by Amy Medling, founder of PCOS Diva
If you’re a PCOS Diva and have been following my blog for a while now, you know I always say that “food is medicine”. Eating the best foods for the body, in their most natural and nourishing state, can balance and heal even the most challenging symptoms of PCOS. Inflammation, infertility, overweight and obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other serious health risks associated with PCOS may be controlled and eliminated OR irritated and increased by the foods we eat. The choice is up to us, and knowledge is the key to making the best choices possible that empower ourselves to improve our health and well-being. That’s what being a Diva is all about!
Chronic, persistent, low-grade inflammation is now understood to be an important underlying factor in chronic diseases including PCOS.1,2 This “meta-inflammation”3 contributes to the onset of an extensive list of undesirable physiological responses, including insomnia, weight gain and obesity, hormone disruption, insulin resistance, diabetes, dysmenorrhea and fertility issues, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, allergies, and auto-immune dysfunction, especially in women who have PCOS.
To further complicate things, when we feel anxious and stressed, which we most likely do if we have any of that going on, we seek out our favorite sweet or salty, ooey-gooey, convenient comfort foods in an attempt to soothe, comfort, or distract ourselves. Unfortunately, any satisfaction derived is purely momentary because these foods are often pro-inflammatory and boost systemic inflammation, which in turn causes problems with glucose regulation, insulin resistance and the functions of other hormones. These processes are complicated and intertwined; when one is affected, all are affected.
Chronic inflammation affects mood, cognitive processing, and memory function; and promotes unhealthy weight gain around the middle, a factor for cardiovascular disease, liver dysfunction, and cancer. When this runaway inflammation is simmering throughout the body, it’s only a matter of time before serious autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis or Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) arise. In fact, because of its inflammation- and hormone-related features, some researchers now actually consider PCOS to be an autoimmune issue.4,5
There is no one-size-fits-all diet for women with PCOS, but there are guidelines from which we all benefit. PCOS Diva Jumpstart can walk you through the diet and lifestyle changes that will help you feel better and get on track the thrive with PCOS. Until then here are 7 foods to avoid and why:
- Sugar – Refined sugar, cane syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or “natural” sugars in any processed form, are top on the list of the worst foods to consume if you have PCOS. Sugary foods have a high glycemic index and load, cause immediate spikes in blood sugar and insulin release, and are directly linked to the onset of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndromes (including PCOS), cancer, and other diseases, due to insulin resistance.6 Sugar also increases the production and release of testosterone and estrogen,7 which contributes to belly fat and unwanted facial hair. Also, please make sure to limit alcohol intake. Like sugar, alcohol affects glucose-insulin balance and robs the body of vital B-vitamins, especially Thiamin (B1). Thiamin, incidentally, is a necessary factor for maintaining blood sugar stability. It’s a no-win situation if you eat sugar or drink alcohol regularly.
- Processed and refined white flour from wheat – the main ingredient of most breads, cakes, pastries, breakfast cereals, pasta, and many other starchy foods, offers very few beneficial nutrients. It is another high glycemic, pro-inflammatory food that causes the same physiological effects as processed sugar. White flour, unless further processed, contains gluten, a protein associated with inflammation of the digestive tract, mood and attention disorders, allergies and sensitivities to foods, perfumes, and other substances, and causes many other miserable effects. Furthermore, wheat is highly allergenic grain that, due to large-scale agricultural practices, often contains dangerous pesticide and herbicide residues that irritate the mucosa of digestive tract, cause leaky gut syndrome, and further increase the cellular and systemic damage of meta-inflammation. Incidentally, pesticide residue is one factor of the controversy surrounding GMO corn, wheat and soy.
- Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharine may provide zero-calories, but they wreak havoc on the body! New research has associated the use of artificial sweeteners with a higher risk for stroke, dementia, and other cognitive issues.8 A link to leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers has also been suggested.9 That can of Diet Coke is not helping your diet and may worsen your PCOS symptoms.
- Dairy—Cow’s Milk, Cream, Cheese – Pasteurized and homogenized milk from cows, especially in reduced-fat and skim forms, is considered a common yet potent food allergen that contributes to meta-inflammation. Recent research has shown that consuming dairy may trigger acne outbreaks, while also directly affecting obesity and insulin-resistance.1 However, the offending component of milk is not lactose as you may think; it is the milk protein casein. When A1-casein is digested, it is broken down to form beta-casomorphin 7 (BCM7), a potent opiate. BCM7 is known to cause inflammatory and immune responses within the gastrointestinal system,11 and like other opiates, it is addictive.
- Red Meat and Deli Meats – The World Health Organization (WHO) International Agency for the Research on Cancer (IARC) has recently declared red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans”.12 The IARC’s final assessment is that consumption of red meat can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases, and may lead to a higher risk of dying from these diseases.13 In simple language this means: Not only do they cause cancer, they cause cancers that are more likely to kill you. If you must eat read meat, be sure it is organic and grass-fed.
- Processed, pre-packaged convenience foods – Most pre-packaged, highly-processed convenience foods are made from the unhealthy ingredients we just discussed: refined flour, high fructose corn syrup and other refined sugars, processed meats, artificial sweeteners, or dairy products. They are also likely to contain too much salt or high amounts of other hidden forms of sodium, as well as artificial flavorings, colors, and preservatives. Processed foods are usually made from low quality, high calorie, pro-inflammatory ingredients that may cause leaky gut and other digestive conditions, create even more meta-inflammation, contribute to hormone disruption which further increases the inflammation cascade, and can, eventually, kill you. There are better options for eating on the go.
- Omega-6 essential fatty acids, Trans-fats, and Hydrogenated Oils — these pro-inflammatory, disease-causing, heart-damaging oils and fats are, perhaps, the most offending components of processed, pre-packaged convenience foods. We need some omega-6 fatty acids for our bodies to work, but the standard American diet (SAD) delivers way more than needed (up to 30 times more)14 in the form of cheap vegetable oils, lard, margarine, shortening and deep fried foods. Having these “bad fats” in your diet is directly associated with cardiovascular disease, hypertension, blood clots, arthritis, cancer, and every other chronic, inflammation-based condition, which covers pretty much everything. When these unhealthy oils and fats are digested, they form chemical components that cause inflammation—Arachidonic acid and its metabolites. When combined with the other low quality, high calorie, pro-inflammatory ingredients of processed foods, the arachidonic acid inflammation cascade becomes perpetual, meaning it never stops. This is what’s referred to as “runaway inflammation”, an effect that snowballs within the body. Starting with leaky gut and other digestive conditions, this unstoppable cascade continuously creates even more meta-inflammation, which further increases the level and complexity of hormone disruption, increases the frequency and severity of PCOS symptoms, and almost guarantees cardiovascular or other disease and death from it.
Remember – food provides information, and hormones are chemical messengers delivering information to their target tissues. When that signaling is damaged or disrupted by inflammation and other agents (as it is with PCOS) the regulation of blood pressure, immune function, cardiovascular circulation, weight control, and other important physiological processes regulated by hormones are greatly affected.
In our next post, we will discuss the best types of food for you to eat that reduce meta-inflammation and its far-reaching effects so you can be the healthiest, most vibrant Diva you can be!
- ILSI Europe. Controlling inflammation to reduce chronic disease risk. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily website, 7 August 2015. Available at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150807092555.htm and accessed April 21, 2017.
- Shapiro H, Lutaty A, Ariel A. Macrophages, Meta-Inflammation, and Immuno-Metabolism. 2011; 11: 2509–2529. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3253544/ and accessed April 21, 2017.
- Sharma P. Inflammation and the Metabolic Syndrome. Indian J Clin Biochem. 2011 Oct; 26(4): 317–318. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3210244/ and accessed April 21, 2017.
- Mobeen H, Afzal N, Kashif M. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome May Be an Autoimmune Disorder. Scientifica (Cairo). May 5, 2016; 2016: 4071735. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4871972/ and accessed April 21, 2017.
- Arora S, Sinha K, Kolts S, Mandal A. Endocrinal and autoimmune linkage: Evidences from a controlled study of subjects with polycystic ovarian syndrome. J Hum Reprod Sci. 2016 Jan-Mar; 9(1): 16-22. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4817282/ and accessed on April 21, 2017.
- Micronutrient Information Center. Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load. Linus Pauling Institute. Oregon State University. Updated and Reviewed March 2016. Available at http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/food-beverages/glycemic-index-glycemic-load and accessed on April 21, 2017.
- Arora S. Is sugar sabotaging your hormones? Women’s Health Network website. Available at https://www.womenshealthnetwork.com/hormonalimbalance/hormonal-imbalance-caused-by-sugar.aspx and accessed on April 21, 2017.
- Hughes S. Diet Drinks Linked to Increased Stroke and Dementia Risk. Medscape website. April 20, 2017. Available at http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/878894 and accessed on April 21, 2017.
- Aune D. Soft drinks, aspartame, and the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec; 96(6): 1249–1251. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3497921/)
- Rajaeieh G, Marasi M, Shahshahan Z. Hassanbeigi F, Safavi SM. The Relationship between intake of dairy products and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome in women who referred to Isfahan University of Medical Science Clinics in 2013. Int J Prev Med. 2014 June; 5(6): 687-694. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085920/ and accessed on April 23, 2017.
- Pal S, Woodford K, Kukuljan S, Ho S. Milk Intolerance, Beta-Casein and Lactose. 2015 September; 7(9): 7825-7297. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4586534/ and accessed on April 24, 2017.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. IARC Press release No. 240. World Health Organization. October 26, 2015. Available at http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf and accessed on April 24, 2015.
- Phares EH. WHO report says eating processed meat is carcinogenic: Understanding the findings. The Nutrition Source. November 3, 2015. Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health website. Available at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2015/11/03/report-says-eating-processed-meat-is-carcinogenic-understanding-the-findings/ and accessed on April 24, 2015.