You may have heard buzz about Intuitive Eating lately. It has been mentioned a lot in the health and wellness world as a way to help people heal an unhealthy relationship with food by paying attention to your body’s natural cues. But are intuitive eating and PCOS a good match?
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive Eating follows a specific set of principles in a specific set of steps that reject diet culture and encourage you to listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness signals. Another important principle is the idea that you should “make peace with food” and no longer see any foods as “bad” or “good” but just as different ways of nourishing yourself. IE also encourages followers to stop the cycle of restriction and binging by not restricting any foods. These are all very good and important things when it comes to living a full life not controlled by your food choices.
It’s important to note that it takes a long time to incorporate these principles. (And it is best done working with a certified practitioner). Intuition that has been blasted away by years (or decades!) of dieting takes a lot of time to rebuild. And it may seem impossible for someone with a condition like PCOS, who is battling cravings driven by hormone imbalances and blood sugar swings.
The 10th principle of intuitive eating – gentle nutrition
After you have successfully gone through the first nine steps of the Intuitive Eating method, THEN you’re ready to start learning about gentle nutrition principles that can support your medical conditions.
The problem is, it can take YEARS (if ever) to get to this point, and PCOS can’t wait. The risk factors for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and endometrial cancer are all too real. We can’t put nutrition on the back burner. We have to START here.
Additionally, I feel like this principle is the one that gets lost in the noise on social media. Seriously, from some of the posts out there, you’d think there are people who live on nothing BUT pizza and burgers. Because it’s much more “controversial” to show a picture of a thin dietitian eating a burger than it is to show them eating an apple. (Which they absolutely, 100% do.) It’s also very common to see posts comparing an apple to a cookie and saying they’re “equal.”
Sure… if you’re going to assign morals to a food, then yes, it doesn’t make you a good person if you eat the apple… or a bad person if you eat the cookie.
But I’m not talking about the morals. I’m talking about nutrition facts and scientific evidence.
An apple is a natural, whole food, that contains fiber and nutrients and is beneficial for health.
A cookie (at least one you buy from a store) is a highly processed food containing white flour, white sugar, and possibly other inflammatory chemicals that can worsen your PCOS symptoms.
I’m not going to tell you that it’s just as good for your PCOS if you eat an apple or you eat a cookie. It’s not. I know it. You know it. You can read it right in the nutrition facts.
Does that mean you can never eat cookies if you have PCOS? Hell no! Have a cookie. But eat the apple first. And be sure to balance all of that with plenty of protein to keep your blood sugar steady.
Why conscious food choices matter with PCOS
I actually do use many of the principles of this method with my clients, such as helping them get more in tune with their hunger and fullness signals as opposed to using external cues to guide how much they eat, incorporating satisfaction and pleasure in eating, incorporating joyful movement, and not focusing on weight loss (remember: weight is a SYMPTOM of an imbalanced body… working on weight loss is the wrong way to approach it – you’ve got to address the root causes instead).
However, from a functional medicine perspective, the story is a bit more complicated than that. And from my perspective and the way intuitive eating is widely practiced (in the absence of chronic health conditions, in people who are recovering from an eating disorder), PCOS and intuitive eating are not a good match. IE does not take into account the root causes of your condition and the very real, long-term risks associated with ignoring insulin resistance and hormone imbalances.
Unfortunately, it’s just fact that women with PCOS are much more likely to get diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers than women without the condition. Insulin resistance, inflammation, hormone imbalances and gut imbalances are all worsened by a diet that is made up of highly processed foods. Highly processed foods or ultra processed foods are much higher on the glycemic index (raise your blood sugar more quickly), worsening insulin resistance. They are also highly oxidative (promoting inflammation and imbalances in gut bacteria). This only worsens the root inflammation and gut and hormone imbalances behind PCOS.
The difference between food and “food”
No food should ever be considered off limits when it comes to PCOS. Red meat, fruit, even natural sugars in small amounts are all a-okay (and part of a balanced diet!). All actual, nature-grown foods contain nutrients and can fit in a healthy diet.
The problem is that there is a lot of “food” on the market. Meaning highly-processed, high-sugar, inflammatory, chemical-filled processed foods that are designed to make you want more of them. While these can still fit as an occasional treat, they are actively harming your health.
Most “food” lacks fiber as well as vitamins and minerals (unless they’re sprayed on or replaced, as is the case with white-flour based cereals, breads, and grains). So the only thing they’re providing are empty calories in the form of processed carbohydrates and sugar… usually the last thing you’re looking for when you have PCOS.
And furthermore, there are whole careers built around how to make these “foods” more addictive — like the “artificial flavors” that create the tastes and smells you associate with, say, McDonald’s fries. These “foods” were created to line manufacturers’ pockets by using cheap byproducts like high fructose corn syrup… with absolutely no regard for your health. Sorry, not sorry — but it’s true.
Pros and cons of intuitive eating for PCOS
- Helps you be more in tune with body’s own hunger/fullness signals
- Takes away the idea that there are good or bad foods
- May improve the restriction/binge cycle
- May improve relationship with food
- Equates highly processed “foods” with fresh/natural foods
- Ignores blood sugar balancing diet critical for PCOS
- May not include enough nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory foods
- Can take a long time to master, which may not be possible in the context of hormonal imbalances and insulin resistance common with PCOS
The bottom line on intuitive eating and PCOS
- Build a PCOS-friendly, blood sugar balancing meal (Always include protein, fat, fiber; never eat carbs alone)
- Focus on anti-inflammatory foods (omega 3s, fruit, veggies)
- Do NOT eliminate any foods from your diet – no foods are truly off limits
- Minimize added sugars and inflammatory processed foods (minimize does NOT mean eliminate)
- Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full
- Consider how eating a food is going to make you feel – now and in the short- and long-term future
Life… and a healthy PCOS diet… are all about balance. While I don’t recommend a highly restrictive and prescriptive diet for PCOS, I also don’t think it’s ethical to tell you you can eat anything without it impacting your health negatively.
Instead, I help you learn how to incorporate treats into your diet in a way that minimizes negative effects on your health, while balancing your blood sugar and reducing inflammation. No foods are totally off limits just because you have PCOS… but make sure the majority are actual food and not processed chemicals.
In The PCOS Root Cause Roadmap 6-week program, I help you identify and learn how to treat YOUR root causes of PCOS, without cutting out a single food. Click here to get on the list for next time. Or if you’re interested in working one-on-one with Melissa, you can click here to apply for the waitlist or apply to her PCOS Small Group Coaching Program.
Cowritten by Jeani Hunt-Gibbon.