When I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) earlier this year, the doctors game me all kinds of helpful (and alarming!) information about the condition. What they didn’t tell me was that their diagnosis would trigger my long-dormant obsession with the bathroom scale, send me into a calorie-counting frenzy and give my self esteem a serious pummeling.
For the happily uninitiated, PCOS is a disorder that causes the ovaries to produce high levels of male hormones, which messes with egg production and produces cysts on the ovaries. It comes with a fun list of potential symptoms, including crazy periods, weight gain, obesity, and infertility. It’s also linked to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Aside from those scary ones, a lot of the symptoms seemed tailor-made for messing with my vanity. “You may experience male pattern baldness, while at the same time, grow excess hair on the face and body,” I was told.
I was relieved at first to hear that weight gain was a possible symptom, as I had been baffled by why my clothes were suddenly feeling so snug, since I hadn’t made any significant changes to my diet or exercise routine in the past year. I figured I was probably back up to my highest weight, which would have meant a ten pound weight gain over the course of the year.
That sense of relief whooshed out of me when I stepped on the scales and found that I’d gained ten pounds on top of my highest weight, meaning I’d gained twenty pounds in one year, which on my 5’2” frame is a pretty significant amount. Not the end of the world certainly, but a couple more years like that and I’d be in dangerous territory, health-wise.
After having read how next-to-impossible it can be for women with PCOS to lose weight, a little knot of panic started to form at the base of my neck at the thought of losing control of my own body. I started calculating how many pounds I could safely lose by my friend’s wedding, or, shudder, by the dress-up boudoir photo shoot the bridal party was supposed to take part in.
I didn’t want to give in to the fear that I’d wake up with diabetes the next morning if I didn’t get a handle on things, so for a couple weeks I tried the things I’ve always done when I felt like my jeans were just a little snug: cut back on my already moderate chocolate and alcohol intake and get in an extra workout or two. After three weeks of that, I had gained a pound. That’s when the panic really set in.
Even so, I knew I should be careful where diet and weight loss were concerned. I wanted to go about it in a healthy way.
So, I did hours upon hours of research into PCOS-related weight gain and strategies to overcome it. I cut out sugar completely, then simple carbohydrates. I upped my lean protein intake and lowered my dairy. I started taking a drugstore-full of vitamin supplements every morning. I drank spearmint tea every day. I bought a kettle bell to make sure I was working up a sweat on days when I didn’t have barre class. I started buying protein powder (which I had previously believed to be one of the most evil substances known to man). And guys, I actually drank it! And I tracked it all, down to every last unsalted almond, with an app on my phone.
While there’s nothing wrong with any of those things individually, and while I wasn’t exactly starving myself, I was not in a good space mentally. Even though I know better, I found myself scrutinizing and hissing insults at my reflection. I started weighing myself every day. Sometimes more than once. Slowly, finally, the numbers did start to drop, but my mood was not improving.
I stopped enjoying going to restaurants, as menus just started to look like lists of delicious things I couldn’t have. I started thinking about things like how much sugar is in a carrot. Seriously. When a dog ate my homemade salt and vinegar chickpeas at an outdoor movie where everyone else was chowing down on delicious burgers and fries, I almost lost my damn mind.
Thinking about food and my weight started to take up a disproportionate amount of my day. My fitness/food app helpfully texted me if I missed logging a meal, and it was the last thing I looked at before I went to sleep every night. I was in a bit of a downward spiral towards unhealthy obsession.
Then one busy weekend, I missed logging a few meals. Lo and behold, the world didn’t end. I didn’t die, or instantly come down with diabetes or even gain back the weight I had lost so far. I was still aware of portions, and carb/sugar content, but when I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t thinking about eating. And having my mind back, free to think about things aside from myself, my health, and my diet was absolutely delicious.
I halfheartedly went back to tracking my food and exercise for a few more days before giving it up completely. I integrated the fore-banned toast back into my breakfast. I stopped weighing myself every day or even every week. I allowed myself a little chocolate here and there. I resigned myself to the idea that I would have to get used to carrying a little extra weight every year, and that maybe diabetes and yoyo-ing hormones were just an inevitable part of my future.
I expected to see evidence of this when I stepped back on the scale a few weeks later. I didn't. I half believe that some of the weight my body was holding onto was the stress of thinking about it all the time. Now I’m more careful and aware of the amount of sugar and empty carbs I eat and the amount of exercise I get, but I simply won’t let it be the major focus of my life anymore. It’s amazing how a topic can bore and distress you at the same time.
I'm glad I finally got a diagnosis, and I'm happy that I've been able to take action now, before the effect on my health became too detrimental, but making so many changes all at once made the whole endeavour feel drastic and overwhelming.
So my advice for anyone managing symptoms of PCOS is to start with just two things.
1. Reduce your sugar intake. Use baby steps if you need to and don’t worry about banning every carb you happen to crave, just be aware of them and pick a couple of substitutions you think you can stick to, and go from there.
2. Exercise. Even if you start with just an hour of leisurely strolling every day. Whatever you do now, just increase it a little. You don’t have to be an Olympian to enjoy the physical and mental benefits of getting a move on.
Don’t overdo it. Don’t make a million changes to your diet and lifestyle at once. Not only can this feel overwhelming and discouraging, but because if you start to have more regular periods or see some weight loss happen if that’s part of your treatment plan, you will have a hard time pinpointing the things that actually helped.
Get lots of sleep, hang out with supportive, body-positive pals, and most importantly, do not rely on your scale to tell you how you feel.
That hunk of plastic only knows one tiny detail about you, and you’re so much more than that.
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