Shedding light on PCOS
PCOS is characterised by the presence of a number of fluid filled sacs (follicles) which surround the ovaries. To have the diagnosis of the syndrome, this is usually accompanied with ovulation problems and excess or overzealous testosterone.
Symptoms range from irregular periods and/or ovulation, reduced fertility and weight problems to acne, hair loss and depression but as PCOS occurs across such a spectrum it is possible that you may not be suffering from any of these. It affects 5-10% of women and as a dietitian I see many of these women in my clinics. As this is a subject close to Vicki’s heart (as she suffers from this) she has given me the opportunity to share some thoughts and tips:
Behind the scenes
A struggle with losing weight is common amongst PCOS sufferers. It can prove more challenging due to insulin resistance that accompanies PCOS in many cases. Insulin is a hormone which helps the body use energy from food. When resistant to it the body has to compensate by releasing more insulin into the blood stream to do the same job.
Ultimately insulin gives signals to the body to store things so with lots of it circulating in the blood stream, the signals which promote weight loss can become lost. Insulin also increases testosterone levels; all women need a small amount of this but having even slightly higher amounts of testosterone can upset the balance of hormones in the body and lead to the other symptoms associated with PCOS such as acne, excess hair and irregular periods.
Working with insulin resistance
Insulin is released in response to carbohydrates. The mistake often made is women then drastically cut carbs from their diets in an attempt to solve this problem. Rather than carb avoidance, the answer lies in being carb smart. Carbs are not the enemy if eaten in a way that releases them slowly into your blood stream and makes insulins job easier. Carbohydrate foods have the potential to bring with them a host of other nutrients essential for regulating blood sugar levels and protecting health long term, not to mention giving you energy to function.
Ideal carbs would include wholegrains such as wholemeal pasta, brown rice or quinoa and other sources such as pulses and lentils or high protein yoghurts. The amount of carbohydrate you need depends on your weight management and the degree to which you suffer from insulin resistance but no more than a third of a plate is a useful guide for many.
Some feel the benefits from reducing or eliminating dairy but evidence is mixed and there is still a lack of gold standard data on this. If wanting to trial a dairy free approach, always ensure you’re meeting your calcium requirements through fortified plant alternatives or a supplement.
For all though balance is key with a meal containing carb, protein and plenty of fibre and crunch. This also paths the way for the making of serotonin in the brain – this not only boosts the feel good factor but also helps to neutralise stress hormones that make us crave high fat and sugary foods.
The good news is 5-10% of body weight loss still gives lots of benefits including improving your body’s response to insulin and regulating the menstrual cycle.
Making it happen
In today’s culture where anything is available to us at the touch of a button – I blame the one click culture for the ongoing weight management struggles of a significant number of women today. We’re often desperate for quick results to reward our efforts and motivate us to continue. With this we seem to pendulum between complete restriction and clinging onto will power by our finger nails to over indulgence, self- loathing and habits that feel as familiar and automatic as taking a shower.
I don’t claim to have all the answers but I do know what frees people from the clutches of the next fad diet and that is the opportunity to simply take 5.
To accept (and I mean truly accept) that successful weight loss will occur with time and does not demand perfection daily. There can be allowances for your definition of delicious – if it’s courgetti fab! If it’s a chocolate cake there’s a place for that too.
Consistency is key. Focusing on designing your environment to bring out the best in you and your food choices with less reliance on your fickle friend will power because it only serves to bring you down when you’re trying your best. And speaking of friends, if you’re real life ones constantly drag you down the pub or suggest an Italian night out twice a week, then seek friendships from those who will encourage and reinforce the good habits you’re keen to solidify as well. Good habits tend to be catching!
Different diet programmes work for different people and can bring about great success stories but if living with PCOS means you stagger from one failed diet to the next, then it’s time to take a break.
What ultimately controls your eating habits and what help do you need, either professionally or through those around you to make the better choices the easy ones? In an attempt to cope with all that life throws at us, we revert to our default setting.
This may be the eating habits we were brought up with (which is why I harp on so much about getting it right for our children) or it may be the habits of convenience that have snuck into our daily lives as we juggle life, work, family and the distractions of our social media alerts!
Whatever it may be, these won’t be fixed simply by shelfing them and purchasing a new diet book ala Bridget Jones style.
If you’re in any doubt as to what is right for you – seek out dietetic support.
Read more about Laura Clark and her clinic.