PCOS Weight Loss: 10 Diet, Exercise + Lifestyle Tips (No Medication!)
Struggling to lose weight with PCOS? Find the support and motivation you need with ten lifestyle changes you can implement TODAY to support your PCOS weight loss efforts through specific diet, supplement and exercise recommendations. We address the root causes like balancing your insulin, hormones, inflammation and gut health so you’ll achieve lasting, sustainable results and keep your PCOS symptoms at bay!
As if having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) isn’t challenging enough with its irregular periods, acne, PMS, hair loss or excessive hair growth, and often times infertility.
But adding weight gain into the mix is the kicker that–frankly–totally sucks!
I remember it like it was yesterday–my period still hadn’t come (I’d gotten off The Pill two months prior), I’d gained 12 pounds for no reason, my face was completely broken out with dozens of pimples all over my cheeks and chin (something that had never happened before), I was so very tired and exhausted, anxious and just a mess.
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve successfully had a baby naturally (without medication or medical intervention AND I got pregnant on my first try), reversed my PCOS and now live a symptom-free life that includes looking the best I ever have! I lost those 12 PCOS pounds and then some. And if I can do it, so can YOU!
What is PCOS?
Now, we’ve already talked a ton about PCOS on the site, so I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you already know what PCOS is and you’ve likely already been diagnosed with it.
But in case you’re new here, check out this PCOS primer before moving on. Or you can take our FREE quiz to see if you might have PCOS.
If you’re anything like me and you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, you’re probably feeling totally overwhelmed, unsure of where to start, eager to try some new techniques and totally terrified that you might never get better.
I promise that if you put in the work, you will reverse your PCOS and live a symptom-free life! We’ve already addressed the best PCOS diet, natural supplements for PCOS and healing fertility issues, so today we’re taking a deep dive into how to lose weight with PCOS–WITHOUT medication or unhealthy, unsustainable and extreme methods.
First, we’ve got to understand the root cause and WHY weight gain is so common in women with PCOS in the first place.
Why does PCOS cause weight gain?
A huge factor in PCOS weight gain has to do with the hormone insulin, which helps convert sugars and starches from foods into energy for our bodies.
In fact, insulin resistance is a common co-occurring disorder with PCOS affecting between 50–70% of women, depending on who you ask. (source)
But, PCOS affects your body’s secretion and use of insulin. Your cells can actually become resistant to insulin signals and this prompts your pancreas to produce even more insulin. This condition–called insulin resistance–causes insulin and sugar (glucose) to build up in the bloodstream.
Instead of helping burn energy, too much insulin promotes fat storage or weight gain, often in your midsection. The higher your insulin levels, the more body fat you’re likely to accumulate, independent of your caloric intake. Thus one of the keys to weight loss is reducing your insulin, rather than limiting calories. (source)
Not sure if you have insulin resistance? A simple blood test of fasting insulin levels will tell you. Ideal fasting insulin levels are less than 3.0, but anything less than 5 is considered normal.
High insulin levels also increase the production of male hormones (like testosterone, DHEA, and SHGB) called androgens. High androgen levels lead to symptoms such as body hair growth, acne, irregular periods, and (you guessed it!) weight gain.
Because the weight gain is triggered by male hormones, it typically stores in the abdomen since that is where men tend to carry weight. So, instead of having a pear shape, women with PCOS have more of a masculine apple shape. (source)
Anyone with PCOS who’s struggling with their weight is almost certain to have elevated levels of androgens. Because insulin resistance increases the production of androgens, this forms a vicious feedback loop that leads to additional weight gain. Not to mention that high insulin also increases hunger and carbohydrate cravings. Eek!
This isn’t just about just your superficial appearance and feeling good in your body (though, of course, we do all want to feel good about how we look!). There are some serious health risks that can manifest if you don’t manage your PCOS and lose weight, like Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea and infertility.
Okay, I know this might not sound like great news, BUT THERE IS HOPE, I promise! Read on to find out what you can do to lose weight with PCOS and get your health back into balance.
But wait, why not just use meds?
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or medical professional. But in my humble opinion: Americans are overprescribed and undertreated, the root cause often ignored in favor of masking symptoms with medication. I’m not opposed to medication, I just recommend using prescription meds as a last resort, rather than a first line of defense.
Many doctors will prescribe Metformin to treat PCOS with insulin resistance, yet there are all kinds of scary and dangerous side effects that come with this prescription medication like stomach problems and hypoglycemia. So, I prefer to go the natural route first.
Metformin works by reducing the amount of glucose (sugar) made by your liver, decreasing the amount of glucose your body absorbs, and increasing the effect of insulin on your body. But, we can typically do this naturally through all the tips detailed in the post, and you’d actually be getting to the root cause of the problem and creating a sustainable, healthy solution vs. putting a band-aid on it (a band-aid that may even make you feel worse!).
Of course, if you’re in an extreme or dire situation and need to start off on medication as you slowly start making the lifestyle changes that we outline below, then do what you gotta do. But, I highly recommend working with a naturopathic, functional or integrative doctor to be sure you’re getting a balanced opinion and the holistic support that is going to serve your long term health.
PCOS WEIGHT LOSS: 10 Diet, Exercise + Lifestyle Tips
1) Balance Your Insulin Levels.
First step: Changing your diet is the most important thing you can do to manage your PCOS, and it is the best first place to start when you are diagnosed with PCOS.
Seriously. Food is medicine. The right foods will nourish your body, balance your hormones and blood sugar, helping you lose weight, boost fertility and feel great.
Likewise, the wrong foods can throw your hormones out of whack and cause your PCOS to flare up with all kinds of frustrating symptoms that we’ve already mentioned like acne, anxiety, weight gain, PMS, and infertility.
I recommend following a real, whole food based, anti-inflammatory diet that is especially full of fiber-rich fruits and veggies (especially cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, berries, stone fruits, tomatoes, peppers, squash and sweet potatoes), lentils, and beans,
These foods can help combat insulin resistance by slowing down digestion and reducing the impact of sugar in the blood. A great way to incorporate more fiber and veggies? Green Smoothies!
Likewise, gluten free whole grains, lean protein (especially organic grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild-caught animal protein), and healthy fats, like avocados, salmon, olive oil, ghee, nuts and seeds, are also important foods to add to your diet if you are trying to lose weight with PCOS.
And minimizing foods like refined sugar, white flour, and processed carbs will also help lower insulin levels.
But it’s not just about what you eat. When and how is also important. Eat four to six small meals throughout the day, rather than three large meals. This will help control your blood sugar levels.
Another way to reduce your insulin levels: supplements. Inositol is KEY for managing PCOS insulin resistance. Inositol is a a vitamin-like substance found in fruits, beans, grains and nuts that helps detoxify your liver.
I personally tried a few different brands, but ended up having the most success with Ovasitol, a medical-grade supplement that combines myo-inositol and D-chiro-inositol in the body’s natural ratio of 40 to 1, improving insulin sensitivity, ovulation, and egg quality and restoring hormone balance, namely by decreasing androgens in the bloodstream.
PRO TIP: Inositol is super helpful for promoting ovulation, so if you’re trying to get pregnant, talk to your doctor about adding inositol to your supplement regimen.
2) Reduce your androgens.
As we already touched on, most women with high androgens–a.k.a. male hormones–suffer from insulin resistance, and high insulin causes the ovaries to make excessive amounts of androgens, so you really want to break this vicious loop if you’re trying to lose weight.
What else causes high androgens? The main causes are genetics, chronic stress and excess body fat. (source)
So how do you reduce your androgens? Largely through diet and exercise.
A low Glycemic Diet helps reduce insulin (see our post all about Natural Sugars and the GI Index here) and, honestly, minimizing refined sugar as best you can is going to be key. Another big piece to reiterate is getting enough fiber, as it increases excretion of testosterone in the stool.
High-quality proteins like organic pasture-raised chicken and turkey, low-mercury fish and grass-fed beef are also helpful.
Dr. Sara Gottfried in recommends avoiding dairy for six weeks to see if it helps with your symptoms; for people with dairy sensitivities, you increase inflammation when its consumed, which in turn leads to higher androgens and acne. Personally, I recommend you take a lactose intolerance test as elimination diets can be really tough to determine cause and effect, and this way you know for sure if you’re sensitive or not.
Dr. Gottfried also recommends supplementing with Omega-3s and Vitamin D (see tip #5 below about nutrient deficiencies on how to test for this).
Don’t forget about environmental exposure to toxins! You definitely want to minimize your exposure to BPA, a plastic found in most canned food, flame retardants and thermal print receipt paper, as women with PCOS have higher levels of BPA which correlate with both androgen levels and insulin resistance.
PRO TIP: Spearmint tea: If you suffer from high androgen levels, drinking 2-3 cups of spearmint tea a day can actually lower these hormones, reducing hirsutism, weight gain, acne and more. (source)
3) Manage your cortisol.
Cortisol is a stress hormone produced in your adrenals that affects every single one of your hormones. If you have excess cortisol, your hormones will inevitably be out of whack.
So how does this affect PCOS weight loss?
Well, cortisol’s main job is to raise glucose levels. Even small increases in cortisol can raise blood sugar and increase insulin resistance, so cortisol imbalance is particularly dangerous for PCOS women as it can promote fat storage AND cause you to crave carbs.
Fat cells at your belly have four times more cortisol receptors than fat located elsewhere, so too much stress can literally add fat around your tummy. High cortisol is also linked to obesity, increased body fat, and metabolic syndrome in women. (source)
So how do you know if you have excess cortisol? Testing of course (throughout the day is recommended to get a complete picture; I recommend this at-home test) and also looking for symptoms of stress and anxiety. If you suffer from that wired but tired feeling, with an inability to fall asleep at night but feeling so tired when you wake up in the morning, your cortisol is likely imbalanced.
To learn how to balance cortisol, keep reading, as the following tips really focus on this hormone and weight loss.
4) Get the right kind of exercise.
Key to reducing androgens, managing cortisol and balancing insulin is getting the right kinds of exercise.
Intense workouts like High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), CrossFit, and running can burn out your adrenals and blast your body with too much cortisol, throwing all your hormones out of balance.
When you get your heart rate pounding, your body goes into that fight or flight mode, and you burn through the glucose in your bloodstream (which is a good thing!). BUT you’re only burning glucose for about half an hour. (source) After that, your body starts to pump out cortisol to help you convert your fat cells into blood sugar, so that you have the energy to keep working out. (source)
At this point, you might be thinking, great! More energy to keep working out! But if you have estrogen dominance–which many women with PCOS do–that excess estrogen tells your body to convert any leftover sugar back into fat. (source) So instead of burning fat, you get stuck in an ugly cycle of burning stored fat with cortisol, only to have your high estrogen levels send it right back to all the wrong places. (source) (source)
What does this mean for you? Gentle exercise like walking, yoga, and swimming are all better options when you have PCOS. In fact, yoga was shown recently to be more effective than other forms of exercise at improving insulin resistance in PCOS. (source)
Weight/resistance training is also good because the more muscle mass you have means you can better metabolize glucose and carbs.
5) Track your nutrient deficiencies
Nutrient deficiencies are common causes of weight gain, so eating a nutrient-dense diet will be key in balancing your hormones and thus losing weight. It’s a domino effect that’s a little different than your typical calories in, calories out diet and exercise plans–that’s the worst kind of diet for PCOS. Instead, it’s all about nourishing your body and nurturing your adrenals.
Some of the most common nutrient deficiencies for women with PCOS are Vitamin D, Vitamin Bs, Magnesium and Zinc. How do you know if you’re deficient? Once again, it’s best to test. EverlyWell offers an at-home Vitamin D test and a Vitamin B Complex test.
For magnesium, a simple blood test through your doctor’s office will do the trick.
And here’s a cool, cost-effective way to test for zinc deficiency called the Zinc Sulfate Taste Test. (source) Buy a bottle of zinc sulfate liquid, take one teaspoon and swish it around in your mouth for 30 seconds (be sure not to eat or drink anything other than water for 30 minutes prior). Notice the taste as you swoosh it around.
Here’s what to look for:
For all the levels except excellent zinc status (the top bullet), you should swallow the zinc after the 30 seconds are complete. This is a highly absorbable type of zinc so it’s beneficial to your body if you’re deficient.
Alright, now once you know what you nutrient deficiencies you need to focus on, here are some foods rich in each of these nutrients:
You can of course also supplement with all of these nutrients, which is recommended if you’re really low in any of these. Once again, I recommend working with a medical professional so you supplement in proper dosages.
NutriGold is one of my favorite supplement brands because their products are made from organic whole foods with no additives or fillers, plus they’re third-party tested for 140+ purity and potency markers. Use the coupon code ROOT for an extra 10% off NutriGold’s everyday sale price of 20% off when you order direct from their website–that’s up to 30% off your entire order!
6) Nourish your thyroid.
PCOS and hypothyroidism often go hand in hand, and a sluggish thyroid can cause weight gain. Why? Your thyroid is like your very own metabolic thermostat, regulating how quickly we burn calories, maintains our metabolism, and controls the body’s sensitivity to other hormones.
How to know if you have a sluggish thyroid? You can take our quiz here!
Beyond the symptoms like feeling tired, rundown, gaining unexplained weight, being cold all the time and feeling depressed, you should test to see if it’s your thyroid contributing to these issues. You can test with your doctor (though beware that conventional physicians often are more skeptical and typically use an outdated reference range to diagnose, so I recommend going through a functional, integrative or naturopathic practitioner).
You can also use EverlyWell’s at-home Thyroid test. For the optimal thyroid lab ranges, click below to download our cheat sheet!
If you do have hypothyroidism, you’ll, of course, want to eat anti-inflammatory foods that nourish your thyroid.
Some of the best foods to eat for your thyroid: wild-caught fish, coconut oil and ghee, seaweed, probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and miso, sprouted whole grains and nuts, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, bone broth, and plenty of good ole’ H20. Getting plenty of protein, healthy fat and fiber is of utmost importance when you have thyroid dysfunction.
For more on the thyroid, read our post on Natural Treatments for Hypothyroidism: Anxiety, Fatigue, Constipation + Weight Gain.
7) Prioritize your gut health and Inflammation.
We talk a TON about gut health and inflammation on R+R. It’s especially relevant for PCOS weight loss because most women with PCOS also have chronic inflammation, which often causes digestion problems, which can lead to weight loss. I know, it’s complicated, but as you can see, it’s also amazing how interconnected the body is! Fix one thing, and you’ll naturally begin fixing others!
Once again, following an anti-inflammatory diet is helpful, as is cutting out sugar and refined carbs. But DO NOT cut out all carbs as they’re needed for blood sugar stability. Fiber-rich, gluten free carbs, like vegetables and whole grains, are key.
PRO TIP: bone broth. Check this out: drinking bone broth can improve your gut health, which in turn reduces inflammation, which decreases cortisol. So unhealthy gut = inflammation = excess cortisol = imbalanced hormones all around = PCOS nightmare. Try to drink a mug of bone broth at least a few times a week. (Collagen helps too!)
It’s important to note that you can be inflamed due to diet but may not have gut health issues like IBS, Leaky Gut, SIBO, candida…this doesn’t mean you’re not inflamed. It simply means your inflammation has not cause digestive distress…yet. Either way, reducing inflammation and caring for your gut will still be key in losing weight with PCOS.
While researchers have only recently begun to unravel the mysteries of the microbiome, so far we know that our gut affects how much we eat (source), our metabolism and fat storage mechanisms (source), what foods work well for us and which foods don’t, and even the way we absorb nutrients (source).
It’s also now known that the bacteria in our gut has a causal effect on both insulin resistance and obesity (source), which is particularly noteworthy for women with PCOS, especially those who are struggling with their weight.
For more on this, check out our post on The Gut Microbiome: A Guide to Digestive, Skin, Immune System + Mental Health.
To get personalized microbiome testing, I recommend Viome–a revolutionary testing service that tells you what foods you should and shouldn’t eat along with other actionable results based on YOUR very unique and specific microbiome makeup!
I also love EverlyWell’s Food Sensitivity test to discover what you might be eating and reacting to (it could likely be ‘healthy’ foods like spinach, lentils, olives–everyone is different so it’s important you find out so you can remove these foods for 3-6 months).
8) Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.
This tip is short and sweet, though I know it’s easier said than done: cutting out caffeine and alcohol (or at least minimizing) will help balance hormones, particularly cortisol and insulin.
Alcohol raises cortisol, and the effects persist for 24 hours in men, and probably longer in women. (source)
Likewise, caffeine directly induces our cells to produce more cortisol and insulin.
What to do? You don’t have to give up your morning coffee altogether, but switch to decaf slowly by adding in 25/75 decaf to regular coffee for a few days, and then 50/50 and so on until you’ve made the transition. For more coffee tips, check out one of our most popular posts called Butter Coffee Recipe: Why I put Ghee + Collagen in my Coffee.
When it comes to alcohol, I have some really great news: you don’t have to be completely deprived of ever drinking again, you just have to make better choices.
I highly recommend Dry Farm Wines, as their wines are lab-tested to be not only natural, organic and additive-free, but they’re also low-alcohol AND sugar-free! They truly taste absolutely delicious and are “hangover free” since you’re not getting all the normal junk that’s in wine these days. Try Dry Farm Wines now and get your first bottle for just a PENNY!
9) Manage your Stress.
I can’t stress enough (no pun intended!) how important it is to manage your stress. Stress increases things like cortisol (which also slows down your metabolism) and androgens, and decreases things like thyroid function. When we’re chronically stressed, it even increases our stored belly fat, which in turn triggers inflammation. (source)
What can you do about it? Stress levels go down with restorative sleep, regular exercise, nutrient-dense food, self-care, and practices like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga.
Find it hard to stay still and present? I highly recommend the Ziva Meditation method, which really helped me when I was first starting to meditate. In just 15 days, the zivaONLINE course will help you relieve stress and develop an enjoyable mindfulness, meditation and manifesting practice to take with you for life. Ready to get started? You can meditation here!
Gaia also has some great meditations, and I can’t say enough positive things about the app Headspace–their anxiety series SAVED ME when I was having panic attacks a few years back.
Deep-tissue massage has also been shown to lower cortisol, raise oxytocin and improve immune functioning, so now you have an even better reason to get a massage at least once a month–sign me up! source)
10) Detox your Beauty + Cleaning Products.
Don’t underestimate the importance of cleaning up environmental toxins found in cleaning supplies, beauty and personal care products, and even in our water and air pollution.
Though most people are willing to acknowledge the detrimental effects processed food has in our bodies, often, we forget about the other products we put on our bodies, even though they can be just as damaging. In fact, skin is our largest organ and absorbs over 60 percent of what we put on it–and these harmful chemicals go directly into our bloodstream!
Unfortunately, most store-bought beauty products are filled with a potent cocktail of carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals, including parabens, fragrance, fake estrogens and harmful preservatives that mess with our hormones and irritate our skin.
Don’t know where to start? Here are some of my favorite resources on this topic:
Prefer to make your own? Check out our DIY recipes for cleaning products and beauty products,
Over to you: what questions do you have about losing weight with PCOS? If you have PCOS, what has worked for you to shed those extra pounds? Let us know in the comments below!
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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