 30 women with PCOS, a low-fat diet (55 percent carbs, 18 percent protein, 27 percent fat) was compared to a higher-fat diet (41 percent carb, 19 percent protein, 40 percent fat). (13)
After eight weeks, the higher-fat diet resulted in more fat loss — including belly fat — than the lower-fat diet, which also reduced lean body mass.
In fact, although fats are rich in calories, adding healthy fats to meals can expand stomach volume and reduce hunger. This may help you to eat fewer calories throughout the day. (14)
Examples of healthy fats include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, and nut butters. Combining a healthy fat with a protein source can further increase the filling effects of meals and snacks.
Summary: Eating more healthy fats may be beneficial for women with PCOS. In studies, higher fat intake is linked to reduced hunger and a greater loss of body fat.
5. Eat Fermented Foods
Healthy gut bacteria may play a role in metabolism and weight maintenance.
Additionally, emerging research suggests that certain probiotic strains may have positive impacts on weight loss in general. (18)
Therefore, eating foods high in probiotics, such as, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods may help increase the number of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
You can also try taking a probiotic supplement to get additional help.
Summary: Women with PCOS may have lower numbers of beneficial gut bacteria. Eating foods rich in probiotics or taking a probiotic supplement may support your gut bacteria, thus aiding weight loss.
6. Limit Processed Foods and Added Sugars
Another tip to lose weight with PCOS is to cut down on your intake of certain unhealthy foods.
Processed foods and added sugars may raise blood sugar levels and increase your risk of insulin resistance, which is linked to weight gain and obesity. (19)
In fact, women with PCOS may actually process sugar differently than women without it.
Research shows that women with PCOS experience larger spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels after consuming the same amount of sugar as women without this condition. (20)
Studies indicate that minimally processed, real food not only raise blood sugar less than highly processed foods but are also more satisfying. (21)
Furthermore, experts recommend that women with PCOS limit their consumption of added sugars and refined carbs to manage symptoms and maintain a healthy body weight. (22)
Foods high in added sugar and refined carbs include cakes, cookies, breads, crackers, candy, and fast food.
Summary: Processed foods such as refined carbs and added sugars increase blood sugar levels, which can lead to weight gain.
7. Don’t Under Eat
Long-term calorie restriction may slow down your metabolism. Although calorie restriction is likely to lead to short-term weight loss, over time, the body adapts to this restriction by reducing the number of overall calories it burns, which can lead to weight regain very quickly. (23)
Eating too few calories can negatively impact the hormones that control appetite. For example, in one study, restrictive dieting was found to modify the hormones leptin, peptide YY, cholecystokinin, insulin, and ghrelin, which increased appetite and led to weight gain. (24)
Instead of restricting calories, it may be best to focus on eating whole foods and cutting out unhealthy products.
For example, a study in over 600 people suggested that eating more vegetables and whole foods — while reducing consumption of processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars — may help promote weight loss without restricting calories. (25)
Summary: Chronic calorie restriction may slow down your metabolism, possibly leading to weight gain. Instead of forcing yourself to eat less food, try to adopt a diet of whole, unprocessed foods to help with weight loss.
8. Exercise Regularly
Exercise is a recognized strategy to improve weight loss and over-all health.
In a 12-week study in which 16 women did 45 to 60 minutes of cardio 3 times per week, those with PCOS lost 2.3 percent body fat, compared to 6.4 percent in the control group. (26)
While women with PCOS lost less fat than those without this condition, the exercise regimen did result in loss of belly fat and improvements in insulin sensitivity.
Weight training has also been shown to aid women with PCOS.
In one study, 45 women with PCOS did weight training 3 times weekly. After 4 months, they lost belly fat and gained lean body mass while reducing testosterone and blood sugar levels. (27)
Summary: Both cardio and weight-training exercises may help women with PCOS drop body fat and improve insulin sensitivity.
9. Manage Your Stress
Because stress is a risk factor for weight gain, therefore, managing your stress can help manage your weight.
Stress increases levels of cortisol, a hormone made by your adrenal glands. Chronically high cortisol levels are linked to insulin resistance and weight gain. (28)
Chronic stress also increases your risk of developing belly fat. In turn, belly fat increases inflammation, which triggers your body to make more cortisol — creating a vicious cycle. (29)
Summary: High cortisol levels from chronic stress are linked to insulin resistance and belly fat. Relieving stress through yoga, meditation, and time outdoors may help lower cortisol levels.
The Bottom Line
Losing weight can be quite challenging for women with PCOS.
A balanced diet low in inflammatory foods like refined carbs and highly processed foods but rich in whole foods, protein, healthy fats, and fiber is a great step in the right direction.
Lifestyle should also be taken into consideration. Regular exercise and stress management are also vitally important to weight loss and proper hormonal balance.
If you have PCOS and struggle losing weight, try out some of the outlined tips in this article.