Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome: A Nutrition Guide for Teens
Good nutrition is important for people with PCOS. Some teens with PCOS are normal weight, but many are overweight and have trouble losing weight because of higher levels of insulin (a hormone) in their blood. Insulin’s main job is to control blood sugar, but insulin can also signal your body to store fat. This guide was created to help you understand how your body uses the food you eat and what foods work to keep your insulin level down. Knowing the right foods to eat as well as the kinds of food to limit can improve the way you feel and help you to lose weight, too. Losing even a small amount of weight can help improve PCOS symptoms.
What do I need to know about insulin and carbohydrates?
Insulin in your blood goes up after you eat. It goes up the most after you eat or drink something with carbohydrate in it. Carbohydrates are found in grains (bread, pasta, rice, cereal, and potatoes), vegetables, fruits, most snack foods (like chips, cookies, and candy), and drinks like soda and juice.
Are all carbohydrates the same?
No. If you eat 2 foods that have the same amount of carbohydrate, they may have a different effect on your insulin. This effect has a lot to do with the type of carbohydrate the food has. Carbohydrate foods with fiber are usually the best to eat if you are trying to keep your insulin level down. Carbohydrate foods with a lot of sugar usually cause insulin levels to go up and make you hungry several hours later. Try to choose high-fiber, low-sugar carbohydrate foods most of the time.
Juice, sweetened canned frozen fruit, or applesauce.
Potatoes or refined grains like white bread, pasta, bagels, and white rice.
Sugared cereals like Lucky Charms, Fruit Loops, or Frosted Flakes, and other sweetened grains like cereal bars (Nutrigrain Bars), breakfast pastries (Pop tarts), and donuts.
Sugary drinks like soda or juice.
Sugary foods like cookies, cakes, and candy.
Fresh vegetables and fruits or canned/frozen fruit without syrup or added sugar.
Whole grains or darker grains like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, and wheat bread.
High fiber cereals like Kashi, shredded wheat, or All Bran. Try to have a cereal that has at least 3 grams of fiber. Sprinkle ¼ cup of bran cereal or unprocessed bran on a low-fiber cereal to increase the fiber.
Sugar free drinks like water, diet soda, Crystal Light, Fruit20, and seltzer water.
Sugar free foods like Jell-O, popsicles, yogurt, and pudding.
What about non-carbohydrate foods?
Non-carbohydrate foods include protein foods like meat, chicken, fish, egg, beans, nuts, peanut butter, and vegetarian meat substitutes, and fats like oil, butter, cream cheese, and salad dressing. Because non-carbohydrate foods have less effect on insulin and can help slow down the absorption of meals, you should combine your carbohydrates with fats and protein. For example, have peanut butter or hummus on bread rather than just plain bread. When eating foods that have fat, it is important to remember that some fats are much healthier than others.
The type of fat found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados, and fish are healthy fats. Choose these foods over butter, margarine, mayonnaise, cheese, and red meat.
Do I need to follow a diet that is extra high in protein?
No. Really high protein diets (like the Atkins diet) are probably not a good idea for teens because they can be low in some important nutrients such as fiber, the B vitamins, and vitamin C. You should aim for a diet that has some protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Even if you limit your carbohydrate intake, overeating fat or protein can cause weight gain.
Do I need to buy special foods?
You shouldn’t go out of your way to buy special foods! Just like with any healthy diet plan, your diet should include mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, and healthy fats. Most foods fit into a healthy diet for PCOS, but you should read food labels to help you pick out the best choices. It is a good idea to buy higher fiber grains rather than low fiber grains like white rice, pasta, or bread. Stay away from fat-free pastries because they usually have a lot of added sugar. Remember, you don’t need to avoid fat. Look for brands that have the least sugar and most fiber. Some sugar-free foods are also calorie free, like sugar free Jell-O, diet soda, Crystal Light, and sugar-free popsicles. These foods make great additions to a PCOS diet because they have no effect on insulin.
If I choose the right foods, do I need to be concerned about my portion sizes?
Yes! How much you eat has a big effect your insulin. For example, your insulin will go up much more if you have 3 cups of pasta than if you have 1 cup of pasta. This means it is usually better to have small meals and snacks during the day than it is to have 3 large meals. This will keep your insulin level lower throughout the day. If you are still hungry, it is a good idea to eat more of the foods that don’t affect your insulin as much (like vegetables or meat).
Is it important for me to exercise?
Yes! It is really important that girls with PCOS exercise because exercise brings down insulin levels and can help with weight loss. Exercise can be especially helpful in bringing down insulin after a meal. So, if possible, go for a walk after you eat a large meal. Any increase in exercise helps, so find an activity, sport, or exercise that you like to do. If you aren’t doing a lot of exercise now, start slowly, and build up to your exercise goal. If you exercise sometimes, try to exercise regularly. Work towards exercising at least 3 days a week for 30 minutes. The more the better!
Things to remember if you have PCOS:
Don’t get frustrated if you don’t lose weight quickly or if you’ve tried to lose weight before and it didn’t work. Learning how to choose and balance your carbohydrates and doing regular exercise will help!
Eat a balanced diet! Your body needs carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Eat small meals and healthy snacks during the day instead of 3 large meals.
Choose carbohydrate foods that are high in fiber and low in sugar.
Load up on vegetables and fruits! They are high in fiber and packed with vitamins and minerals.
Balance your carbohydrate foods with non-carbohydrate foods.
When you are eating high-carbohydrate foods (especially ones that are low in fiber) limit your portions. If you are still hungry, try having extra vegetables or extra protein foods like meat, fish, eggs, or beans.
Be realistic! Having PCOS doesn’t mean that you can never eat dessert again. It means that you can have small amounts of treats every once in a while. Try fruit or sugar-free Jell-O for dessert; they are low in calories and may satisfy your sweet tooth.
Don’t forget to exercise! Good nutrition is important, but it isn’t enough. You also need to exercise regularly. Adding exercise or increasing the exercise you already do will help you manage your PCOS.
Talk to your doctor about managing your PCOS. Many young women with PCOS need to take medication, even with good nutrition and exercise. If you have more questions about PCOS and nutrition, ask your doctor about talking to a nutritionist who has experience in working with teens with PCOS.
Written by: Kendrin Sonneville, MS, RD, LDN
Edited by: The CYWH Staff