Written by Melissa Groves on February 25, 2019
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition characterized by hormonal imbalances, irregular periods, and/or the development of small cysts on one or both ovaries.
This condition can impact up to 7% of adult women (1).
The hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, and inflammation related to this condition make it difficult for women with PCOS to shed weight.
Yet, even a small weight loss of approximately 5% can improve insulin resistance, hormone levels, menstrual cycles, fertility, and overall quality of life in women with PCOS (2).
Here are 13 helpful tips for losing weight with PCOS.
1. Reduce Your Carb Intake
Lowering your carb consumption may help manage PCOS due to carbs’ impact on insulin levels.
Approximately 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, which is when your cells stop recognizing the effects of the hormone insulin (3).
Insulin is necessary for blood sugar management and energy storage in your body. Research associates high levels of insulin with increased body fat and weight gain in the general population — and in women with PCOS (4, 5).
In one study, obese women with PCOS and insulin resistance first followed a 3-week diet of 40% carbs and 45% fat, then a 3-week diet of 60% carbs and 25% fat. Protein intake was 15% during each phase (6).
While blood sugar levels were similar during the two phases of the diet, insulin levels went down 30% during the lower-carb, higher-fat phase.
What’s more, a low-glycemic diet may benefit women with PCOS. The glycemic index (GI) is a measurement of how quickly a particular food raises blood sugar.
In one study, women ate their normal diet for 12 weeks, followed by a low-GI diet for 12 weeks. Their measures of insulin sensitivity (how efficiently the body uses insulin) were significantly better during the low-GI phase (7).
2. Get Plenty of Fiber
Because fiber helps you stay full after a meal, a high-fiber diet may improve weight loss in women with PCOS.
In the United States, the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for fiber is 14 grams per 1,000 calories — or around 25 grams per day for women. However, the average daily fiber intake for U.S. women is only 15–16 grams (8, 9).
In one study, higher fiber intake was linked to lower insulin resistance, total body fat, and belly fat in women with PCOS — but not in women without PCOS (10).
In another study in 57 women with this condition, higher fiber intake was associated with lower body weight (11).
3. Eat Enough Protein
Protein helps stabilize blood sugar and increases feelings of fullness after a meal.
It may also aid weight loss by reducing cravings, helping you burn more calories, and managing hunger hormones.
In one study, 57 women with PCOS were given either a high-protein diet — more than 40% of calories from protein and 30% from fat — or a standard diet consisting of less than 15% protein and 30% fat (12).
Women in the high-protein group lost an average of 9.7 pounds (4.4 kg) after 6 months — significantly more than those in the control group.
If you’re concerned you’re not getting enough protein, you can add it to your meals or choose high-protein snacks. Healthy, high-protein foods include eggs, nuts, dairy, meat, and seafood.
4. Eat Healthy Fats
Having plenty of healthy fats in your diet may help you feel more satisfied after meals, as well as tackle weight loss and other symptoms of PCOS.
In one study in 30 women with PCOS, a low-fat diet (55% carbs, 18% protein, 27% fat) was compared to a higher-fat diet (41% carb, 19% protein, 40% fat) (13).
After eight weeks, the higher-fat diet resulted in more fat loss — including belly fat — than the lower-fat diet, which also reduced lean body mass.
In fact, although fats are rich in calories, adding healthy fats to meals can expand stomach volume and reduce hunger. This may help you to eat fewer calories throughout the day (14).
Examples of healthy fats include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, and nut butters. Combining a healthy fat with a protein source can further increase the filling effects of meals and snacks.
5. Eat Fermented Foods
Healthy gut bacteria may play a role in metabolism and weight maintenance.
Studies suggest that women with PCOS may have fewer healthy gut bacteria than women without this condition (15, 16, 17).
Additionally, emerging research suggests that certain probiotic strains may have positive impacts on weight loss (18).
As such, eating foods high in probiotics — such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods — may help increase the number of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
You can also try taking a probiotic supplement to get the same results.
6. Practice Mindful Eating
Women with PCOS have often tried many diets and are three times more likely to have eating disorders (19).
Mindful eating is one potential solution. It promotes an increased awareness of bodily cues, such as hunger and fullness.
Mindfulness-based approaches to food may help address problematic eating behaviors — especially binge eating and emotional eating (20).
What’s more, studies suggest that mindful eating practices may be linked to weight loss (21).
7. Limit Processed Foods and Added Sugars
Another tip to lose weight with PCOS is to cut down on your intake of certain unhealthy foods.
Processed foods and added sugars may raise blood sugar levels and increase your risk of insulin resistance, which is linked to obesity (22).
Women with PCOS may process sugar differently than women without it.
Research shows that women with PCOS experience larger spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels after consuming the same amount of sugar as women without this condition (23).
Studies indicate that minimally processed, real foods not only raise blood sugar less than highly processed foods but are also more satisfying (24).
Furthermore, experts recommend that women with PCOS limit their consumption of added sugars and refined carbs to manage symptoms and maintain a healthy body weight (2, 25).
Foods high in added sugar and refined carbs include cakes, cookies, candy, and fast food.
8. Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to infection or injury.
But chronic inflammation — which is common in women with PCOS — is linked to obesity. Sugar and processed foods may contribute to inflammation (26).
In one study, 16 women with PCOS who took a one-time dose of 75 grams of glucose — a particular type of sugar — had higher blood markers for inflammation, compared to women without this condition (27).
A diet like the Mediterranean diet — which is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and omega-3-rich foods, such as fatty fish — may protect against inflammation (28).
9. Don’t Undereat
Long-term calorie restriction may slow down your metabolism. Although calorie restriction is likely to lead to short-term weight loss, over time, the body adapts to this restriction by reducing the number of overall calories it burns, which can lead to weight regain (29).
Eating too few calories can negatively impact hormones that control appetite as well.
For example, in one study, restrictive dieting was found to modify the hormones leptin, peptide YY, cholecystokinin, insulin, and ghrelin, which increased appetite and led to weight gain (30).
Instead of restricting calories, it may be best to focus on eating whole foods and cutting out unhealthy products.
For example, a study in over 600 people suggested that eating more vegetables and whole foods — while reducing consumption of processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars — may help promote weight loss without restricting calories (31).
10. Exercise Regularly
Exercise is a well-known strategy to improve weight loss.
In a 12-week study in which 16 women did 45–60 minutes of cardio 3 times per week, those with PCOS lost 2.3% body fat, compared to 6.4% in the control group (32).
While women with PCOS lost less fat than those without this condition, the exercise regimen did result in loss of belly fat and improvements in insulin sensitivity.
Weight training has also been shown to aid women with PCOS.
In one study, 45 women with PCOS did weight training 3 times weekly. After 4 months, they lost belly fat and gained lean body mass while reducing testosterone and blood sugar levels (33).
11. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is increasingly acknowledged as central to your health.
If you have PCOS, you may experience sleep disturbances, including excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep apnea, and insomnia (34).
Lack of sleep has been shown to increase the activity of hormones that drive hunger, such as ghrelin and cortisol, which may cause you to eat more throughout the day (35).
In fact, insufficient sleep is associated with a higher risk of being overweight or obese (36).
A review of 18 studies found that those who slept less than 5 hours per night were significantly more likely to be obese.
Furthermore, the study demonstrated that every hour of additional sleep per night was associated with a decrease in body mass index (BMI) of 0.35 kg per square meter (37).
Additionally, studies have linked better-quality sleep to fat loss.
In one study, healthy adults who slept less than 6 hours per night had a 12% higher risk of developing belly fat compared to those who slept 6–8 hours a night (38).