Many people that I talk to miss or skip meals for various reasons. Common reasons that I hear about usually have to do with being too busy, not leaving yourself enough time, or not being hungry at a particular time of day. Other people miss meals as an attempt to lose weight.
So what’s the problem with this?
When we miss meals or go a really long time in between eating, it can lead to binge eating or eating large quantities of food later in the day. People who don’t eat much breakfast or lunch will often say they eat from the moment they get in from work or school until they go to bed. Also when we train our body to ignore natural hunger feelings, we can slow down our metabolism. This is also true for people who undereat all day long and don’t end up eating a lot later in the day. If you don’t take in enough total energy throughout the day, your metabolism can slow down to protect your body from starving.
If you have PCOS, you also have to take into account insulin resistance, which most people with PCOS have to some degree. This means that the insulin our body produces to help shuttle sugar into all of our cells isn’t working properly. Our body makes plenty of insulin when we eat, but if the insulin isn’t sticking to our cells and letting that blood sugar into the cells, then our blood sugar levels can rise. If we eat a large meal, especially one that is high in carbohydrates, our body will make a lot of insulin. High insulin levels make PCOS symptoms worse. High insulin can cause the ovaries to produce more male hormones which will make skin and hair issues worse. High insulin can also make you feel hungry and crave carbs. It can make you gain weight since insulin tells your body to “store” energy instead of “burn” it.
We humans (and all other living beings) have natural body cycles called circadian rhythms, which help determine when we eat and sleep. These circadian rhythms impact how our body grows and repairs itself, regulates metabolism, and produces hormones.
Our body functions best when we eat (and sleep) around the same time each day. Ideally we are sleeping when it’s dark out and eat during the daylight, but this is not possible for everyone’s schedule. By functioning “best”, I mean that we feel most rested, have energy, feel hungry before meals, feel satisfied after meals, and our immune system is doing a pretty good job of keeping us well.
If you are someone who eats one or two times a day or who doesn’t eat much during the day but eats a lot at night or who never feels hungry, my suggestion is to start by committing to eating three times a day around the same time each day. Most parents are pretty good at putting their kids on a sleeping and eating schedule. We can see that our kids function best with consistent bedtimes and regular meals and snacks. As adults we are better at hiding when we feel lousy, but we might have that cranky kid inside us craving the structure we provide for others or used to have for ourselves.
Where to start?
- Eat something within an hour of waking up in the morning.
- Try to eat lunch and dinner around the same time each day.
- It’s ok to eat just a small amount if you are not hungry. But don’t skip a meal time!
- Don’t worry so much about what you are eating at this point, but instead focus on eating consistently.
- Notice how you feel after eating.
- If you are hungry soon after a meal, the meal was not large enough or might have lacked a macronutrient (carbs, protein, or fat).
- If you are not hungry for the next meal, the earlier meal may have been too large.
- If you are hungry 3 hours after you ate, then add a snack and this is okay!
- Give your body several weeks to adjust to this new eating pattern. Things to notice:
- When are you feeling hungry? Is it different than before?
- How is your energy level?
- Any changes in what you are craving?
- How is your mood?
Working on how you eat can be just as important as what you eat. And changing how we do things is hard! I know that eating consistently often takes more planning and can be more time consuming, but the payoff can mean having more energy and feeling better. And isn’t that what this is all about?
I get it, I get it. We are so busy with all of the obligations we have, whether it’s work, kids, chores, traffic, school, or all of the above. Sometimes it feels like, as women, we have more demands on our time and more pressure on ourselves than ever before.
So you have PCOS, and you just want someone to tell you what to do because you don’t have room in your brain to make more decisions. Perhaps you’ve done some research online, but found confusing, contradictory information. You tried to follow diets but you didn’t like the food, you missed out on your favorite foods, or it was too complicated. Maybe you tried a diet for PCOS, but you didn’t lose weight, or you lost weight and regained it. Perhaps you feel like you failed or you didn’t have the discipline to do what you “needed” to do.
You are not alone. There is a reason why there is a diet industry with new diets to try every year—there is no one diet that is the answer for long term health and weight loss. If there was, everyone would follow it and the diet industry would disappear.
The problem isn’t you, it’s the diets.
If someone just tells you what to eat, there’s a good chance you won’t like everything in the plan or someone in your family won’t want to eat it. Some plans might tell you to eat complicated meals that you don’t know how to prepare, or food that is too boring, or meals that leave you hungry or too full after you eat it. The problem with someone telling you exactly what to eat is that it doesn’t take into account your unique preferences and lifestyle. And if you don’t like the food or feel deprived, you are not going to stick with it.
So what’s a busy lady with PCOS supposed to do?
First take a deep breath. To use a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Making lasting changes to your lifestyle takes time. We can’t just flip a switch and suddenly do everything differently for the rest of our lives. When making changes to how you eat and your relationship with food, it’s best to go slowly and just make a few changes at a time.
The first step is to get off of the diet train. Diets are often damaging psychologically and physically, especially if you have PCOS, because they teach you not to trust your body’s hunger and fullness feelings. We feel our best when we listen to our bodies. Listening to and trusting your body can take practice if you are not used to it.
Here are a few other tips to get you on the right track to improve your PCOS symptoms. While there is no PCOS-specific diet, you can improve your symptoms by making some changes to how and what you eat. I recommend that you start with one or two goals and then add a new goal only after you feel comfortable with previous changes.
- Eat something with carbohydrates and protein every 3-5 hours you are awake. Click here for snack ideas.
- Try to make half of your plate fruits and especially vegetables at lunch and dinner. (Bonus if you can do breakfast, too!)
- Limit regular consumption of sugary drinks since they cause your insulin to spike, make symptoms worse, and lead to sugar crashes.
- Work in some splurge foods so you don’t feel deprived.
- Start paying attention to how hungry and full you are.
- Start working in some movement that you enjoy, regularly.
In future blogs, I will share more ways to help manage your PCOS symptoms, improve fertility and your overall health with nutrition and lifestyle changes.
If you would like to work with me for individual nutrition counseling, I would love to help you!
Hello friends! Thank you for reading my first blog. Since I’m working with clients who have PCOS, I thought I would start by describing what it is exactly.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine disorder which affects around 10% of women. It is often just thought of as something that affects women of reproductive age, but it does impact women even past menopause. Women with PCOS have some combination of high levels of androgens (male hormones) and insulin resistance which results in different symptoms for each person.
Two of the following symptoms need to be present in order to be diagnosed with PCOS:
- inconsistent and/or lack of ovulation (oligo/anovulation)
- increased male sex hormones (hyperandrogenism)
- presence of “string of pearls” cysts on ovaries (polycystic ovaries)
Just because you don’t have cysts on your ovaries, doesn’t mean you don’t have PCOS!
Excessive male hormones can cause hair growth on face and body (hirsutism), male patterned hair loss, and acne. Insulin resistance cause weight gain, abdominal weight gain, difficulty losing weight, carbohydrate cravings, hypoglycemia, and darkening of some parts of your skin (especially around the neck).
Women who are diagnosed with PCOS are not usually surprised (see symptoms), but it often takes a long time to get diagnosed. It’s really common for teenagers with irregular periods to go on birth control to “fix it” without a proper diagnosis. Years can go but and they only get a diagnosis when they are trying to get pregnant. Other women have regular cycles and then gain weight out of nowhere. Most women I’ve met with PCOS always knew something was a bit off for them. The actual diagnosis is so helpful in order to takes steps to improve these symptoms and overall health.
Why did it happen to you (and me)? Genetics. It tends to run in families (but not always). Some research suggests exposure to elevated testosterone in the womb and can trigger it. The truth is that a lot more research needs to be done on this disorder because it’s not really well understood. Bottom line – it’s not your fault.