Thanks to brave women like Lena Dunham and Padma Lakshmi, women's health issues like endometriosis have finally been given some much-deserved media attention. Now, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is also making it into the headlines, after Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley opened up about her struggles with both endometriosis and PCOS.
As someone who once suffered from the devastating effects of PCOS, I'm thrilled to see influential women speaking out. Their stories hit home for many reasons. As I explain in my book WomanCode, I experienced the same agonizing acne as Ridley—not to mention weight gain, sleeplessness, depression, and more. I also was able to successfully reverse my hormonal imbalance the same way she's finding relief: through food.
Ridley proudly displayed her gorgeous, mud-masked face with a caption alluding to the dietary changes that have made a significant dent in her symptoms—namely cutting out dairy and sugar. For some women, nixing these two notorious endocrine disruptors can help tremendously. But what if you've already completely cut milk products and sweets from your diet and you're still experiencing the pimples, messed-up periods, extra pounds, and hair loss associated with PCOS?
Before I made it my mission to fix my hormones and help other women get back on track, I had no idea that some of the "healthy" foods I was consuming were actually making my problems worse. And I see the disbelief on my clients' faces every day when I break the news that some of the hyped-up health foods they've been dutifully consuming are actually sabotaging their best efforts to overcome PCOS symptoms.
Here are the "healthy" foods that I recommend women with PCOS avoid:
1. Raw kale
Need a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor? Most women do. After all, kale is often hailed as the superfood of all superfoods—heck, even Beyoncé loves it! But when eaten raw, cruciferous veggies contain goitrogens that actually suppress thyroid function, which contributes to PCOS.
If you're going to go raw, opt for celery, chard, romaine lettuce, or beet leaves instead. But if kale, cauliflower, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts are what your heart desires, do some sautéing with a little coconut oil before digging in.
This is a common substitute in my clients' diets, and the intention behind the swap is always so good—they've ditched dairy and stocked up on soy milk in an effort to alleviate their hormonal symptoms. But—surprise—because it contains "phyto" or plant estrogen, soy acts like estrogen in the body.
But even though it mimics your natural hormone, soy isn't identical to your body's estrogen, and eating too much of it confuses your body into thinking it has enough real estrogen in supply. This signals your endocrine system to slow down estrogen production, subsequently slowing the production of luteinizing hormone (LH), and effectively shutting down ovulation.
If you're cutting out sugar (good for you!), you may be swapping in natural sweeteners like stevia. It's important to know, however, that historically, stevia has been used to prevent pregnancy. The research is limited, and if you're not hormonally sensitive, small amounts of stevia won't likely have an effect on your fertility or cycles. But if you have PCOS or another hormonal imbalance, it's best to err on the side of caution and choose a different sweetener, like honey or coconut nectar.
4. Red meat
Many of my clients with PCOS have been told to follow a meat-heavy Paleo diet, but in my experience, this isn't the best option. High protein intake causes a decrease in the production of sex hormone bonding globulin (SHBG), a protein in the body that PCOS sufferers need to bring down testosterone levels.
Paleo is problematic for another reason: It involves cutting out carbs, which can be a bad idea for PCOS sufferers, who need glucose to help the thyroid function. Healthy carbs like quinoa and brown rice supply this glucose that's also essential for healthy pituitary function.
5. "Cooling" foods
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) separates food types into "cooling" and "warming" categories. According to this philosophy, women with PCOS need to counteract the "damp," "stagnant" state of their reproductive organs with "warming" or "yang" foods like cinnamon, which stabilizes the blood sugar and helps support ovulation.
I recommend avoiding "cooling" foods like cucumber, mint, and spirulina, which, according to TCM, contribute to the cooling of the reproductive organs.