Why focusing on healthy habits rather than weight loss is the most helpful PCOS treatment, according to an expert

Your need-to-knows, as per the research.

PCOS treatment: A healthy woman doing yoga in her living room
(Image credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Your need-to-knows, as per the research.

If you're searching the web for PCOS treatment, chances are, you yourself or someone you know has Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.

The condition affects one in ten women globally, including globally famous celebrities like Victoria Beckham, Daisy Ridley and Rebel Wilson. How does it work? Well, as per the NHS website, it's a hormonal condition that affects how a woman's ovaries function and normally causes irregular periods, unpredictable menstrual cycle phases, excess androgen that presents itself in the form of acne, excess hair, fertility problems and more.

Doctors normally advise patients to ease PCOS symptoms via weight loss - but Rohini Bajekal, nutritionist, board-certified lifestyle medicine professional and co-author of Living PCOS Free, reckons that focusing on weight loss as a sole PCOS treatment is counterproductive and further, not the best way to alleviate your symptoms and the challenges that the condition can pose.

Why? Here, she explains. Don't miss our guides to PCOS supplements, endometriosis symptoms, and coming off the pill, while you're here.

PCOS treatment: Smiling young woman preparing healthy smoothie in kitchen

PCOS treatment: why weight loss isn't necessarily the answer

You'll likely know that PCOS is a complex condition that affects the way your ovaries function, resulting in a wide range of reproductive, metabolic, and psychological symptoms that affect women differently. "It's often simplified as a fertility issue as it is the leading cause of infertility worldwide - however, PCOS and its complications are woefully underrepresented both in scientific research and mainstream conversations," she explains.

Unfortunately, many women are told that losing weight is the only solution to improving their PCOS with little guidance or support - yet the relationship between weight and PCOS is complex, details the expert.

Did you know? 20% of those with PCOS have “lean PCOS," meaning they have a healthy BMI yet still struggle with PCOS symptoms. "In women with excess weight, even modest weight loss (5 to 10 % of body weight) results in restoration of normal ovulatory cycles and improved pregnancy rates in short-term studies, as per a 2003 Crosignani et al study - however, we know that for the majority of people, weight loss is difficult to sustain in the long term," she goes on.

As with most diet fads, they'll fail long-term. Why? Because they don't combine a healthy, sustainable lifestyle with realistic goals or a positive mindset, shares the nutritionist. "Cycles of yo-yo dieting, also known as "weight cycling", can actually lead to increased weight gain in the longer term," she explains. "Weight oscillations also cause hormonal fluctuations which affect sleep cycles."

What is the main PCOS treatment? 

Good question - and one that many experts differ in their opinion on. "PCOS is a condition heavily influenced by our lifestyle — how we eat, sleep, move, stress, interact and so on," shares Bajekal. While many doctors may jump straight to prescribing weight loss, this isn't always helpful or the best way to treat your condition, shares the medical professional.

Why? "All national and international guidelines recommend lifestyle changes to be the first line of management for PCOS, even before medications," she shares - and she reckons that sustainable lifestyle changes that you'll maintain over the course of your life will have a longer-lasting impact than quick-fix fad weight loss plans.

"Recommending weight loss as the only solution to PCOS may cause harm given that women with PCOS are at increased risk of disordered eating and eating disorders, especially binge-eating disorder." 

Keen to ease your own symptoms with PCOS treatment? Try the following rather than jumping into a drastic weight loss programme, shares the expert.

  • Follow a healthy, balanced diet: aim for minimally processed whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, legumes (beans, lentils, tofu, edamame beans, tempeh, peas), fruit, vegetables (especially of the green leafy kind) nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, she recommends
  • Up your plant intake (read our guides to vegan protein sources and following a plant-based diet, here).
  • Move regularly
  • Get adequate (seven to nine hours) sleep
  • Avoid tobacco, excess alcohol and caffeine
  • Consider meditation, mindfulness, psychotherapy or yoga to manage stress levels
  • Avoid yo-yo dieting.

PCOS treatment: Bagel sandwich with avocado, fried egg and side salad on white background

Final thought

While weight loss has been scientifically found to be a good PCOS treatment, weight loss that isn't sustainable isn't the answer and could cause more harm than good, shares the expert.

"Focusing solely on weight loss shouldn't be the goal - rather, it can be far more helpful to focus on lifestyle changes and an overall healthy plant-predominant dietary pattern," she recommends.

Ally Head
Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.