now enrolling for the love food again program! transform your relationship with food and stop feeling like your appetite – and body – are the enemy
 

How to Individualize Intuitive Eating for PCOS

by | Apr 19, 2024

If you have PCOS, it’s possible your doctor just gave you a couple of prescriptions and told you to come back when you wanted to get pregnant. It’s also possible you heard that you needed to lose weight, cut carbs, or go keto. There is a lot we still don’t know about PCOS. And some of the things that nutrition and PCOS experts do know are not making their way into the doctor’s office – yet. 

In the last article in this series, I explained why weight loss is so hard with PCOS, even if you feel like you have a great plan in place. This article is here to explain how to think about intuitive eating specifically for PCOS. If your relationship with food is on the rocks, but you know you want to take care of your wonderful body and misbehaving ovaries, read on. 

Intuitive Eating, Briefly

Intuitive eating is a way of eating that taps into your inner body cues to guide you on what, when, and how much to eat. It is a self-care framework that takes the emphasis off weight as the central indicator of health and places it on your health behaviors, lab work, and overall well-being. 

Intuitive eating is the anecdote to “just lose weight”. It is both a set of guiding principles and a process of healing your relationship with food. There are 10 principles in the intuitive eating framework that should be interpreted kinda loosely and individualized for each person’s goals and health.

Intuitive eating can help with PCOS because it helps you find a balanced, calm, and healthy way of eating. It can help you tune out unhelpful, biased, and incorrect nutrition and weight loss advice. If you have a history of disordered eating or you’ve already tried 1000 ways to lose weight, intuitive eating can be a life-changing tool. And I’m not being dramatic. 

It is important, however, not to treat intuitive eating as a new set of rules to follow or as total food anarchy. If you’re brand new to intuitive eating, start with understanding the overall system. Maybe read the book. Consider doing the Intuitive Eating workbook

Each person will want to move through the steps differently and with intention. Read this post for my full take on intuitive eating in general

Letting Go Of The Goal of Weight Loss

PCOS makes weight loss extremely difficult, often impossible due to insulin resistance. But this is quite hard to wrap our heads around due to diet culture. Many folx try over and over to lose weight, only to have it backfire, potentially leading to binge eating, worsened body image, anxiety, and depression. 

This article is not the one that goes into depth about what PCOS is and why diets are not the answer to hormone dysfunction. Read my explanation of weight loss and PCOS here

As a HAES dietitian who is committed to doing no harm, I have seen first hand with my clients over the past 8 years that diets don’t work and that people need sustainable nutrition solutions to help them eat in healthy, balanced ways. Not more bs. 

For all of these reasons, healing your relationship can be so helpful in your PCOS healing journey. 

Why Intuitive Eating Helps With PCOS

With PCOS, there are a few main diet and lifestyle targets we want to focus on. 

  • Balancing blood sugar
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Reducing stress response

All three of these can be addressed with diet and lifestyle. 

Intuitive eating can be used for anyone, including those with type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, and PCOS. And despite what some people (uninformed people) may think, it is not true that intuitive eating means eating whatever you want, whenever you want, with no care for nutrition or health.

The ten principles of intuitive eating are: 

  1. Ditch the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Reject the food police
  5. Find satisfaction
  6. Feel your fullness
  7. Honor your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Find joyful movement
  10. Gentle nutrition

It teaches you to eat balanced, nutritious meals without shame tactics, unnecessarily rigid rules, and morality. 

If you have PCOS, the intuitive eating process doesn’t need to look much different than anyone else, but there are some keys I want you to remember. And just like everyone, working on accepting your body and taking the focus off weight loss, is essential.  

Blood Sugar, Inflammation & Stress with PCOS

To improve PCOS symptoms, we want to balance blood sugar and reduce inflammation. As I’ve discussed, restrictive dieting doesn’t help with either of those things, but neither does nutritional chaos. 

When I’m working with someone who wants to heal from chronic dieting but also needs to work on their diet, we start with the basics. 

The worst thing for blood sugar is inconsistent eating – not eating enough all day and then binging at night. So, we can to get underneath chaotic eating patterns. 

Eat enough every day. Eat real meals and stop trying to eat the absolute minimum. Make peace with food and feed yourself unconditionally. This should improve or even stop binge eating, especially at night, if it’s present. 

If it doesn’t there are likely some underlying emotional reasons for your binge eating – this would be normal. You can reach out for support if that is available to you right now, or keep working on honoring your emotions. 

After a couple weeks (or months – we’re all different), we work on tweaking meals and snacks to support blood sugar and inflammation. That said, just eating enough during the daytime hours (and not having all your calories after 4 pm) goes a long way toward improving these already. So you’re halfway there. 

If you want a downloadable guide on how to use Intuitive Eating with PCOS, check this out.

PCOS Inflammation

A word about inflammation – dieting is PRO-INFLAMMATORY, especially for people with PCOS and hormonal difficulties. Weight cycling causes your body’s natural anti-inflammatory processes to work less effectively. 

The best thing you can do for your body’s inflammation is to heal your relationship with food so you can eat balanced, regular meals each and every day. Then, start adding in anti-inflammatory foods, behaviors, and thought patterns into your life, as I’ve laid out below. 

Here are some places to start: 

Honor your hunger with PCOS

Going too long in between meals can cause blood sugar swings. It can also cause you to be ravenous in the afternoon or at dinner, which sets the stage for overeating or eating foods that you didn’t exactly plan for. 

Try and eat three meals a day and at least one snack, maybe 2. These meals need to include carbs, protein, fat, and ideally, fiber. Pay attention to your hunger signals and eat enough regularly. You don’t want to let yourself get too hungry, where you’re cranky and irritable, at risk of binging, and can’t think straight enough to cook what you have in the fridge.

Eat to manage Carb cravings

Intense carb cravings are a common manifestation of PCOS. This is hard enough to manage as is, but if you’re trying to eat low carb, or restricting in general, you’re going to crave more of what you’re not getting. So having intense carb cravings in the afternoon can be improved by eating enough carbs, along with fat and protein, at all of your meals. 

Repeat after me. I deserve breakfast, lunch, snack, & dinner. Not the bare minimum. Enough to satisfy me. 

Eat breakfast, even if it’s small

With the sleep disturbances that are common with PCOS, cortisol can be high in the morning, making breakfast difficult and afternoon snacking even more tempting. But you do still need to eat breakfast if you have PCOS

Eating breakfast does a lot to help PCOS symptoms: 

  • levels out your blood sugar during the day
  • reduces afternoon and late night carb cravings 
  • helps reduce binge eating in the evening 
  • reduces stress and cortisol response from underating
  • Reduces cardiovascular risk 
  • Improvise fertility!

Lots of good stuff. If you have a hard time with your appetite in the morning, find a couple small things that you can do. Oatmeal is a great PCOS breakfast, but here are some other simple ideas to help you also. 

Be kind and gentle with yourself

Just as stress can cause your hormones to be out of whack, self-compassion can settle your nervous system and return you to a state of calm. According to Dr. Kristen Neff, the leading self-compassion researcher, talking kindly to yourself can directly lower your cortisol response. How cool.

There is a major misconception in our culture that shaming or criticizing yourself will cause you to make a change, lose weight, and do better. Real change happens when we are kind to ourselves and accept our humanity. Here are a couple of ideas for bringing more self-compassion into your daily life:

  • notice when negative self-talk arises in your thoughts
  • use soothing self-touch, like putting your hand on your heart or a relaxing scalp massage
  • Use a loving mantra to remind yourself you are doing the best you can – something like “My body is doing the best it can for me every day”, or “I trust myself”.

Prioritize good sleep

Most people need between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Our busy lives can make this hard, but it is important to prioritize your sleep hygiene. This is especially important for PCOS as it helps regulate your hormones, improves appetite, and gives you the energy you need. 

Limit alcohol, especially in the hours right before bed, turn off electronic devices, and try meditation or calming music. My personal favorite is this relaxing body scan for sleep on Insight Timer.

And if you’ve tried everything and still have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, talk to your doctor – and ask for the same solution they would give a thin person coming in for the same problem. Weight stigma is common for sleep issues, so you’ll need to advocate for equal care. If you need more suggestions with this, check this out.

Explore your relationship with stress

I know stress is a tough nut to crack. But it is important. Make a list of the things that are causing you stress in your life.No judgement allowed, just be honest and write everything down. 

Next, highlight the things that you actually have control over. Chances are it’s about half, maybe less. Pick one of those things, the one that calls to you the most, and consider what you might need. Do you need better boundaries? Less responsibilities? Do you need support from a professional who can help? 

I know that investing in therapy or help with your eating issues can be costly. But if that investment is possible for you, it can save you money down the road. 

Integrate low intensity exercise

Exercise helps your body manage insulin and blood sugar. High intenity exerise, although heralded by diet culture as “the way”, can be stressful on the body, and often is, espeically for folks who are doing it way too often. 

Women are all different. Some people are able to run marathons and train like hell and can keep their hormones balanced. But other women cannot handle this amount of intense exercise. For the most part, 3-5 days of gentle exercise, where you can still talk and breathe normally is a good measure. 

Walking, yoga, pilates, swimming, dancing, rowing. There are lots of good options. Just get moving and don’t overdo it. Be mindful not to get caught in the trap of “not enough”. Just banish those words from your mind. 

Gentle Nutrition: Fiber, Carbs, Fat, Protein

Once you’re eating enough throughout the day and any disordered eating is improving, you can start tweaking your diet to include more micronutrients like antioxidants, protein, and fiber. 

Your diet does matter. That is one thing that often gets confused with intuitive eating, or a non-diet approach. Intuitive eating is not food anarchy. It is gentle, mindful nutrition.

Increase the good fats in your diet like nuts, fish, avocados, and flax seed oil. Get plenty of fiber in your diet. Eat fruit, vegetables, and my favorite – beans. Eat a savory breakfast half of the week or so, with eggs and/or avocado.

If you are at the beginning of your intuitive eating journey, these suggestions may be triggering. 

That’s ok – you can get there eventually. It may be too soon to do this step. Just be patient and work through giving yourself unconditional permission and banishing the food police. Reach out for help or with questions if you aren’t sure if you’re ready.

Here are some meal ideas: 

Breakfast: 

  • 2 eggs, 1 slice whole grain toast, ½ avocado
  • ½ cup whole fat yogurt, ¼ cup granola with nuts and seeds, sliced fruit 
  • Old-fashioned oats with walnuts, blueberries, and a drizzle of maple syrup 

Lunch: 

  • Tuna sandwich with tomatoes, onions, and lettuce with sliced apple
  • Rice, rotisserie chicken, sliced cucumber and tomato with soy dressing
  • Snack plate with lunch meat, sliced cheese, fruit, pickles, hummus, veggies. 

Snacks: 

  • String cheese and grapes
  • Peanut butter pretzels and sliced apple
  • Pita chips with hummus and pickles

Dinner: 

  • Red curry with tofu, veggies, coconut milk, and rice
  • Pasta with shrimp, zucchini, and tomatoes
  • Baked catfish with collard greens, parmesan, and black-eyed peas (current fave) 
  • Bone-in chicken thighs with sweet potato and side salad

There are countless ways to tweak these ideas to your liking or come up with new ideas. 

To Sum Up, Using Intuitive Eating With PCOS Is Smart

I hope this has been helpful in reminding you that you should not try a restrictive diet to heal your hormones, especially if you have a history of disordered eating, chronic dieting, and weight cycling. There are non-restrictive ways to improve your hormones, your health, and your relationship with food.

If you have PCOS, or another reproductive health disorder and want non-diet, holistic nutrition guidance, reach out for help. I offer one-on-one nutrition counseling for disordered eating, chronic health conditions, and body image.

You can most certainly improve your PCOS symptoms and live a life with food freedom and confidence. 

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, body image, women’s reproductive health, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps women+ find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her practice, values, and experience here.

Ready to get started?

Book a free discovery call

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like…

Emily Van Eck sitting on the couch smiling

Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, intuitive eating coach, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I focuses on exploring intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, the complex arena of body image and feminism, anti-oppression, and all the ways these things intersect. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, and our desires, and eat really, really well. 

Categories

Sign up for Lunch & Liberation

A weekly story on food, cooking, bodies, feminism, equitable healthcare, and crispy, scrumptious ways to center pleasure in your eating life

image of a woman in a bikini with her hands in the air. A banner says "learn to thrive in a messed up system".

Sign up for Lunch & Liberation, A Feminist Take On Food, Health, and Bodies.

 

A weekly story to inspire you to nourish yourself well, reject dieting, and listen to your perfectly imperfect body. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This