Food to fight Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
by Jacqueline Cooper
I have studied nutrition with the SNHS and as a result I have recently set up my own business as a personal slimming coach. Weight problems plague most of us at some time in our lives and it has become clear to me that there are many contributing factors for weight gain and obesity.
Mostly the reasons are due to one of the following:
- Poor nutritional education – many people have no idea of what is really healthy food and don’t even recognise half of the wonderful nutritious foods available to us.
- Commonly known medical issues such as thyroid disorder.
- Emotional eating – past traumas and stress cause people to over-eat. The body has a stress reaction which produces insulin and sugar lows and make us crave food. Emotional disorders are quite often the cause of a feeling of emptiness, which the mind tricks you to believe it is hungry, resulting in over-eating and still never feeling full.
The most common issue for those of us who are constantly battling with weight issues is lack of exercise and eating more calories than we use. However there is a little ‘gremlin’ that, as yet, still goes undetected for long periods of time – Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. It is surprisingly common and it is due to a hormone imbalance. There are normally excessive levels of testosterone and too much oestrogen. Symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome are often very disturbing to women.
These symptoms include excessive bodily hair, mostly on the face and tummy, irregular periods, a rapid increase in weight, hair thinning, acne, lethargy, and depression. One of the most upsetting symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome can be infertility. This is due to low FSH levels (follicle stimulating hormone) in comparison to the raised LH levels (lutenizing hormone). These will hinder egg release.
Although there is no cure for polycystic ovary syndrome, its symptoms can certainly be managed through nutrition. It has been recognised that many women with polycystic ovary syndrome have raised levels of the peptide hormone insulin. Insulin is made by the pancreas and controls sugar levels. It is therefore important to ensure the diet is full of whole, nutritious, slow release energy foods to keep insulin levels healthy and steady. Vitamin B6 is essential and chromium is well known to improving fat levels and glucose tolerance, making it a particularly good mineral for weight loss. A diet rich in fruit, vegetables and pulses should be consumed along with quality lean meat, quality carbohydrates and fatty fish to promote a healthy body.
A vegetarian may want to supplement essential fatty acids although as long as a diet is rich in fruit, grains, nuts, vegetables, seeds and pulses (especially soya beans) it should provide all of the nutrients needed.
Carbohydrates are the key to long term successful weight management for sufferers of polycystic ovary syndrome as the idea with managing PCOS is to regulate blood sugar levels by reducing the intake of refined carbohydrates and getting energy from complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are starches that are made up of glucose that are stored within the cellular structure of plants. Vegetables, grains, beans and lentils are all complex carbohydrates and need the body to digest them in order to release the glucose. This ensures they are passed through the body slowly and their fibre content ensures a smooth passage and a healthy digestive system.
Refined carbohydrates have the opposite effect. They have already been stripped out of the plants and often broken down into glucose before they even reach the digestive system. This intake of glucose will send blood sugar levels soaring rapidly and this encourages excessive insulin production. The insulin pushes the glucose to the liver and muscles where it is stored as glycogen but too much glycogen will get pushed back to be stored by the body as fat. Eating small meals of mainly complex carbohydrates will keep insulin levels healthy as glucose is slowly absorbed into the body, avoiding the sugar ‘highs’ and ‘lows’.
The Diet most highly recommended for sufferers of this condition is a LOW GI diet. GI stands for Glycemic Index. The Glycemic Index is a list of foods and the levels in which they cause a rise in blood sugar levels. Levels range from 0-100 and 40 or below is considered low GI, 45-60 is medium and 60+ is high and should be eaten only occasionally. Eating a food with a low GI can also bring down the rating of a dish containing high GI foods eg. A baked potato is high GI. Serve this with tuna (low GI) or 3 bean chilli (legumes are very low GI) and it converts to a medium GI meal.
High GI foods include:
White bread, instant rice, bagels, baguettes, old potatoes. Chips, mashed potato, parsnips, dates, watermelons, most commercial breakfast cereals, cakes and sugar.
Medium GI foods include:
Brown rice, wholemeal or pitta breads, pineapple, apricots, oat cookies, popcorn, shredded wheat, croissants, new and boiled potatoes.
Low GI foods include:
Pasta (spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, macaroni, ravioli (meaty), most fruit and berries, kiwi, grapes, oranges, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, peaches, apricots, grapefruit and cherries, crisps (although still watch for fat content), chocolate (still watch for calories and fat), porridge oats, spinach, peas, peppers, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, celery, asparagus and legumes including kidney beans, chick peas, butter beans, lentils, baked beans and soy nuts.
Including these wonderful foods from the low GI list will also provide a good daily amount of fibre which many of us are lacking. Simply adding these to a normal meal will make all the difference eg. half a tin of lentils makes a welcome addition to a Spaghetti Bolognese or a large handful of adzuki beans added to a chilli will give it a nutritional, high fibre, low GI boost!
This means no food has to be eliminated from the diet. High GI treats can be enjoyed with a low GI accompaniment for an occasional treat. Even chocolate can be eaten, though if trying to slim it is best left to an occasional treat. Long term health problems associated with polycystic ovary syndrome can be relieved with food.
Water retention is often an unpleasant side effect of PCOS as it can be the result of hormone imbalance as well as high salt intake, poor vitamin intake and insufficient mineral intake. A diet low in salt and high in fruit and vegetables is recommended. The high water content of the fruit and vegetables along with their high vitamin and mineral content, along with lots of pure drinking water can combat water retention.
Excessive hair growth or loss of hair, as previously mentioned, is a very upsetting side effect of PCOS. A healthy balanced diet should create a fitter body which better handles insulin and glucose control. In turn this reduces the amount of testosterone produced in the ovaries and circulating the blood stream. This should slow down the process of excessive hair growth. A herbalist may also recommend ‘Saw Palmetto’ which has been known the help.
Total baldness is not caused by PCOS but the hair can thin to the point of the scalp being clearly visible. The diet needs to be rich in iron, vitamin B1, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and Essential fatty acids.
Deficiencies in these have all been known to have the side effect of hair loss. Lean quality protein is also essential for strong healthy hair as is biotin which can be found in oats, lentils, walnuts, brown rice and brewer’s yeast.
Polycystic ovary syndrome sufferers are also at a higher risk of getting other long term health problems including:
2. Infertility or miscarriage
3. Eating disorders
4. High cholesterol
5. High blood pressure
6. Non-insulin dependent and gestational diabetes
7. Cardiovascular disease
8. Endometrial cancer or endometriosis
9. Ovarian cysts.
It is essential that a person with polycystic ovary syndrome takes in a wide, varied healthy diet to try and ward off these potential diseases.
Case study no 1 was a lady in her late 30s with PCOS. She had fertility problems and was going for IVF, however her GP had told her she needed to lose 2 stone before she would be considered. She came to me and told me all about the many different diets she had tried and had no success with whatever. She had been sucked into the common misconception that ‘one size fits all’ and that she was therefore unlikely to ever lose the weight seeing as she had ‘failed’ with all the other diets.
The truth was that every single body is different and those diets had not taken any of her personal circumstances into consideration. The diets had in fact failed her, not the other way around.
We will call my case study Mrs V. for the purposes of this script.
Mrs V typically started her days early, with a bowl of cereal and fruit juice for breakfast, a small roll with egg and bacon or ham salad for lunch and a roast, takeout or cheese on toast for dinner followed by dessert or a couple of biscuits late at night. Drinks were limited to cordial or wine.
She hardly ate in the day, with sugary cereal and concentrated fruit juice giving her an unnatural high to start the day followed by a small lunch, often on white bread or a roll, followed by a huge dinner in the evening.
Mrs Vs sugar levels were surging and dropping dramatically throughout the day, so much so that when she got in from work it took all of her energy just to get up off the sofa to prepare a meal. This was playing a dangerous game with her insulin levels. A lack of fruit and vegetables meant Mrs V was not getting adequate nutrients and her craving for fatty comforting foods in the evening were putting her at risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and further obesity. There was also a distinct lack of essential fatty acids as her diet was virtually void of fish, seeds, nuts or avocados, putting her at risk of deficiency side effects.
Combating these risks meant a gentle though dramatic change to her diet. The basis of the diet was to eat low GI, high fibre foods to keep the blood sugar levels regular and regain proper movement in the digestive system in order for nutrients to be absorbed and waste eliminated, rather than sitting stagnant in the gut.
Breakfast was plentiful, a glass of water with lemon, porridge oats with skimmed milk and a fresh fruit topping and a weekend treat of poached eggs, grilled bacon, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms.
Lunch was a low GI bread or wrap packed with hummus, salad, lean meat or tuna with low fat yoghurt and a piece of fruit. Dinner became a low GI carbohydrate such as wholemeal pasta, sweet potatoes or basmati rice served with lean meat, oily fish or chicken breast and a selection of cancer fighting, health promoting vegetables such as broccoli and carrots. Casseroles and Chilli or Bolognese were all fortified with iron boosting lentils and nutrient packed tinned pulses.
Snacks were to be eaten in between meals, to prevent the blood sugar levels from dipping. Nuts provided zinc and selenium etc, guacamole dip or hummus provided essential fatty acids with nutrient packed vegetable batons to dip. Water had to be sipped throughout the day, totalling 6 glasses and digestive soothing herbal teas such as nettle and fennel were drank instead of regular tea with sugar.
Meals were to be small but regular and eating so little so often actually allowed a lot of variety into the diet, curbing sugar cravings and a result that my client never felt hungry. This was not a diet. It was a lesson for Mrs V in how to fuel her body in order to manage the polycystic ovary syndrome. It was a lesson in getting nutrients from food to prevent her from suffering with any of the other side effects she was so at risk from getting and it was simply using food to get herself into a stronger healthier state, to take control of her condition and not let it take control of her. The only side effect she felt after 8 weeks of her new eating habits were her loose clothes as she had also lost a very healthy 13lb.
Mrs V had a chance to move forward with the use of quick and easy food to fight PCOS.
Reading material studied for this subject: PCOS handbook by Colette Harris and Theresa Cheung