Women, what do your ovaries have to do with belly fat?
A lot… if your ovaries have cysts.
PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) is a hormone disorder characterized by:
- Cysts on the ovaries
- Insulin resistance
- Elevated male hormones
As the most common hormonal problem for women of childbearing years, PCOS sets up a hormonal storm that encourages belly fat weight gain.
Fortunately, an improved diet along with a few lifestyle changes can improve hormonal imbalances associated with PCOS to stop and reverse your growing belly.
You can help your hormones work in harmony by following these…
6 Steps to Losing Belly Fat with PCOS
- Choose Slow-Digesting Carbs
- Eat a High-Fiber Diet
- Avoid Dairy
- Cut Processed Foods to Balance Omega-3 & Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- Exercise, but at a low-intensity level
- Control Stress
I will discuss how you can add each of these solutions into your daily routine later in the post (jump to the PCOS and Losing Belly Fat section here).
But first, let’s look at how PCOS and belly fat are linked.
Why PCOS Causes Belly Fat
(To watch this video on YouTube, click here PCOS and Weight Gain Video)
You’ve heard of the one-two punch?
Well, with PCOS and belly fat, it’s more like the one-two-three-four punch.
To understand why you struggle with belly fat, we need to take a look at what’s going on inside your body.
Increased Male Hormones
While it might seem odd, it’s normal for a woman to have a small amount of male hormones in her body. You make some of them in your ovaries and adrenal glands, and others in your fat and skin cells.
In the proper amounts, the female body responses well to testosterone and other male hormones as they help with sex drive and vitality.
With PCOS, the level of male hormones is elevated for unknown reasons. These higher amounts screw up a woman’s menstrual cycle and make her break out in pimples like a high schoolboy.
They also make the woman develop traits that we typically reserve for males, namely facial hair growth and “male-pattern weight gain” (a.k.a. belly fat).
Most women with PCOS also have insulin resistance, which is a condition that prevents insulin from doing its job.
Think of insulin as the janitor hormone. Its job is to sweep excessive sugar out of your blood and carry it to your cells where it can be used or stored as energy.
In a healthy, non-insulin resistant body the cells happily accept the sugar that insulin brings them.
But, in an insulin-resistant body, the cells ignore the insulin. Insulin stands outside the cell ringing the cell’s doorbell, but the cell never opens up.
Your body’s response is to make more insulin in an attempt to force the cell open. This flood of insulin works, but you’re left with chronically high insulin levels in your blood.
High insulin levels are a disaster for the PCOS woman trying to lose weight.
- Elevated insulin levels cause your ovaries to make too many male hormones. As we learned above, increased male hormones = increased belly fat.
- Insulin is a fat-storing hormone, so when it’s chronically high, your body stores fat like a bear preparing for hibernation.
- Because your insulin-resistant cells can’t get their energy source (i.e. sugar), your body thinks you’re low on energy, so it boosts hunger and cravings to get you to eat more high-energy carbs.
Cortisol – The Stress Hormone
When you’re under constant stress, your adrenal glands stay busy…too busy.
Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys where they make hormones that help you deal with stressful situations, the main one being cortisol.
Cortisol is known for making fat, particularly at your belly where fat cells have four times the cortisol receptors than fat elsewhere on your body.
Cortisol helps you prepare for stress by dumping sugar (glucose) into your blood, so you have readily available energy to deal with the threat or perceived threat.
This rise of blood sugar is hard for your PCOS body to handle due to the insulin resistance.
The sugar dump also depletes your energy stores, so your body kicks up hunger and cravings to get you to eat more energy (i.e. calories).
Cortisol is a bossy hormone.
It easily overpowers and interferes with the function of other hormones like your thyroid hormones and progesterone.
Your thyroid hormones run your metabolism and progesterone calms you down, so when you’re pumping out cortisol due to stress, your metabolism and mood suffer.
Fat Cells Create More Fat
PCOS and weight gain is a tangled mess.
As your belly fat grows as a result of increased male hormones, insulin resistance, and increased cortisol, the fat makes more fat.
Your fat cells make estrogen either directly or by converting testosterone to estrogen with the help of an enzyme called aromatase.
This extra estrogen tips your hormonal balance toward estrogen dominance, which is a condition in which estrogen overpowers the other female hormone known as progesterone, which is typically low in women with PCOS.
The symptoms of estrogen dominance? Estrogen dominance increases cravings for sweets and weight gain. ~sigh.
PCOS and Losing Belly Fat
To combat belly fat caused by PCOS, you need to win over your hormones by eating better, moving properly, and de-stressing. Here’s how to do it.
1. Choose Slow-Digesting Carbs
Your best approach for fast results is to target your insulin resistance problem. This is done by balancing your blood sugar and insulin.
All of the carbohydrates you eat break down into sugar in your intestines and that sugar is then sent to your bloodstream.
Slow-digesting carbs slowly drip sugar into your blood for a nice stable rise and fall.
Fast-digesting carbs make a beeline for your bloodstream, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar and insulin followed by a crash.
You want to avoid fast-digesting carbs which I identify as the 3 C’s and 3 P’s.
Fast-Digesting Carbs to avoid:
Instead, go for carbs that are harder to break down and therefore take more time to absorb into your bloodstream.
Slow-Digesting Carbs to include in your diet:
- Whole grains
- Brown rice
Focusing your carbohydrate intake on these higher quality carbs is always a sound practice. It will not only help reverse insulin resistance, but it can also reduce the male hormones in your system by 20%. (1)
2. A High-Fiber Diet is Best for Losing PCOS Belly Fat
Eating a high-fiber diet helps you capitalize on the belly-flattening benefits you get from eating slow-digesting carbs.
Fiber is a type of carb that resists digestion. It keeps your digestive system busy, which slows the digestion of everything in your stomach.
Fiber also helps your body take excess testosterone out of circulation and excrete it, which brings your male hormone levels down. (1)
For PCOS and losing belly fat, aim high when it comes to your fiber intake. Try to reach 40 grams of fiber each day. To put that into perspective, the average person gets about 15 grams of fiber per day.
[Need help with your diet? My Freedom Weight Loss Coaching Program includes meal plans that are high in fiber and slow-digesting carbs. Learn more about the program by clicking the link.]
Only plant foods contain fiber, so make sure your diet includes the following…
- Certain whole grains (whole oats, barley, bulgur, rye, quinoa)
As a bonus, these high-fiber foods contain vitamins and minerals that help with PCOS and losing belly fat, specifically…
- Zinc, which helps to normalize male hormones in the female body. Zinc is found in plant foods like spinach, green beans, beans, and seeds
- Chromium, which improves insulin sensitivity. You’ll find chromium in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
3. Avoid Dairy for PCOS and Losing Belly Fat
According to Dr. Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Cure, dairy foods have been shown to have an inflammatory food effect on the body which can drive up male hormone levels in women with PCOS.
For women with PCOS to lose belly fat, it’s best to cut dairy foods, including milk and cheese.
4. Cut Processed Foods to Balance Omega-3 & Omega-6 Fatty Acids
To be healthy, your body needs a balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids.
In a simplistic explanation, Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory whereas Omega-6s are inflammatory.
Before processed foods were a thing, balancing these fatty acids was easy.
But because processed foods are heavy in Omega-6 Fatty Acids, and the Standard American Diet (SAD) contains so many processed foods, our fats are out-of-whack.
Women with more Omega-6 than Omega 3 tend to have higher than normal levels of male hormones, which, as we’ve learned, encourages belly fat. (1)
To rebalance your fats, you need to avoid processed foods and increase your intake of Omega-3s.
Processed foods are packaged foods. You want to avoid the ones with unhealthy fats listed on their nutritional facts, namely hydrogenated oils, trans fats, and vegetable oils.
Foods high in Omega-3s include:
- Fatty fish (i.e. mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, wild salmon)
- Raw Nuts and Seeds (i.e. walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds)
- Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements
5. Exercise to control PCOS Belly Fat – Go Low
A low-intensity exercise, like yoga or walking, will improve insulin resistance in a woman with PCOS looking to lose belly fat.
High-intensity exercises, like sprints and HIIT, are looked at as physical stress by your body, which causes an increase in the cortisol (a.k.a. The belly-fat-producing stress hormone).
6. Control Stress
Emotional stress, like physical stress, increases the production of cortisol, which makes it easy for your body to make belly fat.
PCOS women with belly fat to lose need must down the dial on stress. (See my post on Worries Every Dieter Feels.)
Effective stress relievers include:
- Human Contact. Reaching out to a friend can take the edge off of the stressful situation.
- Meditation or Prayer. Research shows that just a few minutes of quiet reflection can reduce the negative effect of stress on the body.
- Movement and Stretching. A short walk or a few yoga poses, help bring your body and mind back into balance.
- Breathe. According to experts from Santosha Yoga Institute, yoga and meditation can prevent stress-induced food binges and appetite spikes
Conclusion: PCOS and Losing Belly Fat
PCOS is a common hormonal imbalance that affects many women during their reproductive years.
Insulin resistance, increased male hormones, increased cortisol, and complications within the fat cells combine to create a perfect storm for weight gain, particularly in the belly.
A woman with PCOS can win over her hormones by moving properly, de-stressing, and most importantly, eating better.
Focus your diet on slow-digesting carbs, and aim to reach 40 grams of fiber each day. Avoid belly-building foods, like sugar, refined carbs, and processed foods with unhealthy fats.
A diet plan that meets all of these criteria is found in my Freedom Weight Loss Coaching Program.
- Gottfried, S. (2013). The hormone cure: Reclaim balance, sleep, sex drive, and vitality naturally with the Gottfried Protocol. New York, NY: Scribner.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome. (n.d.). Retrieved October 01, 2016, from https://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/polycystic-ovary-syndrome.html
About the Author
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.