Think losing weight is hard?
It can be even harder for the roughly 10 percent of women with PCOS.
PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormone imbalance that some women are born with. With PCOS, you might experience eight or fewer periods in a year, which can make it harder for you to become pregnant; weird hair growth on your face or body; and even small cysts on your ovaries. You may also have acne or oily skin, problems with sleep, and even lose hair on your head.
Then there’s the weight. What’s especially tough is that if you are already overweight, you’re at higher risk for PCOS—but if you have PCOS, it can be tougher for you to lose the weight.
Chalk it up to those hormones, specifically male androgen hormones, which women with PCOS have higher levels of. Another problem is that women with PCOS also often have higher levels of insulin. That can lead to insulin resistance, a condition that keeps your body from absorbing sugar properly. Those sugar levels can build up in your bloodstream and lead to type 2 diabetes.
More than vanity
When you have PCOS, losing weight is about more than how you look in the mirror.
“We know that overweight or obese women with PCOS who lose five to 10 percent of their weight over six months improve their metabolic profile. If they’re trying to get pregnant, they have a higher chance of responding to ovulation medicines,” said Dr. Lawrence Layman, a reproductive endocrinologist and geneticist with Augusta University Health. “Periods may become more regular. And they have a lower risk for type 2 diabetes.”
But when it’s harder than normal to lose weight, what’s the solution? Keep it simple, but with a twist, said Layman: “It all has to do with calories.”
Layman’s prescription for successful weight loss with PCOS goes back to the common advice we all hear, but often have trouble committing to: Six small meals a day. The twist comes with a focus on low-glycemic foods, such as whole grains, fruits and non-starchy vegetables, beans and legumes, and of course meat, which is the ultimate “no-glycemic” food since it contains zero carbs. “Eat multiple times a day, not a huge amount, and you’re more likely to keep on it,” he said.
Maintaining proper portion size is important since even low-glycemic foods like nuts can be high in fat and calories. While no one should eat less than 1,200 calories a day since that can slow the metabolism, reducing overall calorie intake—appropriate to your activity level—is key.
So what’s appropriate? To maintain her weight, the average, moderately active woman needs 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day. To lose one pound a week, women should cut out 500 calories per day, while still ensuring she is consuming at least 1,200 calories daily.
Another health risk for women with PCOS is depression, as women struggle with some of the unpleasant symptoms of the condition, like hair growth in strange places, and more serious issues, like sadness if they want to become pregnant but can’t.
That depression can literally feed into a poor diet and low or no activity.
That’s where some self care can go a long way. Women with PCOS can try facial hair removal creams or laser treatments. If they don’t want to become pregnant, they can work with a dermatologist and their reproductive endocrinologist on hormonal treatments (birth control) to help make their periods more regular and reduce acne. These experts may also be able to provide advice on thinning hair.
“Taking care of ourselves and our health is what we should all be doing,” said Layman. “But it’s even more important for women with PCOS to improve their well-being, reduce risk of diabetes and improve fertility.”