If you’re sick and tired of what PCOS is doing to you then there’s two big things you can do right now for your health and wellbeing.
Getting people started on these two transformative steps is exactly what my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge is all about, where thousands of women meet online to take the plunge together.
Most women that take part in my live 30 Day Challenge already understand that certain foods make their PCOS worse, but there is often a lot of confusion when you get down to the practical details. For example most people know that sugar is a problem, but miss the distinction between glucose and fructose and mistakenly believe that certain natural sugars like honey or coconut sugar are better alternatives.
In this article I give you a comprehensive breakdown of all the foods you want to avoid with PCOS, and I shed a little light on some of the most important nuances you need to be aware of.
For a handy checklist that includes the most common culprits, you can download the PCOS Foods To Avoid Checklist here.
And if at the end of this article you’re ready for action but you’re wondering what you CAN eat, then please grab yourself a copy of my free 3 Day PCOS Diet Meal Plan which includes some of my most popular PCOS recipes and a shopping list with everything you need to get started today.
As I’ve already mentioned, number one on my list of foods to avoid with PCOS is sugar. I totally get how this can be a major hurdle for many women given our close affinity with this addictive ingredient and the subsequent challenge of going cold-turkey.
Let’s face it, sugar is in just about everything which makes it hard to quit from a practical perspective, but breaking our emotional connection to super sweet foods is where things can get really tough.
As a former sugarholic, I can completely empathize with anyone who thinks that quitting sugar sounds scary or unrealistic, but as someone that managed to overcome PCOS and fall pregnant naturally after nearly five years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, I’m also a firm believer that this is the best thing any woman with PCOS can do for her future.
This is largely why I created my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge where I have seen thousands of women achieve even more remarkable results.
A Tale of Two Sugars
While you can generally say that anything with sugar in it is not helping your PCOS, if you take a closer look at what sugar actually is, you can find a bit of wriggle room to discern the bad from the not so bad…
What you first need to know is that almost all sources of sugar are made up to two simple sugars known as fructose and glucose.
The Worst Type of Sugar for PCOS: fructose
From a PCOS perspective fructose is by far the worse of these two simple sugars with clear scientific evidence linking this compound to increased body fat, reduced egg development and quality, facial and body hair, adult acne, anxiety, depression, and much more (Johnson et al. 20171; Carvallo et al. 20172; Lustig 20133; Elliott et al. 20024).
Despite the clear indictment against fructose, many people still mistakenly recommend “natural” sugars like honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar as a healthier alternative. The truth is that all of these products contain approximately 50% fructose, and don’t even get me started on agave nectar which weighs in at over 80%+ fructose!
Fructose is Low GI – But it’s Still Nasty Stuff
I see the confusion surrounding sugars a lot during my 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge and I think this largely stems from a misunderstanding about how best to use the glycemic index.
The glycemic index measures how quickly your body turns food into glucose and given that women with PCOS are interested in stabilizing their blood glucose levels, low GI foods are generally considered preferable.
Here’s the thing though… since fructose doesn’t get converted into glucose it’s very low GI.
But that doesn’t make it any less harmful.
This is a classic case of food companies using diversionary tactics to mislead consumers. Using GI to compare different sugars, is a little like measuring distance in cat-years… it’s simply the wrong metric for the job.
The Fresh Fruit Caveat
Whole fresh fruit is the one caveat to my “avoid all sources of fructose” recommendation. Not dried fruit, and not fruit juices or concentrates, but the whole piece as nature produces it.
Whole fresh fruit contains health micronutrients, can be a good source of fiber (depending on the fruit), and makes for a delicious snack or smoothie ingredient. In order to keep your fructose consumption to within safe levels though I recommend limiting your fruit servings to just one or two per day max.
The Nuances of Glucose Sugars
Glucose by contrast is subtler in its effect given this simple sugar is our body’s natural primary source of energy. Glucose is only a problem for us when we have too much, too quickly, and too often as this is the best way to cause undesirable blood glucose spikes that drive our hormone imbalances.
By consistently bombarding out bodies with too much glucose we become less sensitive to the effects of insulin – the hormone whose job it is to reduce our blood glucose levels. This in turn causes a cascade of physiological responses that over time have a lasting impact on our ovaries, our skin, and our hair. This same hormone imbalance is also responsible for the abnormally high rates of body fat accumulation that many women struggle with.
So the simple take home here is that too much glucose is bad, but fructose is worse…
You can see a practical application of this simple idea if you download my free 3 Day PCOS Diet Meal Plan. My chicken wing recipe calls for a little sweetener and I do this is by using rice malt syrup which is entirely fructose free.
Sugars to Avoid Checklist
Some of the most common culprits that catch people out include breakfast cereals (even the “healthy” ones), jams, sauces, and low fat food products.
2. High GI Carbohydrates
Following similar lines of thinking for avoiding sugar and coming in at number two on my list of foods to avoid with PCOS, is carbohydrate foods – the other major source of glucose in our diet.
Carbohydrates by definition are made up of long chains of glucose stuck together into larger molecules. The problem with many of the most common carbohydrate foods is that they quickly breakdown in our bodies causing our blood glucose levels to spike. In other words… they have a high glycemic index.
Given its massive methodological limitations I’m not much of a fan of the glycemic index, however I reluctantly use it when discussing carbohydrate foods because it’s a useful concept for knowing which ones to avoid.
Some of the most common examples of high GI carbohydrates I talk about during the 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge include bread and baked goods, cereals, pastas, white rice, and white potatoes. Because these foods function as pseudo-sugars they are best avoided if you want to regain control of your hormone regulation.
Gluten is a tough one to avoid because it’s found in just about everything from pasta and baked goods, to cereals, sauces, and beer. But going gluten-free is a really powerful way to initiate a transformative shift in your PCOS health and symptoms.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats and it’s a problem for women with PCOS because it can be highly inflammatory. Inflammation is the natural response of our immune system to perceived threats which while well intended, is a major problem when it’s inappropriately triggered by certain foods. This is especially true for women with PCOS as chronic low grade inflammation is one of the hallmarks of this disorder.
As I explain in this article about how gut health and inflammation affect PCOS its super common for women with PCOS to be intolerant to gluten without actually knowing it.
The common term for this kind of intolerance is non-celiac gluten sensitivity which is a condition that can’t be diagnosed by the normal celiac blood tests or even an intestinal biopsy. If you want to learn more about non-celiac gluten sensitivity, Beyond Celiac provides some of the best information you’ll find online.
During my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge I show participants how to go gluten free while still enjoying a fun and interesting selection of foods. I’m sure this one of the key reasons why women see such great results by the end of the Challenge.
When I first began eliminating gluten from my diet, I had no idea just how widely it was used or where to even look for it. That’s why my PCOS Foods To Avoid Checklist includes many of the most common places you can expect to find gluten to help get you started.
While dairy is often a key problem food for many women with PCOS, there’s a few important nuances that everyone should know.
First, it’s important to understand that it’s the lactose, whey, and casein proteins in dairy food that most people are sensitive to. However, for the vast majority of people, eating butter and ghee is totally fine because these foods don’t contain lactose or milk proteins in any meaningful concentrations.
In fact, butter and ghee are actually really good for us since they are rich sources of healthy fats including conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) which helps reduce body fat (Blankson et al. 20005; Kennedy et al. 20106). They also make vegetables taste wonderful, which means we eat more of them!
The other important thing to know about dairy is that not EVERYONE with PCOS is intolerant to dairy.
It’s possible that your body can handle it, but I always recommend trying to avoid it for a few months first as the best way to find out.
5. Other Food Intolerances
Some of the most common allergenic foods include eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. My best advice for anyone that wants to be completely hardcore about treating their PCOS is to get your food sensitivities tested using Cyrex Labs. Most food intolerance tests are inaccurate at best, and can often be completely wrong. But these guys are about as good as it gets when it comes to quality control, and well-designed tests.
For a thorough introduction to food intolerance testing, I highly recommend listening to Chris Kresser’s Revolution Health Radio where he discusses the challenges of food intolerance testing in depth.
6. Soy Products
Soy is a tricky one to talk about in PCOS circles for a number of reasons, not least for the fact that soy seems like the ideal substitute if we’re not having dairy right?
You can spend a lot of time looking at double-blinded randomized controlled trials that make arguments for both sides of the soy debate. Certainly, there is clear evidence that soy can have favorable effects on cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, inflammatory markers, and even fertility rates under certain circumstances.
The negative effects of soy are largely understood to be a result of biologically active compounds (isoflavones) that interfere with the normal functioning of estrogen in our bodies. Soy is also sometimes considered problematic because of its phytic acid content, which can affect the absorption of minerals by the gut.
My view on soy is that given there are so many better ways to achieve health and fertility, why take the risk.
I should clarify here that my “avoid soy if you have PCOS” view does not extend to fermented soy products like miso, tempeh, natto, and tamari sauce. In fact, I highly recommend these foods as healthy probiotic foods so it’s not all doom and gloom for soy bean fans.
The main reason for this caveat is that the phytic acid present in soy gets broken down by the fermentation process (Reddy et al. 19949), and you’re unlikely to eat enough of these foods to have a negative effect on your hormone balance.
7. Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils make the foods to avoid list because they are high in omega 6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory when not adequately balanced by a similar amount of anti-inflammatory omega 3s. These two fats work best when consumed in a ratio of between 4:1 to 1:1 omega 6:omega 3 but the average Western diet typically results in a ratio of 20:1 or higher (Simopoulos 201610).
An omega fat imbalance has been linked to cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and kidney disease (Fernandes et a. 200811); cancer (Chagas et a. 201712) and even depression (Sanhueza et al 201313).
Of course you can always consume a lot more oily fish, or start taking a fish oil supplement, but eliminating vegetable oils is really easy to do given all the tasty alternatives like coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, and many more.
If you download my free 3 Day PCOS Diet Meal Plan you will receive some of my most popular PCOS recipes all of which taste fantastic without the need for vegetable oils.
…And just so there’s no confusion, when I’m talking about vegetable oils I really mean processed seed oils coming from soybeans, sunflower, canola, and cottonseed etc. My free PCOS Foods To Avoid Checklist includes a comprehensive list of these problem oils.
8. Industrial Trans Fats
Industrial trans fats are a subset of vegetable oils that are a definite food you’ll want to avoid. These oils are engineered by food manufacturers to improve the texture, shelf life and flavor stability of their products but they are also highly toxic and have been associated with all sorts of health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity (Mozaffarian et al. 200914).
To avoid industrial trans fats you need to become accustomed to reading food labels. You also need to know that manufacturers can label their foods as “trans fat free” provided there’s less than 0.5 grams per serving. This seems like a bit of a regulatory loophole to me as 0.5 grams per serving can be 1-2% for a small serving size.
The best way to be sure that you’re food product is actually trans fat free is to make sure that the ingredients list doesn’t include any “hydrogenated”, or “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils as these are some of the sneaky terms used to make the trans fat content less obvious.
9. Processed Meats
There are two exceptions to this recommendation that I apply regularly as part of my own PCOS friendly diet:
1. Traditional biltong or unsmoked beef jerky that isn’t full of sugar is the perfect snack for any busy women who’s on the go all the time. These meats are dried at low temperature and are normally made from all natural ingredients (especially if you make them yourself).
2. Sausage varieties made using only ground meat, fat, salt and spices with little else added are fine to include as part of a PCOS friendly diet. I’m talking about things like Italian sausage which I like to use during my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge to get people accustomed to having meat for breakfast (a skillful habit for overcoming PCOS).
If you consult only the scientific evidence, you don’t get a conclusive answer when it comes to the effects of coffee on PCOS. This is where the clinical experience of some of my most trusted functional medicine practitioners, as well as the collective experience of the thousands of women in my PCOS Support Facebook Group really come into their own.
In my view quitting coffee is a really powerful way to restore a healthier hormone balance, especially if you’re susceptible to stress and anxiety. Unless you’re one of those lucky ladies that are emotionally resilient and have stable moods across the day, then eliminating coffee is likely to make you feel a whole lot better once you break the habit.
There are good reasons why coffee does not mix well with a PCOS diagnosis:
- The caffeine in coffee increases your stress hormones which in turn increases your insulin levels.
- Becoming accustomed to coffee decreases your insulin sensitivity making it more difficult to regulate your blood sugar levels.
- The acidity of coffee causes digestive discomfort, indigestion, heart burn and imbalances in our gut microbiome.
- Caffeine can disrupt sleep and promotes anxiety.
While I know quitting sounds like a big step for any coffee aficionado to take, you really have nothing to lose if you give it a try. With all the wonderful teas and turmeric spiced lattes available nowadays quitting coffee really is just about gently re-directing an existing habit towards a better alternative.
Unlike coffee, the evidence supporting the elimination of alcohol from a PCOS friendly diet seems fairly uncontroversial given the high rates of liver disease associated with this disorder (Vassilatou 201415; Kelley et al. 201416). Even small amounts of alcohol consumption have been associated with liver disease in women with PCOS (Noreen et al. 201117).
While being over-weight and having insulin resistance are considered the main factors for liver disease, even women with lean-type PCOS have an increased risk profile as high testosterone levels may be a contributing factor.
With all of that said, I still have alcohol on the rare occasion be it half a gluten-free beer or a small glass of wine, or apple cider. Like all things in life there are no absolutes and to me, given all the positive health steps I’ve taken, this level of consumption seems unlikely to cause harm.
Chronic inflammation, and hormone dysregulation are the hallmarks of a PCOS diagnosis and it’s these same two mechanisms that cause all of our unwanted symptoms. Since what we eat has a massive impact on both of these issues, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to lose weight, get pregnant, or overcome hair and skin issues, by avoiding the foods I’ve listed above you can expect to see dramatic results.
I was able to overcome PCOS and fall pregnant naturally by following these principles and I have now seen hundreds of other women conquer their own personal Mt Everest using this same approach.
For some especially inspiring examples of what can be achieved, take a look at how April lost 60 lbs after battling with her weight for years, how Hannah fell pregnant naturally despite “never getting a period”, and how Katrina had a wonderful second pregnancy after losing weight and overcoming her secondary infertility.
These women all achieved such great accomplishments when they finally decided to prioritize their health and wellbeing – in many cases for the first time in their lives. For a period of several months, they focused on developing sustainable new lifestyle habits and the results followed as an effortless outcome.
The Next Step to Take
If this sounds like a process you’re ready for, then the easiest way to get started is by taking part in my next free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge. During this live event I provide weekly meal plans, recipes, shopping lists, video lessons, and personal challenges all within a supportive community environment. It really is the perfect place to start your PCOS health transformation.
And if you want to get started right away, simply download my comprehensive 3 Day PCOS Diet Meal Plan which includes a collection of my favorite PCOS recipes and a complete shopping list of everything you need.
There’s nothing magical or secret when it comes to beating PCOS, you just need to get in the habit of putting proven theories into practice. Anyone can do it with the right information and support.
1Johnson, Richard J.; Sanchez-Lozada, Laura G.; Andrews, Peter; et al. Perspective: A Historical and Scientific Perspective of Sugar and Its Relation with Obesity and Diabetes. ADVANCES IN NUTRITION, 2017.
2Carvallo, Pamela; Carvallo, Eugenia; Barbosa-da-Silva, Sandra; et al. NAFLD and High Fructose Intake. A Review of Literature. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MORPHOLOGY, 2017.
3Lustig, Robert H. Fructose: It’s “Alcohol Without the Buzz”. Conference: Symposium on Fructose, Sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup – Modern Scientific Findings and Health Implications held at the ASN Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology Location: San Diego, CA Date: APR 22, 2012. ADVANCES IN NUTRITION, 2013.
4 Elliott, SS; Keim, NL; Stern, JS; et al. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION, 2002.
5Conjugated linoleic acid reduces body fat mass in overweight and obese humans. Blankson, H; Stakkestad, JA; Fagertun, H; et al. JOURNAL OF NUTRITION, 2000.
6Antiobesity mechanisms of action of conjugated linoleic acid. Kennedy, Arion; Martinez, Kristina; Schmidt, Soren; et al. JOURNAL OF NUTRITIONAL BIOCHEMISTRY, 2010.
7de Souza dos Santos, Maria Carolina; Lima Goncalves, Carlos Frederico; Vaisman, Mario; et al. Impact of flavonoids on thyroid function. FOOD AND CHEMICAL TOXICOLOGY, 2011.
8Jefferson, Wendy N. Adult Ovarian Function Can Be Affected by High Levels of Soy. Workshop on Soy Summit Exploration of the Nutrition and Health Effects of Whole Soy Location: Columbia Univ, Inst Human Nutr, New York, NY Date: SEP 21-22, 2009. JOURNAL OF NUTRITION, 2010.
9REDDY, NR; PIERSON, MD. Reduction in Antinutritional and Toxic Components in Plant Foods by Fermentation. FOOD RESEARCH INTERNATIONAL, 1994.
10 Simopoulos, Artemis P. An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. NUTRIENTS, 2016.
11Fernandes, Gabriel; Bhattacharya, Arunabh; Rahman, Mizanur; et al. Effects of n-3 fatty acids on autoimmunity and osteoporosis. FRONTIERS IN BIOSCIENCE, 2008.
12Chagas, T. R.; Borges, D. S.; de Oliveira, P. F.; et al. Oral fish oil positively influences nutritional-inflammatory risk in patients with haematological malignancies during chemotherapy with an impact on long-term survival: a randomised clinical trial. JOURNAL OF HUMAN NUTRITION AND DIETETICS, 2017.
13Sanhueza, C.; Ryan, L.; Foxcroft, D. R. Diet and the risk of unipolar depression in adults: systematic review of cohort studies. JOURNAL OF HUMAN NUTRITION AND DIETETICS, 2013.
14Mozaffarian, D.; Aro, A.; Willett, W. C. Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION, 2009.
15Vassilatou, Evangeline. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and polycystic ovary syndrome. WORLD JOURNAL OF GASTROENTEROLOGY, 2014.
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17Hossain, Noreen; Stepanova, Maria; Afendy, Arian; et al. Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) in patients with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). SCANDINAVIAN JOURNAL OF GASTROENTEROLOGY, 2011.