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How to lose weight with PCOS

13 helpful tips

It can sometimes be difficult for women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) to shed weight. Here are 13 helpful tips for losing weight with PCOS.

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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts, and fact-checked by experts.
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Last updated on October 1, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on August 2, 2022.
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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is 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.

The hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, and inflammation related to this condition make it difficult for women with PCOS to shed weight.

Yet, even a slight weight loss of approximately 5% can improve insulin resistance, hormone levels, menstrual cycles, fertility, and overall quality of life in women with PCOS.

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.

Insulin is necessary for blood sugar management and energy storage in your body. Research associates high insulin levels with increased body fat and weight gain in the general population — and in women with PCOS.

In one study, obese women with PCOS and insulin resistance 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.

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) measures how quickly a particular food raises blood sugar.

In one study, women ate their regular 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.

Summary: Eating a low-GI, low-carb diet may reduce insulin levels in women with PCOS. In turn, this could help with weight loss.

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, U.S. women’s average daily fiber intake is only 15–16 grams.

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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.

In another study in 57 women with this condition, higher fiber intake was associated with lower body weight.

Summary: For women with PCOS, a diet high in fiber may help reduce insulin resistance, body weight, and excess body fat.

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.

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.

Summary: Higher protein intake may boost weight loss, especially for women with PCOS. Add healthy, high-protein items like eggs, nuts, and seafood to your diet.

4. Eat healthy fats

Plenty of healthy fats in your diet may help you feel more satisfied after meals and tackle weight loss and other symptoms of PCOS.

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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).

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.

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.

Healthy fats include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, and nut butter. Combining healthy fat with a protein source can further increase the filling effects of meals and snacks.

Summary: Eating more healthy fats may benefit women with PCOS. In studies, higher fat intake is linked to reduced hunger and more significant body fat loss.

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.

Additionally, research suggests that certain probiotic strains may positively impact weight loss.

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.

Summary: Women with PCOS may have lower numbers of beneficial gut bacteria. Eating foods rich in probiotics or a probiotic supplement may support your gut bacteria, thus aiding weight loss.

6. Practice mindful eating

Women with PCOS have often tried many diets and are three times more likely to have eating disorders.

Mindful eating is one potential solution. It promotes an increased awareness of bodily cues, such as hunger and fullness.

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Mindfulness-based approaches to food may help address problematic eating behaviors — especially binge eating and emotional eating.

Furthermore, studies suggest mindful eating practices may be linked to weight loss.

Summary: Mindful eating helps promote awareness of internal eating cues and may promote weight loss. It may be especially helpful for women with PCOS, who are much more likely to experience eating disorders.

7. Limit processed foods and added sugars

Another tip to lose weight with PCOS is to reduce 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.

Women with PCOS may process sugar differently than women without it.

Research shows that women with PCOS experience more significant blood sugar and insulin spikes after consuming the same sugar as women without this condition.

Studies indicate that minimally processed, natural foods raise blood sugar less than highly processed foods and are more satisfying.

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.

Foods high in added sugar and refined carbs include cakes, cookies, candy, and fast food.

Summary: Processed foods — such as refined carbs and added sugars — increase blood sugar levels, leading to weight gain.

8. Reduce inflammation

Inflammation is your body’s natural response to infection or injury.

But chronic inflammation — common in women with PCOS — is linked to obesity. Sugar and processed foods may contribute to inflammation.

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 than women without this condition.

A Mediterranean diet — high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and omega-3-rich foods, such as fatty fish — may protect against inflammation.

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Summary: Inflammation is common in women with PCOS and has been linked to obesity. Eating a diet high in whole foods — especially fruits and vegetables — may safeguard against inflammation.

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, leading to weight regain.

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.

Instead of restricting calories, it may be best to focus on eating whole foods and cutting out unhealthy products.

For example, a study of 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.

Summary: Chronic calorie restriction may slow your metabolism, possibly leading to weight gain. Instead of forcing yourself to eat less food, try to adopt a diet of whole, unprocessed foods to help with weight loss.

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 three times per week, those with PCOS lost 2.3% body fat, compared to 6.4% in the control group.

While women with PCOS lost less fat than those without this condition, the exercise regimen resulted in the loss of belly fat and improved insulin sensitivity.

Weight training has also been shown to aid women with PCOS.

In one study, 45 women with PCOS did weight training thrice weekly. After four months, they lost belly fat and gained lean body mass while reducing testosterone and blood sugar levels.

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Summary: Both cardio and weight-training exercises may help women with PCOS drop body fat and improve insulin sensitivity.

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.

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.

Insufficient sleep is associated with a higher risk of being overweight or obese.

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.

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 than those who slept 6–8 hours a night.

Summary: Poor sleep is linked to obesity. Studies in healthy adults suggest that increasing your total time asleep can reduce body fat and promote weight loss.

12. Manage your stress

Because stress is a risk factor for weight gain, managing your stress can help manage your weight.

Stress increases levels of cortisol, a hormone made by your adrenal glands. Chronically high cortisol levels are linked to insulin resistance and weight gain.

Chronic stress also increases your risk of developing belly fat. In turn, belly fat increases inflammation, which triggers your body to make more cortisol — creating a vicious cycle.

To lower cortisol levels, focus on stress management practices.

Studies note that techniques like meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature can help lower cortisol levels.

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Summary: High cortisol levels from chronic stress are linked to insulin resistance and belly fat. Relieving stress through yoga, meditation, and time outdoors may help lower cortisol levels.

13. Consider supplements

If you have PCOS, several supplements may help manage weight and symptoms.

Myo-inositol is a supplement that may lead to weight loss in women with PCOS. Inositol is a compound related to B vitamins that helps improve insulin sensitivity. Myo-inositol is a specific form of inositol.

In a randomized study of 92 women with PCOS, half were given 4 grams of myo-inositol per day for 14 weeks. While those in the inositol group lost weight, those in the placebo group gained weight.

Carnitine, an amino acid found in meat, may also lead to weight loss.

In a 12-week study of 60 overweight women with PCOS, those who took 250 mg of carnitine per day lost an average of 5.9 pounds (2.7 kg), compared to a 0.2-pound (0.1-kg) gain in the placebo group.

Summary: Myo-inositol and carnitine supplements may help women with PCOS lose weight and control certain symptoms.

Summary

Losing weight can be a struggle for women with polycystic ovary syndrome.

A balanced diet — low in inflammatory foods like refined carbs and highly processed foods but rich in whole foods, protein, healthy fats, and fiber — may aid weight loss. Certain supplements may help as well.

Lifestyle should also be taken into consideration. Regular exercise, stress management, and sleep are all important to weight loss.

If you have PCOS and struggle to lose weight, try some tips above.

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