4 tips to set you on the right track
What we put in our mouths on a daily basis can have a significant impact, for better or worse, on the symptoms associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This female hormonal disorder affects 12-18% of women of reproductive age and presents with a number of symptoms such as insulin resistance, weight gain, irregular menstrual cycles, acne, excess hair growth and infertility.
Often women are prescribed medications and other treatments, particularly when trying to conceive, as the first line of intervention. However, research has shown that lifestyle changes alone can have positive effects on PCOS symptoms, including infertility.
The good news is that these lifestyle changes, which include modifications to your dietary intake and exercise level are easy to implement and will also improve your overall health. Furthermore, weight loss of just 5-10% of body weight which is achievable with such changes, will also contribute to improving PCOS. I know for many women with PCOS, weight reduction is a struggle but with the right tools losing this amount of weight (for a 90kg woman, this equates to 4.5-9kg) can be achieved and sustained. Even if you do not need to reduce your weight, eating to nourish your body correctly is important to support hormonal function.
So where do you start?
Dietary changes do not include following strict diets, cutting out or restricting certain foods. Instead, the goal is for you to learn behaviours that are sustainable in the long term and include:
1. How to balance your meals using the portion plate
This is one of my favourite tools to share with my clients when discussing what their daily intake should look like. With fad diets advertised so widely, individuals tend to get fixated on following specified amounts and types of specific foods, which is only sustainable in the short term. Using this plate diagram you can visualise at each meal the right proportions of each group of foods that should fill your plate. This can be applied in the home, at work or when eating out.
2. Understand portion control, and how to implement this in day to day living
If we compared the amount of food on our plates to what our parents ate at the same age, generally they ate less and processed foods rarely made an appearance. A common phrase they regularly heard was “clear your plate” and my parents were guilty of that too when I was younger. However the difference is now in today’s society, portion and plate sizes have significantly increased, which leads to overeating and in turn can contribute to weight gain and more importantly we ignore the signs of hunger and fullness. So how do we think about our portion size without having to weigh every skerrick of food or fluids we want to put in our mouth because let’s face it – who has time to do that, or can even be bothered!
- An easy way to adjust your daily intake is to use a side plate, rather than a dinner plate. So whilst you are trying to reverse the mentality of “clear your plate” you have cut in half the amount of food that you would normally eat, even by eating everything on it!
- Clench your fist, this is roughly a 1 cup measurement. If you serve out rice, for example, you can compare how many cups this is, chances are most of you will be eating more than 1 cup.
- Now turn your hand over, so your palm is facing up, the size of your palm (this does not include your fingers) represents roughly what a serve of meat/fish/poultry should look like.
- Adjust the belief pattern, that we must clear our plates. I think particularly when we eat at restaurants or other food outlets, we feel obliged to eat everything that we are served, because of the money we have spent on the foods, because we may feel rude if we do not eat it all, and because many of us grew up having that drilled into us. I am here to tell you, that it is OK not to finish the whole meal. It is important for you to listen to your body’s signals which indicate when it is hungry and when it is satisfied. This helps to prevent cravings and overeating.
3. How to spread your meals and snacks over the day
Although there is not a one size fits all approach to meal spacing, it is recommended for women with PCOS to consume small regular meals over the day, including snacks. This enables you to control your insulin levels, which is a goal for many women managing PCOS particularly those with insulin resistance. The right timing of meals and snacks also helps to prevent cravings which often leads to overeating. Use our Meal Time Guide as a reference.
4. Knowing what it is in the food you eat
As many of us are aware, eating whole foods ( foods that have not been processed or had very little processing done to them) offers us the best nutrition. As a general rule of thumb, when entering most large supermarkets the aisles or areas on the outer boundaries house the products that provide us with the most nutrients as recommended in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, For example, fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and poultry, dairy, and breads. Label reading is also another great tool to learn, as it allows you to compare similar foods and choose the best option for your needs. For more information on this click here.
Following these tips together, will provide a great foundation to your journey of improving your PCOS symptoms and overall health and can be implemented into your daily lifestyle for many years to come. However, it is important to note that PCOS is a complex hormonal syndrome and may affect each woman in different ways. It is recommended to seek support from an Accredited Practicing Dietitian specialising in this area who can provide an individualised plan to ensure your specific needs are met.
Dietician & PCOS Sufferer
Kirsty is an Accredited Practising Dietician with over 14 years experience in research, private practice and community health. Now as a mama of two young daughters, Kirsty recognises the importance of supporting mamas and caregivers to raise healthy and happy families. Kirsty has also had personal experience with PCOS and infertility and understands how challenging these times can be when trying to conceive.