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PCOS & Food: The frenemy you never knew you had

Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor or a nutritionist. I am a 21-year-old who has been suffering from PCOS since she was 13, & sharing what works best for me. All stats and sources will be hyperlinked. This is a blog post for my Food Writing course. 

PCOS is short for Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome. According to WebMD, PCOS, "is a problem in which a woman's hormones are out of balance. It can cause problems with your periods and make it difficult to get pregnant. PCOS also may cause unwanted changes in the way you look. If it isn't treated, over time it can lead to serious health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease."

 

Here is quick & quirky video from nutritionist, Melissa Ramos, who really breaks it down well:


 

Who suffers from PCOS?

It is estimated that around 10- 15 percent of women have PCOS. Though, many are not even diagnosed until their twenties or thirties. Girls as young as 11 could already start to suffer the symptoms of the hormonal imbalance without even having their first period. 


 

My PCOS Journey: How becoming a woman forced me to change my diet.

My mom always jokes about how I came home from basketball practice in the 4th grade and how when she asked how it went my response was, “Good. I made five baskets, got my period, and learned a defense play.” She still laughs about that to this day. Women who have PCOS normally get their period at a young age, hence, me being in the 4th grade. Though, that was the only time I had it that year. And only once again in the 6th grade, and once again in the 7th. Sounds like a dream, right? My mother didn’t think so. She was concerned so she took me to the gynecologist. It was there that after hearing my symptoms and having the blood work done that I was officially diagnosed and started on birth control.

So, how does food come into play for this? I had always been very thin growing up. Actually, too thin. I ate anything and everything and never gained weight. Though, around the time of the 7th & 8th grade, when my PCOS was worsening, I gained a significant amount of weight in a short amount of time. Not to say I was ‘big’ by any means, but I wasn’t used to the fast growth of my body (which also caused a lot of stretch marks.) I felt like every time after I ate or put something in my body that I would become bloated. My mother told me I was crazy, but I knew that something was not right. I thought it was just my own body. The bloating was painful and embarrassing. I started skipping meals if I knew I had to cheerlead that night or had an event because I did not want anyone else to see my ‘food baby.’ 

At an early age I learned that if I did not want to bloat, I had to avoid the enemy: bread and all forms of cards. 

This still holds true to this day. The only form of ‘bread’ intake that I consume are whole wheats and gluten free. Doughy carbs like soft pretzels and pizza make me feel as if I’m pregnant with triplets. 

All throughout high school my weight fluctuated. I have learned about myself that I have an all- or- nothing personality throughout my journey of learning about living in a PCOS body. When I was eating extremely healthy, to the point where it may have been unhealthy, I would consume as low as a 900 calorie intake per day focusing on only vegetables and whole grains (I’m also a vegetarian.) Although, my ‘unhealthy’ diets were not necessarily ‘unhealthy’ to the normal teenage girl. Unhealthy was having the cafeteria mozzarella sticks I loved so much at lunch. Or going out for pizza with my cheerleading team after a winning game. All normal things like this took a drastic toll on my body, and there were times where I would be fluctuating 5-7 pounds every week. 

My friends and family saw my obsessive calorie counting as signs of an eating disorder, but really it was just a trial and error process to learning what works for me and what doesn’t. When I was diagnosed at 13, I was never even informed of how food would affect my body. In the 8th grade I was being told about how I may have trouble getting pregnant one day, that I would have terrible acne my whole life, and also be growing facial hair due to my high levels of testosterone. 

My intent for this post is to give insight into the diet of a 20- something suffering from PCOS, so that maybe if a young girl, newly diagnosed, was to stumble upon it, she would not have to go through all the pain and anxiety I went through a young age and could adapt a healthy diet for her PCOS body early on. 


 

What NOT to eat with PCOS...

  • The Golden Rule: Only certain carbs are your friend. Avoid all white breads and almost all pastas. They don’t mean to hurt you, but your body will not process them normally like other foods. 
  • Vegetables & fruit that are considered ‘high glycemic.’ I’m talking dried fruit, tropical fruit, corn, & potatoes. These contain more sugar and starch then most and will sit like rocks in your stomach. 
  • Sugary candies sadly do not make the cut- they are the true frenemy. Actually, anything that contains a lot of sugar, not even just candy, is not our friend. These can be disguised as protein shakes, pressed juices, or even ‘healthy’ cereals. I have created a golden rule that if I follow, my body and I get along just fine. Do not consume anything that’s sugar is more then double the protein. Let me explain: if the protein is 8g and the sugar is 14g, you are in the clear. 8+8= 16, therefore, it is not double. You’ll find that you will become very constricted if you follow this rule, and it’s okay to cheat every now and again, though I wish someone had told this to me in my early teens. Our bodies already produce high triglycerides (sugars) as it is, the last thing we want to put in ourselves is more of it. That being said though, everything is good in moderation. 
  • Dairy. I am so sorry to say this. Not only because I know my professor who’s grading this is the cheese lover & blogger, Madame Fromage but also because I love myself a nice big slice of NYC pizza. Things like milk & yogurt have also proven to love to hate PCOS bodies also. (They are all also terrible for our skin, which we know can already be pretty bad as it is.)
  • Avoid fried foods. Just do it. They do not like your body and your body does not like them. No other explanation needed. 
  • Creamy dressings will upset your stomach. They are rich in dairy and high in sugar also. A great alternative I’ve found is just using salsa, whether it be flavored or not, on top of your salads. It gives the same type of ‘creamy’ aspect but is a MUCH healthier option. Most salsa is only 25 calories for two tsps. also!

 

What you CAN eat with PCOS...

Now that I have ruined most of your favorite foods I am going to try and redeem myself with my go- to substitutes. These are items that are always on my shopping list. (Please keep in mind that I am vegetarian.)

  • Almond- based mozzarella cheese: Trader Joe’s brand. There is hope! This alternative is, that I’ve found, better than the soy- based cheeses. Very tasty, and has a smoky undertone to it. Goes with almost anything. 
  • Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk: Trader Joe’s brand. Almond milk is the new fad that everyone, especially health guru’s are falling in love with. The vanilla flavor is not over- powering, though it does not have the chalky taste that almond milk usually carries. Unsweetened anything is always the smarter alternative with PCOS. It has less sugars (especially the processed ones.) 
  • Cauliflower rice may be my new favorite thing in the world. Rice, even the whole wheat, can sometimes cause painful bloating depending on how many carbs I have been consuming recently. I’ve found that just buying a frozen bag of riced cauliflower (almost everywhere sells it now) is a great base for when I’m making things like burrito bowls or need a side to a protein. They also can be flavored with either a little bit of salt, some buffalo sauce, or even garlic powder. 
  • Lactose- free coffee creamer. My favorite is the hazelnut or vanilla flavors from Trader Joe’s. Dairy, personally, can be fine in moderation, and I’ve found this is the only creamer that doesn’t make me bloated afterward. A lot of nutritionists recommend not drinking coffee at all, but personally, if I’d do that it would be a disservice to humanity. 
  • Himalayan salt (the Kirkland/ Costco brand you get the most bang for your buck.) Remember the whole thing about the bloating? It’s real, and salt can be a major contributor to that. Though, it’s unrealistic to not use salt because it’s called for in many recipes and sometimes it just gives food that extra kick you needed. Himalayan salt is a great alternative because it has more nutrients than regular salt, doesn’t make me feel as bloated as most, and it’s a gorgeous pink color. (Not that that’s a factor, I just really like the color.)
  • Trader Joe’s Whole Wheat Tortillas. I am serious: if you have PCOS you need to go out and buy these right now! I use them for everything, peanut butter sandwiches, almond cheese quesadillas, toasted with hummus... I’m not kidding I put everything on them. Besides times I’ve eaten out, I can’t tell you when I’ve used regular bread on my own. These are only 110 calories, very thin, and do not make you feel like you just ate a load of bricks after! Seriously, go purchase these now. 
  • Apple Cider Vinegar: One table spoon of this a day in a cup of water will help your digestive system. I personally do it about every other day, but I will notice the difference when I go a few days without doing it. (Also washing your hair with it will make it super shiny.)
  • Better n’ Butter: Peanut butter can hold a really creamy base that will upset your stomach. This vegan butter is dairy free and lower in calorie! I’ve found it is also a lot sweeter than most peanut or almond butters so it can be used as a quick snack or dessert, or even in a smoothie.
  • Oatmeal has become my best friend. I usually purchase the plain Rolled Oats from Trader Joe's and then will but in the Better n' Butter, or just cinnamon. Fills you up in the morning without the terrible stomach pains after.

Recipes for PCOS

Here are some recipes from various sites online that I have found, tried, and loved. 

Fall In a Bowl: from PCOS Diva

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 4 cups chopped  
  • onions (3 large) 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg 
  • 5 pounds butternut squash (2 large), peeled and cubed 
  • 1 1/2 pounds sweet apples, such as McIntosh (4 apples), cubed 
  • 4 cups chicken stock (if you don’t use homemade use Kitchen Basics) 
  • Salt and pepper to taste. 

Saute onions in butter/oil until soft and add spices.  Add peeled and cubed squash, pples and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil and then simmer until apples and squash are soft.  Cool on stovetop and then blend using immersion blender or in a conventional blender.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  This soup freezes well. 

 

Tofu Bean Salad: from Young Women's Health

  • 1 package extra firm tofu, cubed
  • 2 cans kidney beans or chick peas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 small can sliced olives
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons oil (olive, canola, or other)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice or cider vinegar

Put all ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Chill for a few hours and serve. Makes 4 servings
Add-In: Toss in ¾ cup sliced almonds for extra calcium and fiber.

 

Cauliflower Crust Pizza: from PCOS Nutrition 

  • 1 small head of cauliflower, cut into florets
  • 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 2 cups kale, chopped
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 cup prepared pizza sauce
  • 4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Place a medium sized cast iron skillet in oven while it heats.
Pulse cauliflower florets in a food processor until it resembles rice. Measure 3 1/2 cups of the riced cauliflower. Place in a microwave safe bowl and cook on high for 6 to 7 minutes. Remove from bowl and wrap in paper towels, pressing to remove excess water. Allow to cool 5 to 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix cauliflower, almond flour, cheddar and parmesan cheeses, oregano, basil, garlic powder, black pepper, half of salt, and eggs to form a dough.
Remove skillet from oven and spray with cooking spray. Press dough into bottom of skillet. Bake 15 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Remove from oven.
While crust cooks, heat oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add kale and season with remaining salt and crushed red pepper. Saute 5 minutes or until leaves have softened. Set aside.
Top crust with sauce, leaving 1 inch uncovered at edges. Top with mozzarella and kale. Return to oven and cook 10 more minutes or until cheese is bubbling. Allow to cool slightly before serving.


PCOS is something that caused me a lot of hardships in life. I've had to go on Accutane, a medication for cystic acne that causes depression, for my terrible skin. I've had to come to terms with the fact that I may not be able to have children one day. I've also had to learn how to eat for a body that does not agree with the typical American diet.  PCOS is not easy, not fun- but it is possible to lead a semi- normal life with it as long as you commit to keeping your body healthy. There are support groups online that have helped me a lot. One thing that keeps me in check though the most is my diet plan. Food is unavoidable, and it has taken a lot of trial and errors to get to where I am now- happy & comfortable in my body. I hope if there is a young girl out there struggling like I was, that she can read this and find some sort of relief earlier on then I did. 

The final piece of advice I am going to leave you with: when in doubt, peppermint tea.