Did you know that the term ‘superfood’ originated in the early 20th century as a strategy to market bananas? Since then the term “superfoods” has been used to describe foods with seemingly incredible benefits for certain medical conditions, and PCOS is no different. Let’s find out more about superfoods and whether superfoods for PCOS are fact or fiction.
What is PCOS?
PCOS, or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is an endocrine or hormone disorder, affecting approximately 1 in 10 people with ovaries in the UK.
PCOS displays as a collection of symptoms including; acne, oily skin, lack of or irregular periods, lack of ovulation (anovulation), excess hair growth, insulin resistance, increased testosterone levels and fertility issues.
What are superfoods?
Superfoods is a marketing term for certain foods that have a high content of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial substances. Because of this, they are often touted as being associated with health benefits such as reduced risk of chronic disease or better digestive health.
Superfoods for PCOS: meaningful or marketing?
The term ‘superfoods’ is a great marketing strategy for emphasising the benefits of specific foods. This often leads to a rise in popularity on social media and within restaurants and coffee shops for these desirable foods. It can even lead to the cost of the food being driven up.
Although it is a strategic marketing strategy, there can be truth behind some of the statements on foods being labelled as ‘superfoods’. As nutrition professionals, we are here to translate the scientific research on which they are basing their marketing claims.
Best foods for PCOS
Some foods that have been considered superfoods for PCOS include oats, avocados, cinnamon, oily fish and spearmint. Let’s dive into each food and figure out if the claims are fact or fiction.
Oats are a good source of soluble fibre which means after we eat oats we slowly digest and absorb the nutrients. Fibre holds a crucial role in managing PCOS, offering numerous advantages including stabilising blood sugar levels and reducing cholesterol. It aids in combating insulin resistance and promotes a feeling of fullness for extended periods.
You can also incorporate oats into your week through homemade oat energy balls or flapjacks if you’re not keen on overnight oats or porridge.
Avocados are technically a fruit that contain plenty of monounsaturated fatty acids, particularly oleic acid which appears to have some anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is often associated with PCOS so incorporating avocados may be helpful.
The UK guidelines advise one portion of oily fish per week for the beneficial omega-3 fats properties. Omega-3 fatty acids are the very substance that increases the sensitivity to insulin by producing and secreting anti-inflammatory adipokine and reducing inflammation and proinflammatory cytokines, can also reduce cholesterol absorption.
Omega-3 has many benefits for PCOS including being anti-inflammatory, improving mood, lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, improving egg quality and ovulation and improving NAFLD.
A 2018 study provides evidence that omega-3 fatty acid may be a novel drug for individuals with PCOS and may be recommended for the treatment of PCOS with insulin resistance as well as high cholesterol levels.
Spearmint is a herb in the mint family. It can be steeped into a tea and is often used in PCOS management because there are short-term studies that have found spearmint can significantly decrease the free testosterone and increase LH which can stimulate ovulation.
In a 2009 study, free and total testosterone levels were significantly reduced over the 30-day period in the spearmint tea group that was drinking spearmint tea twice daily.
However, there are no long-term studies and overall mixed results. It is important to remember the study’s methodology included steeping the spearmint tea for 5 to 10 minutes.
Cinnamon is a spice that is considered an insulin sensitiser. There have been some studies carried out specifically looking at the impact of cinnamon on PCOS. The findings include improved insulin resistance, AMH levels, menstrual regularity and cholesterol levels.
In a 2014 study, it was found that menstrual cycles were more frequent in individuals taking cinnamon in comparison to the placebo. Currently, they are using high supplement doses at each mealtime in the research, which is important to bear in mind.
More research is required to understand how much cinnamon is needed to consume for the benefits, but if you like cinnamon then sprinkling it on your food is a low-risk way to add it into your diet.
Key takeaways: superfoods for PCOS
The term ‘superfoods’, although a very good strategic marketing term, can have the misconception that you must be eating the food in high amounts and/or buying it from expensive health food stores. This is not the case, and all of these different types of food can have a place in a balanced diet, whether it be daily, weekly or monthly.
For PCOS, there are certain foods that are high in fibre, are insulin sensitisers or have anti-inflammatory benefits but there are no true “superfoods” for PCOS. A balanced, varied diet is more important.