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Losing Weight With PCOS Isn’t All: You Need A More Holistic Approach To Dealing With PCOS

Over a period of time, losing weight with PCOS as a target needs to get replaced with overall wellness and fitness as goals.

Losing weight with PCOS/PCOD is a process that pushes us to know our bodies and the condition and invest in ourselves in the path to wellness.

Caveat: I am not a qualified nutritionist or medical practitioner, just a woman dealing with PCOS on a day to day basis. All advice should be vetted by a professional before use.

My journey with Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) started with focusing on losing weight with PCOS – I was struggling with weight despite being a healthy, fit woman with a reasonably active lifestyle.

As someone who was a gawky, scrawny kid growing up, weight had not been an issue before. Cut to a triggering event and piling on of weight, I found myself losing confidence and feeling defeated by this issue. Weight loss isn’t just about appearance, it is a health and fitness issue. That your clothes fit as well as you want is only a bonus.

Reading about it further got me perturbed. What I read and what I heard from medical professionals around me didn’t match.

I read about insulin resistance linked to PCOS as a possible reason for putting on weight, but a renowned gynecologist authoritatively told me that there’s no such thing as insulin resistance! An endocrinologist discounted my efforts at losing weight with PCOS though I was eating what is called a ‘good, Indian, seasonal diet’ and swimming a kilometres 4 days a week.

On top of not losing weight, professionals actively undercut what was left of my confidence. The overwhelming message was ‘losing weight with PCOS will make all your problems go’, when the very issue was weight gain. PCOS is one of those oxymoronic conditions: the answer is also the problem.

I was not diagnosed with PCOS despite many warning signs. Finally, a dermatologist diagnosed PCOS when I went to her for facial hair growth and spots on my face. Since then, it has been a journey of knowing my body and doing what is right, learning through reading and some support groups. These groups are full of stories and the ones that particularly touch me come from young girls and women who have internalized much negative self talk related to weight. Unsolicited comments and advice from family and friends contribute to the issue. Pressure to look a certain way to be accepted by their peers; seeing weight gain as ‘laziness’ and being rejected by prospective suitors due to their weight, drives these women to fad diets and unscientific quick fixes that can hurt health significantly.

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If I were to distil what I have learned in the past 20 years, I would tell all women dealing with PCOS/PCOD to:

Understand what PCOS is – read up

Please use credible sites with enough scientific citations.

PCOS can happen to anyone, whether or not they gain weight and with or without actual cysts in their ovaries. It is triggered by lifestyle, usually changes in weight or life events.

There are a few signs that are universal – facial hair in women and acanthosis nigricans (AN). AN shows up as a discolouration of skin around elbows, knees, neck, under the breasts, in armpits. It comes from cells multiplying due to insulin resistance, caused by many conditions, PCOS being one.

This is how a dermatologist diagnosed my PCOS. I learned about how my cells don’t respond well to insulin, causing the pancreas to make more and more insulin, peacefully changing glucose to fat and storing it in self-same chilling out cells.

Know your body

Getting healthier isn’t just about losing weight with PCOS, but a focus on how you feel in your body is important.

Being aware of my body came to me from practicing mindfulness. Over a period of time, I started observing how it reacted to certain foods, how I felt before and around my periods, what kind of exercise made me feel good enough to keep at. 

I also use some tools to support these observations: my smart watch monitors my activity levels, sleep, menstrual cycle dates and stress levels. Most phones have health apps that do this as well. I invested in a good weighing scale and now correlate my activity and food intake the previous day with the number on the scale. It isn’t about fixating on that number but using data to adapt my practices and manage my health.

Become aware of how you think

I knew a lot of what I know for a long time. Knowing and converting to action are two completely different states of mind.

Many times, the answer lies in what we think and our internal talk. Affirmations won’t work if they’re an on surface thing, all the positive talk won’t help if we don’t believe that we are worth the investment in time and effort. It takes conscious effort to be kind to ourselves, to say ‘alright, yesterday wasn’t a great day for eating and I could have got in some more steps, but that’s done now. Let’s see how today can be better.’ Beating ourselves up is a sign of negative self image. Guilt is pointless, if it isn’t going to be an engine to change us for another time.

Accept the condition and your body

The first step to solving problems starts with acceptance. However your body is, it has got you through to this moment now.

A lot of what we deal with comes from our genes – PCOS, Diabetes are examples. Just like we don’t beat up our parents for passing on these genes, we can’t beat up our bodies for factors beyond our control. This body, this shape, this condition is – and just obsessing over losing weight with PCOS, no matter what you have heard, isn’t the answer.

There are many changes we can bring about once we know and accept our bodies and the condition. Competition then goes out of the window – like why can her body look like that six months after having a baby? Because she is made how she is and almost certainly prioritized and worked hard to get there, and had the support that cared for her baby while she got there.

It isn’t just about losing weight with PCOS, so be discerning about advice, question to understand

Everyone has an opinion and is certain that their way is THE way. Well, going to a nutritionist and being told to eat one chapati and salad every day for most meals didn’t work for me. Everyone does not keep up with science as it evolves.

There is also this retro advice: our ancestors had it right, they ate this way and that is how we should also go. Well, our ancestors had no way to order online and get food on their plate 24/7. They were definitely more active and didn’t have to work like we choose to.

Traditional isn’t bad. Modern isn’t either. It is up to us to balance what science says, what our cultural practices are, what we know of our bodies and work out a path that works for us.

I learned to quantify my meals from a group because ‘andaz-se’ meant that we end up eating more than we think we do. Seeing what 30 gms of rice ended up looking like on my plate was illuminating. Nuts are good but also calorifically dense. A katori of nuts is too much for me while my kids can digest it effortlessly. I learned to incorporate weight training in my routines. It takes hard core training to develop muscles like professional weightlifters – it only takes a few minutes with your own body weight to tighten existing muscles and strengthen your core. Lifting weights isn’t only for men, it is for fitness and health.

I learned that a lot of traditionalists say what they do because it is cool and because they haven’t questioned as much. Thinking back, so many women around me were not fit while I was growing up. After they had kids, it was acceptable to gain weight and keep it. Many women had those bellies that I now know is a sign of PCOS – hormones cause weight gain similar to male beer bellies.

Questioning in India and that by a woman is often seen as a sign of disrespect. Many labels exist to discourage us from asking to understand and then, maybe disagree if it doesn’t work for us. I have learned to be skeptical and read when I can’t get questions answered, ask in forums that are scientific and discount the advice that comes from people trying to make one feel better about their problem. Maybe being a ‘kaathey peethey aadmi’ works for others – my body and my ambition to be a healthy grandmother who can play with kids several decades her junior won’t handle all that eating and drinking, much as I would love to!

Invest in yourself

I found that I would be on top of giving my kids their medication when needed, thinking of others’ health and modifying practices and menus. When it came to my vitamins or my water intake, I didn’t put as much effort. Investing in myself came from putting myself on the list. I had slotted myself at the end, after every chore, every task and everyone else. Where’s the time then to do for ourselves?

Investing in ourselves doesn’t have to be interpreted as monetary. It is waking up 10 minutes earlier to not start the day off running but to do something for ourselves. It is slotting time to take up a hobby or find out what interests us enough to pursue it. My practice of mindfulness is spread all over the day and is anything but meditation. It is in that minute I take to inhale the ginger in my chai and savour the first hot sip. It is in feeding the tiny fish who keep my lotus pot free of mosquito larvae. It is in observing my plants enough to know what to move where when I have the time. It is in the crochet project that I do simultaneously with a work meeting.

Setting habits for when we might not be super motivated is investing in ourselves. Investing in a few minutes over the first few weeks can set in place habits that the body craves. Feeling good is the best motivator. For example –

  • Knowing that my water intake has to go up means I invested in a bottle that has motivational messages. The few minutes taken to cut a piece of lemon or take that sprig of mint to freshen it up makes me feel good over the day.
  • I put my favourite fruits and vegetables right up with the family’s preferences.
  • Knowing I am not a gym person meant that to schedule around an hour in the evening for a swim.
  • Fitness doesn’t have to cost much – we don’t need fancy clothes or a gym membership. Body weight exercises and walking work. I did invest in good shoes so as to not mess up my knees in the long run.

A lot of women balk at some costs that come with investing in ourselves. I think of it as the cost of a meal ordered outside versus buying organic vegetables, buying a kitchen scale to quantify my meals versus the cost of medicines, a water bottle to increase my intake versus a doctor’s consultation cost. Not investing in ourselves has already cost us. Investing in ourselves now is a different and lower cost in the long run.

Over a period of time, losing weight with PCOS as a target needs to get replaced with overall wellness and fitness as goals. PCOS does not define us but it is definitely one facet of ourselves that we should know, accept and work on for our health and fitness. It would be great if we could also support and empower other women in the process.

Image source: a still from the film Tumhari Sulu

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About the Author

Sangitha

Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, blogger and mother of three. Her interests include living a mindful and organic life as much as possible in addition to reading and writing about the reading. read more...

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