News and features

Research suggests link between poor diet and health risks for women with PCOS

New research has found women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may be putting their health at risk by following a harmful diet.

The study, published in the Dietitians Association of Australia's journal Nutrition & Dietetics, found that many women with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are skimping on carbohydrates and overeating fat.

PCOS is the most prevalent endocrine disorder in women, affecting up to 18 per cent of women of reproductive age worldwide.

Dr Kathryn Hart, a lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Surrey, worked with researchers from the University of Roehampton to study the diet habits of women with PCOS.

Diet study

The researchers  compared the diets of 38 women with PCOS and 30 control women, completing a seven-day food and activity diary, after which their risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease was measured.

The research found that while overall energy intake was similar in both groups, women with PCOS were getting more of their daily energy from saturated fat and less from carbohydrates, compared to women without PCOS.

Dr Hart's research showed 61 per cent of the women in her study with PCOS were insulin resistant, compared with 39 per cent of control participants, and that even lean women with PCOS may have an increased health risk compared to women of a similar weight without the condition.

The link between food and health

Dr Hart said: “Whilst there is no doubt that losing weight is important for improving symptoms and reducing health risk in overweight women with PCOS, this and other studies have highlighted the substantial numbers of sufferers who are not overweight and therefore for whom this advice is not appropriate.

"Therefore dietary advice which focuses on macronutrient modifications as well as, or instead of, total energy intake, particularly modifying the quality of fats and carbohydrates consumed, may offer benefits for all women with PCOS.”

These findings suggest that women with PCOS should ensure that their diet includes good-quality carbohydrates, has a low glycaemic index and limited saturated fat.

Diets tips for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

If you have PCOS, follow these tips to improve fertility and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health problems linked to PCOS:

  • Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight – this can improve insulin resistance, helping to lower your risk of health problems linked with PCOS
  • Reduce your intake of saturated fats, found in foods like butter, cream, coconut and palm oil, fatty meat and many biscuits, cakes and pastries
  • If your total fat intake is not too high, you could replace sources of saturated fats with foods that contain predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters and avocado
  • Choose lower glycaemic index foods which are high in fibre, such as wholegrain breads, legumes, oats, barley and cracked wheat
  • Eat more vegetables - fill half your dinner plate with vegetables and cook at home more often, as research shows this can increase your vegetable intake by more than half a serving a day
  • Choose healthy snacks such as fruit, a small handful of unsalted nuts, carrot, celery or pepper sticks with dips like hummus or salsa, a slice of wholegrain fruit bread, or a tub of yoghurt, instead of biscuits, cakes, pastries or potato crisps
  • Ignore current health trends, such as shunning carbohydrate-rich grains and using saturated fats like coconut oil
  • Although women with PCOS are more likely to struggle with their weight, healthy eating will help and even losing a relatively small amount of weight (five to ten per cent) can improve many of the symptoms of PCOS

For more advice, see The Association of UK Dietitians Food Fact Sheet for polycystic ovary syndrome.

Explore our Food, Nutrition and Dietetics programmes and discover more of our world-leading research, including a study into how timing when you eat and exercise can help you burn fat.

Related news and features