We Ask a Nutritionist: What’s the Best PCOS Diet to Boost Fertility

janine-higbie-salmon

For many women, the obstacles to conception are few. With a little cycle monitoring, good timing, and a bit of luck, you get pregnant. But for a certain subset of women, conception can feel like an uphill battle before you’ve even started.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, also known as PCOS, is a condition that affects 1 in 10 women, and in some estimates, 1 in 8 women. Technically, a woman must meet 2 of the 3 following criteria for an official diagnosis from their OB: 

  • Irregular periods or no periods
  • Higher levels of androgens present in the blood
  • Polycystic ovaries with more than 20 follicles

So what does PCOS have to do with a woman’s fertility potential? Lots actually. It’s responsible for up to 90% of ovulatory disorders and 75% of anovulatory infertility. In other words, women with PCOS often struggle to conceive because they aren’t able to ovulate. 

The science behind the lack of ovulation due to PCOS is complex, but it stems from insulin resistance causing a disruption in normal signaling between the pituitaries (which typically produce testosterone and estrogen) and the ovaries. The ovaries produce follicles—typically lots of them—but the eggs are never released.

Often, women with PCOS who want to start a family seek the help of a fertility specialist or reproductive endocrinologist to stimulate ovulation, but there may be a way to balance your hormones and jumpstart your fertility through a PCOS diet. 

We tapped certified nutritionist and founder of JH Wellness, Janine Higbie, MS, CNS for her insights into the relationship between food, fertility, and PCOS. 

PCOS Diet

You have extensive experience in working with PCOS patients who are trying to conceive in a bustling OB-GYN clinic. What’s the first thing you want your PCOS clients to know?

You are not alone. You may feel that way because PCOS is woefully underdiagnosed. All too often women are struggling in the dark without the support they need during the critical childbearing years. 

A PCOS diagnosis is not an infertility sentence, and there are many healthcare professionals like myself who are ready, willing, and able to help!—Janine Higibie, MS, CNS

How do you help them restore their fertility? 

PCOS manifests in a wide range of symptoms and severity. Many of which can be masked by oral contraceptive pills (OCP).  When women come off the pill as part of family planning, they often realize for the first time that they struggle with irregular cycles, amenorrhea (lack of period), and anovulation. At this point, restoring a normal cycle is paramount, and I do that through nutrition. 

I guide women in a fertility-boosting diet that can improve egg quality and increase chances of conception, a healthy pregnancy, and baby.—Janine Higibie, MS, CNS

You really become part of a woman’s fertility village. How do you collaborate with her OB/GYN and/or Reproductive Endocrinologist to make sure you’re all aligned?

It’s really up to the individual and her physician, but I think communication is critical. I’m always willing to update the physician directly, or go through the client.

Proper nutrition is shown to be beneficial to egg quality, increased rate of pregnancy, and reduced risk of miscarriage in women undergoing fertility treatments.—Janine Higibie, MS, CNS

Let’s talk food. What are the principles of a PCOS diet? 

Due to the connection between PCOS and insulin resistance, a blood sugar balancing diet is essential.  This is achieved by limiting carbohydrates, particularly highly processed foods with flours and sugars, while focusing on lean protein, healthy fats, and fiber and nutrient-rich carbohydrates. However, this is not unique to PCOS and would be a healthy diet for anyone!

PCOS Diet

What are the DIET do’s and don’ts for those with PCOS?

Adequate sleep, stress reduction, exercise, and proper hydration are important for any woman trying to conceive, but especially critical to PCOS patients because of the hormonal imbalances we see.

Do eat these fertility boosting foods:

  • Palm-sized portion of lean organic protein at each meal.  Ideal sources include low-mercury fish, eggs, or legumes.
  • A minimum of two fist-sized servings of veggies at each meal.  “Eat the rainbow” by eating veggies of all colors with a special emphasis on leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables.  
  • Healthy fat each meal. Ideal sources include avocado, olives, olive oil, nut, seeds, and fatty fish
  • Low glycemic carbs like starchy vegetables and whole grains

Avoid these foods:

  • Processed white flour and sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sugars
  • Processed meats and red meat, poultry, or ham in excess
  • Fried foods and trans-fats
  • Alcohol, or at the very least limit this to 1-2 glasses per week.
  • Caffeine with the caveat that green tea can be beneficial for PCOS

The good news is that this scheme contains the micronutrients critical to a developing baby in utero, nutritious breast milk, and for mom’s postpartum mental health and physical healing, so I like to let my PCOS clients know they are getting a headstart in the nutritional department!

What’s ONE thing a hopeful mom with PCOS can do right now to improve her fertility?  

Replace inflammatory, ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks from the diet with healthy fats and protein. This simple swap can make an immediate improvement in PCOS hormonal dysregulation. 

Once these two things become routine, we can introduce another one or two changes.  Consistency is our best clinical tool so my job is to provide realistic and actionable advice. 

What’s your go-to recipe that you love to give your PCOS patients? 

My one pan salmon and veggies dish is a total crowd-pleaser, even amongst the non-PCOS group! Plus, it couldn’t be easier. Find the recipe here.

Looking for professional nutritional support?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, or confused, reach out for personalized support. Connect with Janine here or one of our other nutritionists here. They can help course-correct all of these feelings and support you where needed in your personal health journey.

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