Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is often cited as a complicating factor in weight loss. As an endocrine issue, its effects are complex and far-reaching. What is it, and how does it actually impact the body?

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a hormonal problem that occurs during the reproductive years. This hormonal imbalance results in numerous fluid-filled cysts on the ovaries, eggs that don’t get released regularly, and missed or irregular menstrual periods. Many sufferers also deal with higher-than-normal levels of hormones called androgens, which can result in acne, male-pattern baldness, and excess facial and body hair.

One of the potential complications of PCOS is metabolic syndrome, a constellation of conditions such as high blood pressure and abnormal blood lipids. Others include insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and endometrial cancer.

How does PCOS affect weight loss?

Obesity is often comorbid with PCOS. Since fat is hormonally active, excess body fat can exacerbate the problems associated with PCOS. Unfortunately, the metabolic and hormonal issues that come with PCOS can make weight loss more challenging.

Since nobody really knows the underlying causes of PCOS, the role of body fat can be a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question. While obesity is unlikely to be a causative factor for PCOS (most sufferers around the world are of normal weight), there are some instances where being obese may tip the balance in people who are otherwise predisposed to the condition.

Even though weight loss is tougher with PCOS, it isn’t impossible. If you have this condition, it’s a good idea to try to lose excess body fat since this can reduce your symptoms and risk of other diseases, as well as potentially make treatment easier and more effective. 

How can you lose weight with PCOS?

PCOS sufferers don’t always respond to conventional weight-loss advice the way that otherwise healthy people do. It can be a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider with experience in helping people with PCOS in order to get weight loss advice that’s tailored to your situation. In general, you may want to try:

  • Reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates. Carbohydrates aren’t the enemy, but refined ones can be. These are carbs that are already processed to make them as digestible as possible — in other words, your body doesn’t have to expend much energy to break them down, which means more can be stored. When you pair this with the fact that refined carbs are also generally very palatable, making it easy to eat a lot of them, and quickly spike your blood sugar, you can see how refined carbohydrates aren’t very good for PCOS.
  • Avoiding sugars. Sugars are a type of simple carbohydrate, but they’re even more problematic than other carbs for PCOS sufferers. Sugars spike blood sugar levels very quickly, and some research shows that people with PCOS-related insulin resistance may experience faster and more dramatic spikes than those without.
  • Including more lean protein. Lean protein sources are low in fat. Protein helps provide satiety and maintain lean muscle mass. It’s important to choose lean sources because they’ll be lower in saturated fats. Saturated fat can be detrimental to blood lipid levels in people who are susceptible. Since PCOS may come with blood lipid problems, it’s a good idea to reduce saturated fats.
  • Eating more healthy fats. With the above in mind, not all fats are “bad.” Olives, nuts, fatty fish, and avocados are all sources of anti-inflammatory healthy fats. One theory behind PCOS is that it may be the byproduct of unchecked inflammation, and these fats can help combat low-grade inflammatory problems.
  • Avoiding inflammation triggers. Along with consuming more healthy, anti-inflammatory fats, it’s a good idea to avoid foods known to trigger inflammation. You may want to get a test to determine if you have any dietary allergies or try an elimination diet for a while to see what foods seem to make you feel better or worse.
  • Avoiding extreme diets. Any diet works, as long as you stay on it. The problem with extreme diets is that they’re intended to be temporary — as soon as you stop following them, the weight comes back. If you establish a pattern of healthy eating tailored to your condition, you’re much more likely to be successful. You may not lose weight as quickly as you might with an extreme diet, but you’ll keep it off.

When you follow these guidelines, along with consuming a reasonable number of calories for your age, size, and activity level, you may have an easier time losing weight even with PCOS.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a tough condition to manage. There’s still a lot about it that doctors and researchers don’t know. Even if you’ve been having trouble losing weight to help alleviate your PCOS symptoms, healthy weight loss is possible.