The low-carbohydrate diabetic diet is often implicated as an excellent dietary plan for women with PCOS. So, what does it entail, and is it true to all of its promises?
The low carbohydrate diabetic diet is pretty self-explanatory—it’s a meal plan consisting of foods with low carbohydrate content. Carbohydrates, when broken down, form simple sugar compounds such as glucose or fructose. This triggers the body to release insulin, aiding the absorption of sugar into the liver, fats, or muscles.
However, more than often, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) comes with insulin resistance, a metabolic disorder in which the blood sugar levels remain high despite adequate insulin secretion. High sugar levels (or hyperglycemia) may present with symptoms like increased thirst or hunger, frequent urination, and headache.
Hence, with that in mind, the low carbohydrate diet regimen is backed up with evidence to better regulate blood sugar levels in women with PCOS. When a reduced amount of carbohydrates is made available in the first place, our body will have an easier time processing it and keeping the blood sugar level balanced.
Can the Low Carb Diet Help in PCOS?
There are mixed opinions on the argument of a low-carbohydrate diet being of favor to women with PCOS. In short, low-carbohydrate diets can help to improve one’s quality of life with PCOS. That said, it isn’t a “magic remedy” to “reverse PCOS”.
As far as the current medical management goes, you cannot cure PCOS. It’s a chronic condition that requires consistent management and check-ups. It’s understandable why some may wish to “cure” PCOS, but it’s essential to be aware that some parties may exploit this longing to generate profit.
Hence, it’s best to take things with a grain of salt when it comes to diet plans or “quick PCOS fixes,” and remember to always seek medical advice when necessary.
Benefits of Low Carb Diet in PCOS
PCOS is divided into four subtypes: post-pill PCOS, adrenal PCOS, insulin-resistant PCOS, and inflammatory PCOS. Although women with PCOS can generally undertake the low-carbohydrate diet, it is particularly beneficial for those with insulin-resistant PCOS.
The main benefit of low-carbohydrate in PCOS is to maintain glucose levels within the healthy range. Women with insulin-resistant PCOS are more likely to fall into high glucose level states. Therefore, the low-carbohydrate diet aims to supply your body with fewer than usual amounts of glucose, and consequently, maintain the blood sugar level in normal, acceptable ranges.
Moreover, low carbohydrate intake directly relates to low insulin secretion. This may halt the worsening of insulin resistance too. On top of that, diabetes is a common complication of women with insulin-resistant PCOS. Hence, curbing your carbohydrate intake from the start may reduce your risk of progression to diabetes.
Can Low Carb Diets Lead to Weight Loss?
Yes. In 2003, a randomized trial involving 63 men and women with obesity took place. The participants were assigned randomly to either conventional diet regimens (low-calorie, high-carbohydrate, low-fat) or experimental diet regimens (low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diet) .
Within the first three to six months of the study, people adhering to the low-carbohydrate diet experienced more weight loss than the conventional group. Apart from this trial, many other studies demonstrate the benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet in weight loss.
So you can carry out a low-carbohydrate diet to mitigate the weight gain symptom of PCOS. However, do keep in mind that losing weight doesn’t resolve or cure PCOS, it’s just a means of lifestyle modification to better cope with PCOS diagnosis.
Additionally, not all bodies are the same; what works in losing weight for one may not work for you. Therefore, refrain from forcing the low-carbohydrate diet on yourself because it isn’t the absolute solution—there are many alternative diet options to help with weight loss in PCOS.
Alternative PCOS Diet Plans
Diet plays a massive role in the healthy management of PCOS, not because it can end PCOS, but because it can improve your overall quality of life and avoid long-term complications. As the saying goes, you are what you eat. While there isn’t a fixed diet for PCOS women, there are many balanced diet options that you can try. The key is for you to find a diet that works for your body and your lifestyle.
Here are some other safe and “PCOS-friendly” diets you can try out:
This is a low-carb, high-fat diet that works by channeling your body into ketosis, a process of burning fats to obtain energy. Unlike the low-carb diet, the ketogenic diet has an emphasis on higher fat intake. The structure of this diet helps to address the weight gain problems secondary to PCOS better than the low-carb diet.
Glucose coming from carbohydrates may raise insulin levels and worsen hormonal imbalance in PCOS. Therefore, the low carbohydrate aspect of this diet may minimize the risk of carbohydrates worsening PCOS control.
If you’d like to carry out the keto diet, know that there is as much risk as benefits to it. Avoid making any drastic changes to your diet. Instead, you could gradually incorporate the keto diet into your existing diet regimen.
You may focus on adding healthy and high-quality fats such as avocado, nuts, chia seeds, or refined oil fats such as coconut or olive oil into your daily diet. It’s also recommended that you keep fast-acting sugar items such as candies or protein bars with you in case you start feeling symptoms of energy deprivation.
Low-fat, Plant-based, Whole-food Diet
Dietitians often recommend this diet to people with insulin-resistant PCOS as evidence proves its effectiveness in improving insulin sensitivity. In 2020, a total of 244 participants were recruited for a study to investigate the impact of a vegan low-fat diet on body weight, insulin resistance, metabolic activities, and lipid levels .
Over 16 weeks, 122 of the participants were asked to follow a low-fat vegan diet, while the remaining half had no diet changes. At the end of the study, the participants following a low-fat vegan diet experienced weight loss, an increase in metabolism rate, and, more importantly, a significant increase in insulin sensitivity.
That being the case, if you have insulin-resistant PCOS, you may benefit from a low-fat, plant-based diet. Start by consuming low and healthy fats such as oatmeal or whole grains and gradually cutting down on meat . Remember to take the process slowly, as your body may require time to adjust to the dietary change.
The risk of inflammation is high in PCOS conditions secondary to pre-existing hormonal imbalance. Often, artificial food causes inflammation because our body recognizes them as “foreign.” Consequently, large amounts of inflammatory mediators are released into the bloodstream to eliminate this “foreign substance.”
Therefore, it’s best to avoid foods that may trigger inflammatory processes as the threshold to initiate inflammation may be low in PCOS. Here are some foods that you could remove/limit from your diet:
- Cow-based dairy foods
- Gluten induces inflammation
- Refined sugars
- Refined flour
Alternatively, you can incorporate more anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, nuts, whole grains, beans, starchy vegetables, or fatty fish into your diet.
Intermittent fasting divides your eating habits into two phases: eating and fasting. During the fasting phase, our body is provided sufficient time to normalize blood glucose levels and break down fats for energy. Consequently, it’s good for people to opt for healthy diet foods and restore energy levels during the eating phase.
This type of diet is beneficial for PCOS as it provides time for the body to complete digestion. In insulin-resistant PCOS, in particular, intermittent fasting can help you maintain your blood glucose levels under normal ranges.
When starting on this diet, try to eat more protein during the eating phase as it may help to improve digestion and insulin sensitivity. Moreover, you must also make sure you’re eating well during the eating phase to avoid cravings during the fasting period.
When you feel the pang of hunger: EAT (it’s not a crime!) There are many stories of women with PCOS cultivating unhealthy dieting habits to lose weight at the cost of dire health consequences.
While it’s easier said than done, try not to be too hard on yourself. It may not be easy to accept the weight gain of PCOS, especially in a world where beauty standards are knit together with body shapes. But remember that the greater focus is to keep your body healthy, and your well-being is worth more than unrealistic beauty standards.
Which Diet Should You Choose?
There is no one-diet-fit-all solution for choosing a diet for PCOS. Your body is unique, and so should your diet be. Here’s a general outline for you to get starting with dieting based on your targeted outcome:
If your focusing is on good overall wellness, choose:
- Instinctive eating: Depending on your current weight and gender, your daily recommended calorie intake could range from 1200 to 1500. Try to keep your meals within these calorie limits and incorporate as many nutritious foods as possible.
- Anti-inflammatory diet: This diet will help you avoid inflammatory responses in PCOS, and it’s especially beneficial in inflammatory PCOS. Keep track of all the foods you’re eating, and remove any foods that make you feel sick or uncomfortable.
If your focus is to avoid high blood sugar levels and progression to diabetes, choose:
- Low-carb, diabetic diet: This diet helps your body regulate glucose levels better within the normal range. However, it may sometimes push you to a state of low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia). Make sure to have fast-acting sugar supplies on you at all times.
- Low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet: This diet may improve your insulin sensitivity and reduce your chances of progressing to diabetes.
If your focus is to lose weight with PCOS, choose:
- Keto diet: This diet allows the body to burn fat to obtain energy and help with weight loss.
The majority of women with PCOS work collaboratively with their doctors, dietician, and other healthcare providers to figure out the best diet regimen for themselves. It’s a gradual process that takes time, patience, and trial and error.
FAQ: The PCOS Diet
Should I avoid carbs completely if I have PCOS?
Absolutely not! Though it may seem like carbohydrates cause nothing but problems, it’s still an essential nutrition source that provides the body with energy. While it’s okay to go on a low-carbohydrate diet, it’s not a wise decision to abruptly cut off carbohydrates.
If you’re worried about the effects of carbohydrates, try to pair carbs with other nutrients such as lean proteins or healthy fats. This way, you’ll meet your carbohydrate requirements (about 45 grams of carbohydrate per meal) while maintaining an adequate dietary balance.
What’s the difference between a low-carb and diabetic diet?
By definition, diabetic diet plans recommend foods low in fat and calories, whereas the low carbohydrate diet only puts forward low carbohydrate intake. However, it is not uncommon for these two diets to be used interchangeably in real-life settings.
In fact, some may refer to these diets collectively as the low-carbohydrate diabetic diet. Both diets help regulate blood glucose levels, and their suggested foods are more and less the same.
Here are some foods inclusive of both low carbohydrate and diabetic diets:
- Fresh vegetables such as spinach or kale
- Sugar-free jam
- Eggs or tofu
- Chicken breast
- Skim milk
Does weight loss cure PCOS?
No, it doesn’t. Weight gain is a consequence of PCOS and all the physiological changes that come with it. Hence, losing weight is only a means of managing the consequences, not curing or addressing the root problem of PCOS.
PCOS is a challenging diagnosis for many, and it’s still a condition that’s not talked about as much as it should be. Diet plays a crucial role in helping women to navigate through their PCOS journey better.
Strive to involve your healthcare providers in any dietary decisions because their opinion may give you valuable insights. Finally, remind yourself that finding a suitable PCOS diet is a process of trial and error. Give space for you and your body to adapt to these changes and embrace the process!
Disclaimer: This article is only a guide. It does not substitute the advice given by your own healthcare professional. Before making any health-related decision, consult your healthcare professional.
Editorial References And Fact-Checking
- Foster, G. D., Wyatt, H. R., Hill, J. O., McGuckin, B. G., Brill, C., Mohammed, B. S., Szapary, P. O., Rader, D. J., Edman, J. S., & Klein, S. (2003). A randomized trial of a low-carbohydrate diet for obesity. The New England journal of medicine, 348(21), 2082–2090. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa022207
- Kahleova, H., Petersen, K. F., Shulman, G. I., Alwarith, J., Rembert, E., Tura, A., Hill, M., Holubkov, R., & Barnard, N. D. (2020). Effect of a Low-Fat Vegan Diet on Body Weight, Insulin Sensitivity, Postprandial Metabolism, and Intramyocellular and Hepatocellular Lipid Levels in Overweight Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA network open, 3(11), e2025454. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.25454
- Buckner, R. K. N. (2021, September 2). The PCOS Diet Ultimate Guide – Best and Worst Foods. Mastering Diabetes. Retrieved August 19, 2022, from https://www.masteringdiabetes.org/pcos-diet/#tab-con-9