With a surge of interest in natural, wholesome, from-the-earth food, it’s no wonder so many people are trying out the paleo diet. A diet meant to focus on a more natural way of eating, it encompasses real, whole foods, as opposed to processed foods which are common today.
The paleo diet is also gaining a lot of momentum in the PCOS world. A gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free, and sugar-free diet that focuses on real, whole foods, it seems like the perfect fit for PCOS. But is it really? Let’s find out.
Paleo Diet Basics
Essentially, the paleo diet focuses only on foods that could be obtained primarily through “hunting and gathering” – lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It greatly limits foods of modern times, such as processed, man-made foods, as well common farming foods, like dairy, grains, and legumes.
Foods to eat on the paleo diet include:
- Wild-caught fish
- Farm-fresh eggs
- Natural oils – e.g. olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil
- Nuts and seeds
Foods to avoid on the paleo diet include:
- Grains- e.g., oats, wheat, barley
- Dairy products
- Refined sugar
- Legumes – e.g., beans, lentils, peas
- Highly processed foods
In general, the paleo diet focuses on eating food in its natural state as much as possible. You can do this by eating in-season fruits and vegetables, shopping at local farmers markets as much as possible, doing a lot more home-cooking, and using fewer grocery-store short-cuts (like boxed and packaged foods).
Benefits of the Paleo Diet for PCOS
The paleo diet has some great potential benefits for PCOS. Let’s check them out.
While it may not be the case for everybody, many women with PCOS can greatly benefit by limiting gluten. Gluten causes chronic inflammation in those that are intolerant to it, which can lead to heart disease (1). Women with PCOS already experience chronic inflammation, so eating gluten can make it much worse (2).
P.S. Just because you don’t have celiac’s disease, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Many people have gluten sensitivity without even knowing it. In fact, research suggests that as many as 30% of people may have an adverse reaction to gluten (3). The only way to truly tell is to either do a food allergy test (which is expensive and hard to find) or cut out gluten for 30 days and notice if your symptoms improve (this is the best way to check for food sensitivity).
There is a lot of controversy when it comes to PCOS and dairy products. While I won’t cover that extensively here, I will say that, just like gluten, it’s all about what your body can tolerate. Dairy is a food that is linked to high inflammation in those who are sensitive to it. It also contains a hormone called IGF-1 which mimics the hormone insulin. This can be problematic for women with PCOS as we are at a higher risk for insulin resistance (4, 5).
PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility. One study showed that women who ate a lot of low-fat dairy products had an increased risk for anovulatory infertility. Interestingly, women who consumed a lot of high-fat dairy products seemed to have a lowered risk (6).
What it comes down to, like gluten, is the individual. I always recommend that women with PCOS cut out dairy for 30 days and monitor your body’s response. If you do eat dairy, choose organic products and raw if possible.
Processed foods are another cause of inflammation and can wreak havoc on your hormones. The paleo diet focuses only on foods from nature, as opposed to packaged items found in your local grocery store. Avoiding processed foods as much as possible is a great way to promote overall health and hormonal balance.
Variety of Fresh Produce
If you’re following the paleo diet, you’re definitely getting in your daily serving of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, about 90% of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables (7). These foods are imperative to health as they contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and even bioactive plant compounds that can’t be found in other food groups. Plant-based foods are a critical part of a PCOS diet as they help to prevent many diseases that pose an increased risk with PCOS, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes (8, 9).
A Few Drawbacks
While the paleo diet can be a great starting point to getting your hormones balanced and getting on track to a healthier lifestyle, it’s not a diet I would promote for the long-term. Here’s why.
It Cuts out Important Food Groups
While the paleo diet includes a lot of great, healthy food options, it also cuts out many healthy food groups. As I’ve mentioned, you may benefit from reducing gluten and dairy in your diet, but that’s not always the case. It’s important to find out whether or not these foods have an impact on your symptoms before deciding to live without them.
Further, even if you do find improvement in cutting gluten and/or dairy out of your diet, I’m still not a fan of completely shunning any food group. You can generally still get away with having them in your diet, just in a more limited manner.
The paleo diet also cuts out grains and legumes, which are good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Especially if you’re limiting gluten, you will need those grains and legumes to make up for the lack of fiber. They also provide a great source of energy. That said, it is important to limit carbohydrates on a PCOS diet and focus on getting the majority of your carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables and low-glycemic fruits.
It’s Hard to Maintain Overtime
Such a limiting diet is almost impossible to maintain over time. In today’s busy society, it’s not easy to eat straight from the ground or make everything from scratch. While that would be nice, it’s not realistic.
Rather than avoiding all forms of processed foods, I generally recommend avoiding the ultra-processed foods. A few grocery store shortcuts can be a lifesaver and actually make healthy eating easier by buying you more time in the kitchen.
It Is A “Diet”
I am not a fan of “all-or-nothing” diets. They are limiting and they don’t take into account individual differences. Healthy eating is about eating real, whole foods in a manner that is suitable for you. Certainly, there is a lot to learn from diets, such as paleo, keto, Mediterranean, and so forth. I think it’s important to take the beneficial aspects of those diets and apply them in a way that suits you, rather than picking one and following it verbatim.
So, Is Paleo Good for PCOS?
Yes and no. We can certainly take away some healthy practices from the paleo diet. Eating more natural, earth-friendly foods, doing more home-cooking, and filling up on high-quality protein, healthy fats, and lots of fruits and vegetables are important aspects of a PCOS diet. Limiting gluten and dairy may also improve your PCOS symptoms, provided you are intolerant to them.
On the other hand, cutting out grains and legumes, and other food groups can unnecessarily deprive you of important nutrients. A PCOS lifestyle is about balance and healthy choices, not strict limitations.
The paleo diet may be great to try for a month, to clean out your system, balance your hormones, reverse insulin resistance, and get you in the habit of eating lots of fresh produce. You might even benefit from going on a paleo diet a few times per year, just to reset. Beyond that, I don’t recommend a full-time paleo diet for PCOS.
The Paleo Diet: Wrap Up
There are plenty of benefits for PCOS that the paleo diet offers, but there are also unnecessary limitations. It’s important to find your balance and take away what benefits you. While I do not recommend the paleo diet for the long-term, it can be a great starting point for balancing your hormones and resetting your gut.
If you’re interested in trying out the paleo diet as a way to kickstart your health, sign up below for a Free 30 Day Paleo Meal Plan!