Everywhere you look today it seems that someone is touting the importance of diet and exercise. We all have heard it over and over. I think that as a society we become immune to the effect diet and exercise really has on our overall health and how we can influence medical problems by making changes in our habits.
A perfect example of a condition that can be controlled by diet is polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS. PCOS is a disorder of metabolism in women that is primarily due to insulin resistance. Women with PCOS may have any combination of: irregular or absent periods, increased hair growth on face/chest, acne, dark skin patches on neck/underarms and difficulty with weight gain. If left untreated it can lead to diabetes, high triglyceride levels and increased risks of heart disease and uterine cancer.
There are many medications that women can take to treat the symptoms of PCOS, but the most effective one targets the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Increasing insulin sensitivity can be readily accomplished with changes in diet and exercise. We are seeing more studies everyday that show the insulin resistance in PCOS can be reversed by a low-carbohydrate diet combined with weight bearing exercise. Multiple studies show that reversing the insulin resistance leads to decreases in the levels of hormones that cause abnormal hair growth and acne. These studies also show that correcting the insulin resistance can restore ovulation, this means normal periods and improved fertility for women who are desiring pregnancy.
There are so many diets out there that it is overwhelming. I like to think of this as a very necessary lifestyle change. Just as a diabetic has to change her eating habits forever, a woman with PCOS should as well. When deciding to embark on a low-carb lifestyle there are a few sweeping changes that make a big difference. First get rid of all the processed simple carbohydrates. Its amazing how much of this we eat without knowing it. This includes white bread, pasta, rice, cereal, chips, cookies, cakes and candy. Bummer. It sounds really hard and it is- at first. Once your palate becomes accustomed to more fresh vegetables you really don’t miss all the bad stuff. A common mistake people make when trying to lower their carbohydrate intake is not eating enough calories so they feel hungry constantly and fail. Eating a salad as a meal is great, but it needs to be a big salad with lots of veggies and protein to give you enough calories to make it through your day. Make sure that you vary what you are eating. Another important change is to make certain you eat a protein rich breakfast before you really get your day going. We are addicted to empty carbohydrate rich granola bars and muffins that are really bad for metabolism. Starting your day out with at least 20g of protein in the morning sets your metabolism for the whole day.
Sometimes having a plan to follow is helpful and there are a lot of different plans you could choose- south beach, sugar busters, glycemic index, atkins, nutrisystem are some examples. The main point of all these is the same. Limited carbohydrates. Once you find one that works you can try adding back in some whole grain carbs very slowly and carefully watching to see how it effects you. Some women tolerate a moderate amount of carbohydrates from fruit or whole grains and some don’t.
A second very important part of reversing insulin resistance is regular weight bearing exercise to build muscle and increase metabolism. We all need aerobic exercise for cardiac health, but we also need to pump some iron to build muscle. Get some weights, a kettle bell, do some push-ups or join a gym. You will see a difference. It won’t make you look bigger to lift weights, muscle burns fat so you will become smaller.
This is a big change in the way you live your life so enlist the help of family or friends. If you can, change what you buy at the store so there is no temptation in you pantry. I also think you should have a day every couple of weeks when you treat yourself. Knowing that you can have a cupcake or some lasagna next week seems a lot better than trying to never have any ever again. It makes the change more sustainable. Don’t get discouraged if you fall off the wagon. Its easy to start over. Like the commercial says: Just Do It.