Do you struggle with PCOS cravings? If you do, you’re not alone!
PCOS cravings, especially intense carb cravings, are something that most of my PCOS clients complain of.
Many women with PCOS cravings feel like they have a lack of self control or willpower when it comes to eating. This couldn’t be more far from the truth. There are physiological reasons why you’re experiencing cravings.
If you’re new here, hi! I’m Alyssa, a registered dietitian who specializes in PCOS. My goal is to make eating well for PCOS easy for you so you can reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
This blog post will dive into what causes PCOS cravings and steps you can take to reduce your cravings.
What Causes PCOS Cravings?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age. Common symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, weight gain, acne, hair loss, and unwanted facial and body hair growth. It’s also one of the most common causes of female infertility (1).
Intense carbohydrate cravings have long been talked about in the PCOS community. In fact, a recent study even explored this and found that the majority of women with PCOS do have food cravings.
While the underlying mechanism or root cause of PCOS remains unknown, there are several factors that are likely at play when it comes to PCOS cravings. The following sections will explore some of these factors.
Insulin resistance causes high levels of insulin since your body requires more insulin to regulate your blood glucose levels (aka blood sugar levels). This causes your blood sugar levels to go down quickly and cause your body to crave carbs or sugar. That’s because your body knows that carbs will raise your blood sugar levels quickly.
Additionally, your current eating behaviors may be contributing to your PCOS carb cravings. Skipping meals or trying to avoid carbohydrates are two big reasons you may eventually have intense carb cravings.
When you go too long without eating or are trying to avoid carbs, your blood sugar levels can become more erratic and drop too low. Your body and brain know that carbs will bring your blood sugar levels up quickly…cue the cravings!
When those cravings hit, we tend to eat really quickly and have large portions of carb-heavy or sugary foods. This creates a blood sugar spike, which signals your body to make excess insulin. And the vicious cycle just continues.
It’s also important to note that eating disorders, or disordered eating patterns, occur at a higher rate in women with PCOS. In particular, binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa seem to be more prevalent in PCOS (3). This could further perpetuate the vicious cycle shown in the infographic below.
We know that PCOS is a health condition caused by a hormone imbalance. The problem is that oftentimes when there’s one hormone out of whack, it can disrupt the sensitive hormone network. Fluctuations in our stress hormones, hunger hormones, or reproductive hormones can increase cravings.
Now that we’ve talked about some common reasons that you may be experiencing cravings, let’s talk about how to actually get some relief from these uncontrollable carb cravings.
How To Reduce PCOS Cravings
The good news is that there are several steps you can take that will help to decrease your cravings today. Let’s dive into some of those action steps.
Include PCOS Friendly Carbs In Your Day
It may seem counterintuitive, but eating carbs can actually help you crave them less. The key is to choose high fiber carbohydrates such as whole grains (such as oats, brown rice, and whole grain breads), legumes, fruits, and vegetables (both starchy and non-starchy vegetables).
These types of carbs are “slow carbs”, meaning they cause a slow increase in your blood sugar level and then a slow decrease in your blood sugar. This will keep you feeling full for longer periods of time.
If you’re wondering about gluten and PCOS, don’t miss this blog post: Gluten & PCOS – Do You Really Need To Go Gluten Free?
Combine Fiber, Protein & Healthy Fats At Meals
When you do have those high fiber carbs, make sure you’re pairing them with a protein source and a fat source. This helps to keep blood sugar levels even more stable.
Some great protein sources for PCOS: chicken, turkey, lean red meat, fish, seafood, tofu, tempeh, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese.
Some healthy fat sources for PCOS: olive oil, avocado, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
For some examples of what this actually looks like in real life application, check out the 7 day PCOS Diet Plan.
Avoid skipping meals or going too long without eating. When you go long periods of time without eating, your blood sugar levels can drop a little too low which triggers your brain and body to crave carbohydrates and sugar because these foods will raise your blood sugar levels quickly.
Most people feel their best eating every 3-4 hours. About 5 hours after a really well-balanced meal, your blood sugar level is going to dip regardless…which can trigger those carb and sugar cravings. Sometimes this may mean that you need to plan to incorporate snacks into your daily routine.
Check out more info on how to make a balanced and satisfying snack here: 20 Delicious & Healthy Snacks.
Sleep can seem so elusive when you have PCOS. Trust me when I say, I get it.
Sleep can be impacted for a number of reasons such as sleep apnea, insulin resistance, circadian rhythm disorders, excessive caffeine intake, or poor sleep hygiene.
The catch here though is that when you don’t get enough sleep or don’t get quality sleep, your hormones will ultimately suffer. Poor sleep can alter hormones such as cortisol, insulin, ghrelin, and leptin. Ghrelin and leptin help to regulate hunger levels. The imbalance of any of these hormones leads to more cravings for unhealthy foods (4).
I know, I know. This probably seems like it might not be related to what you eat but it is!
Stress can have a huge impact on our health, but especially on our hormones. High stress levels can increase cortisol and adrenaline levels (aka our stress hormones). High cortisol levels create a cascading negative effect on many other hormones such as insulin, ghrelin, and leptin.
Additionally, stress can lead to emotional eating and binge eating. Working to find ways to manage your stress with additional coping mechanisms other than food can be helpful in the long term management of PCOS.
Regular exercise can be a great tool in your PCOS management plan. It should come as no surprise that exercise has health benefits, but did you know that it can improve insulin sensitivity? It can also be a great form of stress relief, especially walking or yoga.
Consider Medications or Supplements
Sometimes even despite doing all the right things with your PCOS diet or lifestyle modifications, you still may be experiencing symptoms. In case you need to hear this, there’s absolutely no shame in taking medications to help manage your symptoms.
Metformin is a common medication used in PCOS. It works as an insulin sensitizer and is particularly helpful in lowering insulin resistance. That said, it does come with some digestive symptoms that can be a bit unbearable for some people.
If you don’t tolerate Metformin well, or you’re just looking for a more natural option to manage your symptoms, inositol may be a good option. Research has shown that inositol compares similarly, or better, than Metformin for managing PCOS symptoms – it’s also the most well-researched supplement for PCOS!
To learn more about the benefits of inositol for PCOS, check out this article: 8 Ovasitol Benefits for PCOS (A Dietitian’s Thoughts).
Talk to your healthcare provider about whether medications or supplements would be beneficial for you as part of your treatment plan.
PCOS cravings are a common symptom of PCOS. Carb cravings or sugar cravings are the most commonly discussed cravings. These cravings may be the result of several different factors such as insulin resistance, avoiding carbs or sugar, skipping meals, or other hormone imbalances.
One of the most effective ways to curb cravings is to eat regular meals on a daily basis. At your meals, combine complex carbohydrates with protein and fat to keep your blood sugar levels more stable.
Non-food factors that can also help to reduce cravings include physical activity, stress management, getting adequate sleep, medications, or supplements.
Disclaimer: This is for informational purposes only and not intended to replace personalized medical advice for polycystic ovary syndrome or any other health condition. Talk to your healthcare provider for individualized support and management.