Diet, exercise essential for teens with PCOS and weight gain

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can lead to obesity, diabetes and infertility

If your daughter is experiencing polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and weight gain, it’s important to keep in mind that lifestyle changes, such as proper diet and exercise, can reduce the disease’s severity.

Excessive weight gain is common in teens with PCOS. But without proper diagnosis and treatment, the condition can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and fertility issues. 

“Teens may be overweight or gain weight very easily with PCOS,” said Kimberly S. Huhmann, M.D., pediatric and adolescent gynecologist with Norton Children’s Gynecology, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “But these symptoms can be managed with a holistic approach which involves a healthy lifestyle.”

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a common condition of the ovaries that affects teens and adults of reproductive age. Ovaries normally produce hormones that work together to regulate menstruation. In those with PCOS, a hormone imbalance produces cysts (small fluid-filled sacs) instead of mature eggs.

“The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but it tends to run in families,” Dr. Huhmann said. “In some patients, high insulin and/or androgen levels may cause a hormonal imbalance.”

Most teens with PCOS also have too much insulin in the bloodstream, which can cause excessive weight gain or obesity. The elevated insulin level can cause the ovaries to produce too many androgens, or male hormones, potentially interfering with egg development and release. The patient may experience irregular periods and unwanted hair growth.

Norton Children’s Gynecology, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine

Schedule an appointment with a pediatric and adolescent gynecologist.

Other PCOS symptoms

PCOS has various symptoms that usually occur initially around the time of the first menstrual period. 

Common symptoms may include: 

  • Irregular periods or absent periods
  • Enlarged ovaries containing small cysts
  • Acne
  • Unwanted hair growth on the face, chest, back, arms or legs
  • Dark patches of skin around neck or underarms
  • Thinning hair on the head

Lifestyle changes to control PCOS weight gain

Symptoms of PCOS can be managed with a holistic approach that includes lifestyle changes such as adequate sleep, exercise and eating a healthy diet.

Even moderate weight loss of 5% to 10% of total body weight may eliminate symptoms and regulate menstrual function.

Changes in diet should include:

  • Limiting sugars and sweeteners
  • Regulating portion sizes
  • Including a balance of lean meats, vegetables and “good” carbohydrates such as brown rice or whole-wheat pasta
  • Eating high-fiber foods (vegetables, whole grains, fruits)
  • Replacing saturated or trans fats with heart-healthy fats (such as olive or avocado oil)

Other PCOS treatments

Common treatment options also may include birth control pills to help regulate the child’s period. Birth control pills also can lower testosterone levels and reduce acne. Diabetes medication, such as metformin, also may be prescribed to lower insulin levels.

Additional tests may include pelvic examination, ultrasound or bloodwork. 

The goal of treatment is to normalize hormone levels and periods, and to reduce unwanted symptoms (like acne and hair growth). 

Some teens with PCOS may experience depression. Seeking help from a therapist or other mental health professional may provide additional support.