What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine (hormonal) condition worldwide affecting at least one in 10 women and people assigned female at birth. However, three quarters of those with PCOS are never diagnosed. Common symptoms ranging from irregular or absent periods, acne, excess facial and body hair, scalp hair loss, anxiety, infertility, sleep disturbances, disordered eating, excess weight gain and insulin resistance, all of which have a negative impact on quality of life. There is no “cure” for PCOS, but the good news is that simple lifestyle changes can often be really effective at helping you manage PCOS symptoms in both the short term and longer term.
How can diet affect PCOS symptoms?
PCOS is characterised by low-grade inflammation, as evidenced by raised levels of inflammatory markers (such as IL-6, homocysteine and C-Reactive Protein). It is therefore key to choose foods that reduce inflammation such as fibre-rich foods that are rich in antioxidants. These include berries, dark leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flax seeds which are high in omega-3 fats, and spices such as turmeric and cinnamon. On the other hand, it is best to reduce or avoid foods that increase inflammation, oxidative stress, and insulin resistance, such as ultra-processed foods, barbecued meats, processed red meat, fried foods, refined grains and sugary foods. These are often high in advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that damage tissues, including the ovaries, and are linked to fertility issues and chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, as well as in the development and progression of PCOS itself.
How does processed meat affect PCOS?
Processed meat is any meat that has been transformed through one or several of the following processes: salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified processed red meat as a group 1 carcinogen. Processed meats are high in nitrites and sodium, which contribute to high blood pressure, which people with PCOS are at greater risk of. Given the higher risk of long-term conditions if you have PCOS, such as gestational diabetes, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, womb cancer and increased cardiovascular risk factors, making dietary changes early is advisable.
What to eat instead of processed meat?
If you love the taste of processed meat, why not try a healthier plant-based alternative by looking for recipes such as aubergine bacon, soya-based sausages, or other plant-based meat alternatives. These can be especially helpful for some people as they can provide familiarity in terms of texture and flavour, are convenient to prepare and are often fortified with key nutrients such as B12. However, some of these can still be high in sodium and saturated fat (although far less than processed meat) so I recommend filling your plate with whole food sources of plant protein such as beans, lentils, tofu and tempeh the majority of the time. These are also packed with fibre and other beneficial plant nutrients, as well as being kinder to the planet and animals.
If you have PCOS, avoiding processed meat from your diet makes sense. By doing so, you will reduce inflammation and also avoid the increased risks of cancer and other health issues associated with this food group. On the other hand, eating predominantly whole plant foods helps to reduce this chronic low-grade inflammation that is harmful to our body in the longer term. A predominantly plant-based diet also promotes healthy gut bacteria, reduces inflammation and oxidative stress, normalises blood sugars, and lowers insulin resistance, helping you manage your PCOS symptoms.
Eating Better’s ‘It’s time to act on processed meat’ considers the health impacts of processed meat and highlights the need for public sector caterers and health organisations to focus efforts on reducing processed meat consumption in the UK.