This post was updated on October 7th, 2019
To lose 100 pounds of body fat without “dieting” sure sounds like a suspicious infomercial doesn’t it?
But for Kendall, figuring out how to live in harmony with her PCOS diagnosis was a 3-year journey of nutritional education, personal experimentation, and self-compassion that had her doing just that.
As Kendall discovered during my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge, if you’re sick and tired of what PCOS is doing to you then there’s two big things you can do for your health and wellbeing.
You can start eating a diet full of PCOS friendly foods, and you can quit the foods that make your symptoms worse.
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.
Like Kendall, when most women first take part in this free program, they already understand that certain foods make their PCOS worse, but there is often a lot of confusion about what not to eat with PCOS 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 maple syrup, coconut sugar, or agave, are good for them.
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 a list of foods to avoid with PCOS here.
And if at the end of this article you’re ready for action but you’re wondering what you CAN eat, make sure to grab yourself a free copy of this PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet as well as this 3 Day PCOS Meal Plan. The Cheat Sheet gives you hundreds of ingredients from which you can build your own PCOS friendly meals, while the Meal Plan includes some of my most popular PCOS recipes as well as a handy shopping list with everything you need to get started.
1. PCOS And Sugar
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.
Take Karina K for example.
By all accounts, before taking part in my live 30 Day Challenge, Karina was about as addicted to sugar as anyone could be. Her cravings were so bad, it was like they took over control of her good intentions – especially in the evenings. After making the commitment to go sugar free and to cook everything from scratch, Karina went on to see improvements in her skin, her mood, and her energy levels. She also lost 60 pounds and got back to a healthy body weight. While she was definitely apprehensive at first, what Karina found was that the longer she was able to avoid eating sugar, the less she wanted it. The cravings went away when she started eating better.
If this sounds too good to be true you can read Karina’s full story told in her own words here.
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.
From a PCOS diet 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).
Consuming a lot of dietary fructose negatively affects our gut health as well which in turn has widespread effects on both our cognitive functioning (Magnusson et al. 201518) and other areas of our health. For example, fructose induced changes in our microbiome are understood to be a primary mechanism in the development of liver disease (Vos 201519; Neuschwander-Tetri 201320) which is a major risk factor for women with PCOS (Vassilatou 201415; Kelley et al. 201416).
Despite the clear indictment against fructose, many people still mistakenly recommend “natural” sugars like maple syrup, molasses, and coconut sugar as a healthy 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!
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.
Whole fresh fruit is the biggest 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 healthy 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.
Compared to fructose, glucose 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.
If you’ve ever felt giddy after some glucose jelly beans from the pharmacy then you’ll know what I mean.
By consistently bombarding our 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.
If you want to avoid fructose primarily and keep your glucose consumption to a healthy level, then there are a lot of foods to stay away from with PCOS.
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. PCOS And Carbs
Following similar lines of thinking for avoiding sugar, refined carbohydrate foods make number two on my list of foods to avoid with PCOS. This is because they’re the other major source of glucose in our diet.
As someone that spent their early twenties supplementing their sugar fixes with pasta, French fries, bread, bagels, and donuts, this news sent me straight into the fetal position.
But unfortunately these are the facts…
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.
Bianca K is a great example of what can be achieved when you cut high GI carbohydrates out of your diet.
Bianca was ready to start a family but was told she needed to lose weight if she wanted to have a healthy pregnancy free from unnecessary complications. She had struggled with her weight her whole life, and after metformin had made no significant difference, she was told weight loss surgery was her best option. But Bianca knew there had to be a better way to regulate the hormones that were affecting her weight and menstrual cycle. After joining my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge and making a series of dietary changes which included getting much smarter about the way she was eating carbs, Bianca was able to lose 30 pounds and restore her period within just a few months. She then went on to conceive her son naturally.
For this proud mom, there’s no looking back when it comes to ditching refined carbohydrates, and if you want to know more about the steps she took, you can read her full story here.
3. Go Gluten Free For PCOS
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.
The ability of our gut to selectively choose what gets let into our bloodstream, and what heads down to the sanitation department is regulated by tiny cell structures in our intestinal lining. Imagine a high-tech kitchen strainer and you’ll follow my explanation…
When we eat gluten, a reactive goo called zonulin gets released. This has the effect of opening up the mesh in our strainer meaning it’s no longer able to do its job properly (Fasano 200821). For people with a sensitivity to gluten this can lead to a condition known as “leaky gut”. When you suffer from leaky gut, there is an excessive flow of foreign proteins and microbes across your intestinal barrier. These toxins enter our bloodstream and we must depend on an inflammatory response to control this invasion.
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 inflammation is one of the primary mechanisms driving all of our symptoms.
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 is one of the key reasons why women see such great results by the end of the Challenge.
This was certainly a success factor for Nellsy Martinez, who after anguishing with infertility for years, quit gluten during my free Challenge. She stuck with it plus all of the additional dietary changes I recommend after the Challenge had ended and within a year the results were obvious. She had lost a lot of weight, and was able to fall pregnant naturally with her rainbow baby, Vivianna.
Nellsy gave me permission to include this touching post she shared in my PCOS Support Facebook Group right after her daughter was born.
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.
A common concern for people new to this idea, is that there will be nothing left to eat once everything with gluten has been eliminated from your kitchen. This is something you don’t need to worry about as there are literally hundreds of wholefoods that can help fill the void including all the ones listed in this PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet. With over 180 PCOS friendly ingredients, plus additional nutritional tips for achieving the best possible results, this one page Cheat Sheet is a great way to remember all the foods you can continue to enjoy.
4. PCOS And Dairy
For similar reasons to going gluten free, laying off the dairy products is a great way to avoid unnecessary inflammation. That is why I normally say that the best diet for PCOS doesn’t include it. And like non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you don’t need to have an intense reaction to dairy for it to be making your PCOS symptoms worse.
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.
Understanding the cause and effect relationship between dairy foods and her health was a major milestone on Katrina H’s journey through PCOS and infertility. Katrina’s PCOS had put her through about as much as anyone who’s lived with this disorder. Out of control weight gain which led to disordered eating, the emotional and physical trauma of miscarriage following years of trying to conceive, terrible mental health despite her loving family, and enough personal shame to cause this once confident woman to isolate herself socially.
Fortunately, her dream of giving her daughter a sibling provided the motivation to try something new. In the months following my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge, Katrina went on to transform how she ate. She didn’t make these changes because of some random set of rules, but did so because she knew the science behind them. This gave her the willpower to say “no” to all the foods we’re talking about here – including her beloved dairy foods.
This investment in herself enabled Katrina to recollect her stronger self while losing serious amounts of weight. She stopped having acid reflux, the texture of her skin improved, and she stopped getting breakouts of acne. Katrina’s menstrual cycle returned to normal within just a few months and she quickly fell pregnant, going on to have a wonderful healthy pregnancy. This was particularly remarkable given she had suffered from gestational diabetes during her first pregnancy.
You can read Katrina’s full story here.
5. Other Food Intolerances
While gluten and dairy are the most common foods to have an unknown sensitivity to, for many people reading this there will be other problematic foods too.
In my case, the list is long (and boring) but I just chalk these up to being far less inconvenient than having to tolerate my PCOS symptoms. If forgoing cranberries helps me be at my best, then “no thanks grandma, I’ll pass on the sauce”.
While you might find a few odd ones that apply to you, 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 list of foods to stay away from with PCOS 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).
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 (see my full list of healthy fats and oils in this PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet).
Also 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 your 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
When I talk about processed meats, I mean any meat product that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, or canning. While processed meats are fairly low on the triage list of foods to avoid with PCOS, I recommend you avoid them because they typically contain a range of unhelpful ingredients such as sugar, dairy proteins, MSG, nitrates, and nitrites.
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.
See my PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet to discover my favorite PCOS friendly coffee alternatives.
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.
PCOS Success Stories
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 thousands of other women conquer their own personal Mt Everest using this same approach.
I know I’ve already given you a couple of examples already, but there are just so many inspirational women beating PCOS everyday that I’ll hope you’ll forgive my enthusiasm for sharing a few more.
When I met her back in November 2017, Jamie Bietzell was really ready to quit these foods and embrace a PCOS friendly diet. She worked out three times a week, had tried just about every diet out there, but she still could not get the scales to budge. While her weight was a downer, Jamie’s real motivation came from wanting to have a child. She had been trying for four long years and had experienced a couple of devastating miscarriages from which she was still reeling.
After taking part in my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge, Jamie committed to a PCOS friendly diet. Like she really went all-in.
Using what she learned, Jamie made the most astonishing transformation of her health and fertility. By January of 2018 she was getting a regular cycle, by April she had lost 50 pounds and dropped from a size 22 jean to a size 18. Her A1C levels fell out of the diabetic range, and her blood pressure showed she was no longer hypertensive. By early December the same year, Jamie was 35 weeks pregnant after taking no supplements or getting any fertility treatment.
Following the birth of her son on Christmas day, Jamie posted this wonderful announcement in my PCOS Support Facebook which she has kindly allowed me to share here.
As someone that took a long time to get diagnosed because I was relatively thin, I feel like women with lean-type PCOS are often forgotten in stories about this disorder. While acne, hair loss, digestive issues, and extra stomach fat are common symptoms amongst this subset of women, it’s often infertility that finally motivates us to try changing our diet. If this sounds like you then you’ll love Hanna’s story.
Hanna was an avid dancer who despite being super athletic showed many of the classic signs of lean-type PCOS. When we first met during my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge, I thought I was talking to my former self. Not only did Hanna struggle with stress, anxiety, and insomnia, but most of what she ate was either sugary cereal, bread, or pasta. As a result, Hanna would almost never get her period.
It was her dream of becoming a mom that prompted her to change how she was eating.
After she stopped eating the foods I’ve described in this article, the first thing Hanna noticed was that her stomach no longer felt bloated after meals. As well as feeling better emotionally, she lost the fat around her stomach, and she started getting a regular period. Literally just weeks after completing my first ever 10 Week Program, Hanna fell pregnant naturally and had a gorgeous little baby.
If you read more about Hanna’s experiences here, you’ll see that a PCOS friendly diet that excludes all the inflammatory foods listed above can have a profound impact on your health and fertility even when you’re not concerned about body weight.
The take home point I want to make though is that while PCOS is a complicated disorder, its solution is very simple. When you avoid the 11 foods I’ve mentioned here and apply these PCOS diet principles, results like these are almost a given.
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.
I run this free program four times a year which means that depending on when you’re reading this, there may still be a little while before the next Challenge starts. To make sure I don’t leave you hanging out to dry all this time, I have a couple of other free resources to help you get started right away.
This free 3 Day PCOS Diet Meal Plan includes a collection of my favorite PCOS recipes and a complete shopping list of everything you need over the 3 days. You can also download a copy of my PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet which is basically a one-page summary of all the wonderful foods you can include in a PCOS friendly diet. With over 180 ingredients listed, as well as additional tips and links, this is a helpful prompt when meal planning.
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.
Kym Campbell is a Health Coach and PCOS expert with a strong passion for using evidence-based lifestyle interventions to manage this disorder. Kym combines rigorous scientific analysis with the advice from leading clinicians to disseminate the most helpful PCOS patient-centric information you can find online. You can read more about Kym and her team here.
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