PCOS Weight Gain – Why It Happens & How To Control It
One of the most frustrating symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is weight gain. What makes this symptom even more frustrating is that it can feel like – no matter how many diets you try or how many different exercises you do – those extra pounds just won’t come off.
To help, we’ll be discussing everything you need to know about PCOS weight gain including why it happens, what’s happening with your hormones, and what you can do to manage it.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine condition with hormonal disruptions that can cause tiny, benign cysts to form in the ovaries. The cysts are painless, and they often resemble a small string of pearls in an ultrasound. Those who have PCOS may struggle to ovulate, and this can make it difficult to become pregnant. Researchers estimate that approximately 10% of women are affected by PCOS.
Does PCOS cause weight gain?
Yes. Weight gain is a common symptom of PCOS. This is because PCOS can lead to an overall imbalance of your hormones, which can affect things like your metabolism, hunger levels, and how your body stores fat.
Other common symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, difficulties with getting pregnant, acne, thinning of the hair, headaches, fatigue, mood swings, hirsutism, pelvic pain, and darkening of the skin.
Why does PCOS cause weight gain?
PCOS can make your body more susceptible to insulin resistance. This means that the body has a difficult time converting sugars from foods into energy, and as a result, insulin and sugar build up in the bloodstream. When insulin levels are high, this causes the body to ramp up the production of certain male hormones. These male hormones are called androgens, and they can lead to the accumulation of excess weight around the stomach area. In addition to high androgen levels, PCOS can also cause an imbalance of estrogen which also makes the body more susceptible to weight gain.
PCOS weight gain is so hard to control because the root of the problem is a hormonal imbalance, which oftentimes cannot be treated through diet and exercise alone.
Body goes in fat storage mode
When your body is resistant to insulin, your pancreas responds by producing even more insulin. When insulin levels are elevated, this leads to increased fat storage around the stomach and midsection.
You get hungrier
Elevated insulin levels can also cause you to feel hungrier more often. It may also lead to intense food cravings, making it difficult to resist binging on high-calorie foods.
Your appetite-suppressing hormones can be impaired
When insulin levels are disrupted, this can lead to other food-related hormones being disrupted as well. For example, appetite-suppressing hormones like ghrelin, cholecystokinin, and leptin can all be affected when insulin levels are out of balance.
Why is it hard to lose weight with PCOS?
Again, it’s important to remember that weight gain due to PCOS has everything to do with your underlying hormone imbalance. This imbalance not only causes your body to store more fat, but it also causes you to feel hungrier more frequently – even after eating. This disruption to your hunger levels and appetite can make it extremely difficult to maintain a healthy diet since your body’s hunger signals are unreliable.
How to lose weight with PCOS
If you are struggling with PCOS, visiting your doctor is a natural first step toward controlling your symptoms and/or losing weight. Many symptoms of PCOS are out of your control, and your doctor can help you find suitable medication for your individual situation.
Please note that the following medications are for informational and educational purposes. Always speak with your doctor before starting a new medication.
Weight management medication
Certain weight-loss medications, such as Orlistat, may be effective at helping PCOS patients lose weight. However, this medication is only effective when used alongside other weight-loss strategies like exercise and maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet.
It’s also common for PCOS patients to be prescribed oral contraceptives. Even though they may not help you lose weight immediately, they can help to balance your overall hormones which may lead to better weight management in the long term. Bear in mind that oral contraceptives are not an appropriate medication if you are looking to plan a pregnancy in the near future.
Blood sugar medication
Other medications, such as Liraglutide and Metformin, are designed to help regulate your blood sugar and insulin levels. In turn, this can help you lose weight easier. These medications are especially appropriate in cases where lifestyle changes (such as exercising more frequently and consuming fewer calories) have not worked.
In addition to exploring your PCOS medication options with your doctor, it’s also a good idea to examine your lifestyle. This is because things like what we eat, how often we exercise, and how much sleep we get can all play a big role in how our hormones work and stay regulated. Making necessary lifestyle adjustments is not easy, however, it is possible through dedication and keeping a positive mindset.
Reduce carb intake
Of all the nutrients that we consume, carbohydrates are the ones that cause our blood sugar levels to rise the most. To prevent these blood sugar spikes (which can lead to insulin resistance), many doctors advise PCOS patients to follow a low-carb diet. This not only keeps blood sugar and insulin levels in check, but it can also help with weight loss.
If it’s difficult for you to imagine a life with minimum carbs, consider starting small by making the following food swaps in your diet:
- Replace tortilla wraps with lettuce wraps.
- Replace pasta noodles with zucchini noodles.
- Replace crackers with vegetables like cucumbers, celery, or carrots.
- Replace white rice with cauliflower rice or quinoa.
- Replace breadcrumbs with ground nuts.
Eat enough fiber
Unlike carbs which can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, foods that are high in fiber can help you feel satiated, full, and energized for much longer. By eating a fiber-rich diet, your blood sugar levels will stay balanced throughout the day, you’ll experience fewer cravings in between meals, and you can lose weight much more easily.
Consider incorporating the following high-fiber foods into your daily meals and snacks:
- Fruits like pears, strawberries, avocados, apples, raspberries, and bananas
- Vegetables like carrots, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and spinach
- Legumes like lentils, kidney beans, black beans, and chickpeas
- Grains like whole-wheat spaghetti, quinoa, bran flakes, oatmeal, and brown rice
Eat more fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are packed with essential vitamins and nutrients that provide a wealth of benefits to your health. They are not only high in fiber (which can help you feel fuller for longer, leading to sustainable weight loss), but they are also high in antioxidants which can help to reduce inflammation caused by PCOS.
If you are struggling to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet, consider the following tips:
- When making a plate, fill half of it with fruit and vegetables before adding anything else.
- Always keep canned and/or frozen fruit and vegetables on hand to add to soups, stews, and stir frys.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative with herbs, spices, and cooking methods.
- Challenge yourself to eat fruits and vegetables that cover the entire rainbow each day.
Limit processed foods and sugar
Processed foods like sugary cereals, breads, cured meats, microwave meals, and snacks may be tasty and convenient, but they are packed with added salt, sugar, and fat that can hinder your PCOS weight loss efforts. These ingredients are oftentimes used to prolong the product’s shelf life without compromising on taste.
While you may not want to eliminate all processed foods from your diet, there are strategies that you can try to help minimize them.
- Replace processed chips, crackers, and cookies with healthier snacks like fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
- Check food labels before purchasing – you might be surprised at just how high the salt and sugar content is.
- Plan meals ahead of time to avoid the temptation to cook a frozen dinner or order takeout.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is critical to overall health and hormone functioning. In fact, research suggests that lack of sleep can interfere with your insulin, cortisol, ghrelin, and leptin levels. The result? You feel hungrier and more agitated, and you’re more likely to choose unhealthy foods at mealtimes.
So how much sleep is “enough”? The National Sleep Foundation advises that all adults need around 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. If you struggle to get that much sleep, consider the following techniques to improve your sleep hygiene.
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Resist naps during the daytime.
- Limit caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening.
- Follow a bedtime routine.
- Avoid using electronics in bed.
Lack of physical activity is a known contributing factor to insulin resistance. And by incorporating more exercise into your routine, you can help to combat it. Not only that, but regular exercise has also been shown to reduce weight and overall body fat in patients with PCOS.
If you’ve never had an exercise routine before, don’t panic! Even simple things like taking a walk or riding a bike can do wonders for easing PCOS symptoms. Here are a few tips to get started.
- Choose an exercise that you can see yourself looking forward to.
- Find an activity to do with a friend.
- Start by setting small goals and working yourself up from there.
- Listen to your body, know your limits, and don’t beat yourself up over needing to take a day or two off.
When to see a doctor for help with PCOS weight gain
If you are still continuing to gain weight due to PCOS, despite making positive lifestyle changes, it is a good time to speak with a medical professional. This is especially true if you are looking to plan a pregnancy soon and your weight gain is also accompanied by irregular periods.
FAQs on PCOS & weight gain
What is a PCOS belly?
“PCOS belly” is a common name for the belly fat that tends to form around the midsection of PCOS patients. Fat tends to accumulate in this area due to increased androgens levels caused by PCOS.
Can PCOS be cured by losing weight?
No. There is no official cure for PCOS. However, losing weight can help you to better manage PCOS-related symptoms like acne, irregular cycles, and thinning hair. In fact, the National Health Service (NHS) in England estimates that just a 5% decrease in body weight can lead to significant improvements in PCOS-related symptoms.
Can PCOS go away naturally?
There is no research that suggests PCOS can go away naturally or on its own. However, even though there is no cure, it is still possible to manage some of the most frustrating symptoms. Doctors often advise lifestyle modifications as the first line of treatment. If that doesn’t work, medication may be appropriate.