Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, affects millions of women worldwide, and yet few know how to diet properly when they have this disorder. Troop down to the doctor's clinic and you'll likely be given a prescription for birth control pills (to regularise your periods) and Metformin (a drug for diabetics), along with a reminder to "follow a healthy diet," with little explanation on what a "healthy diet" means for PCOS sufferers.
Enter Kym Campbell, one of the most well-known online health coaches who pioneered an alternative PCOS programme under the brand Smart Fertility Choices. The 38-year-old had her own share of struggles with PCOS, the most glaring being her inability to get pregnant.
It wasn't until years of re-evaluating conventional PCOS fertility treatments that she was able to conceive, following a series of natural methods. This was because instead of depending on prescription medicine and fertility options that cost her thousands of dollars, she sought the advice of a Functional Medicine doctor, who taught her a biology–based approach that targets the root cause of the disorder.
Such is the scientific spine that would eventually prop up Kym's alternative diet: "I realised I needed to dive deep into the scientific literature to provide credibility to what I was saying, to help convince others that the effort is worth it." Today, more than the research to back up her thesis, she also has a full team that includes two doctors, including one who holds a master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology, and a doctorate in reproductive biology and environmental health.
Using her own experience, the team developed the 30-day PCOS Challenge and the Beat PCOS 10-Week Programme. Kym spoke with Clozette to share with us some of the basic principles of her diet that has helped thousands of women deal with PCOS and its symptoms.
But first, what is PCOS?
The Mayo Clinic offers the following definition for PCOS: "...a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age. Women with PCOS may have infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or excess male hormone (androgen) levels. The ovaries may develop numerous small collections of fluid (follicles) and fail to regularly release eggs. The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. Early diagnosis and treatment along with weight loss may reduce the risk of long-term complications such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease."
PCOS is the most common endocrinal disorder women from ages 14 to 45 are susceptible to.
Unfortunately, aside from the internal symptoms, PCOS sufferers report a slew of other visible and general symptoms that add to the burden. These are: (visible) weight gain, belly fat, facial hair, tubular breasts, acne, thinning hair, dark spots on the skin, skin tags; as well as (general) fatigue, rage, mood swings, insomnia, anxiety, sugar cravings, and a low sex drive.
The PCOS Diet Plan
In a guide to PCOS available on her website, Kym outlines the PCOS Diet Plan, which is similar to a Paleo diet (with a low ratio of low GI carbohydrates). The diet highlights the following ingredients: meat ("Lots of real meat, and when I say 'lots,' I’m talking about five ounces (150 g) per meal."), fats ("They have to be 'good' saturated fats though [such as] coconut oil or butter; butter from a moo-cow; and lard."), carbs ("Just a little, and low GI, [and] as close to zero sugar as [much as] possible."), and vegetables ("Lots of green leafy vegetables").
She also writes a caveat for inflammatory foods, foods that can drive inflammation in the body and raise the risk of chronic disease. "Cutting out foods you are either allergic to or intolerant to are essential when trying to heal your PCOS through diet," she says.
Learning how to diet properly with PCOS is a powerful way to combat the symptoms of the disorder.
Interested parties usually take the free 30-Day PCOS Diet Challenge to dip their toes in the lifestyle change that is required of the process of healing PCOS. Meanwhile, the Beat PCOS 10-Week Programme is intended to be a comprehensive course that covers all of the most essential lifestyle interventions for treating PCOS: diet, exercise, and stress management.
According to Kim, the longer programme also addresses exercise and stress management, as well as psychological barriers that typically prevent people from making sustainable changes with their diet. She adds that many of the women who participate in the programme describe themselves as "failed dieters" or "emotional eaters." She says: "Through the exercises and activities I give them each week, these people soon find that addressing their relationship to food, rather than their knowledge about nutrition, is actually the piece of the puzzle they’ve been missing all along."
Kym shares that the number one most common mistake people make is that they underestimate just how powerful the right PCOS diet can be in combating all of their PCOS symptoms. "Because PCOS has typically affected my audience — knowingly or unknowingly — for many years before we meet, most people are only just coming around to the idea that this isn’t a medical problem that needs medical solutions," Kym says. "It’s often only through the failure of conventional medicine that people turn to diet and lifestyle and by this stage, their expectations are usually fairly low."
Since she began in 2016, there have been about 150,000 women who have done the challenge. Many of these had previously developed a horrible relationship with themselves which has led to binge eating, abusive self-talk, and other counter-productive behaviours. For cases like this, she offers Intuitive Eating or Emotional Wellness modules to encourage them to leave these behaviours behind.
But having doubts is also something she herself relates to: "I was still in the middle of a drawn-out struggle with infertility. I knew this stuff worked, but I guess I was still a little guilty of underestimating just how powerful diet and lifestyle could be in overcoming PCOS. While I kept practising what I was preaching, it was only when the emotional and financial strain of multiple failed IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation) cycles forced me to 'take a break' that I was rewarded for all my years of hard work."
One of the most common complications of PCOS is infertility.
It was when she found out that she had fallen pregnant to her son on her 35th birthday that she realised how powerful food can be in healing PCOS. "Since that time, I’ve witnessed hundreds of other women in our community achieve equally profound results for themselves," she adds. "I was always enthusiastic about being a health coach, but to have seen such life-changing transformations on a daily basis has truly inspired me to share the good news."
But according to Kym, the best thing anyone can do for themselves, aside from learning how to diet properly, is to recognize that they are the ones responsible for their health and well-being. "Healthcare providers of all stripes are there to serve us, but we need to be the ones taking a leadership role in our recovery," she says. "With this in mind, I believe knowledge is key, so I encourage anyone with a health problem to resolve to read, watch, and listen as much as they can from resources they can trust." With the wealth of information available today, there is no excuse to stay behind. "To be at our best," Kym concludes, "we must always advocate for ourselves."
For more on health and wellness this 2020, we dish out on this year's biggest wellness trends here.