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Can Eating More Frequently Help Insulin Levels in PCOS?

Posted by Allie on 24th January 2017

Photo: Pixabay.com

The majority of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, regardless of their weight, which can lead to long term health issues such as type 2 diabetes (1). Insulin resistance occurs when cells do not respond to the hormone insulin and you can learn more about the role it plays in PCOS here. Lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, are often recommended to improve PCOS symptoms. Although research has indicated that, for example, low glycemic index diets and eating a higher calorie meal for breakfast can improve insulin resistance, the optimal way of eating for women with PCOS is still unknown. Now a new study (1) has found that distributing calories over six meals a day, rather than three, benefits insulin sensitivity in PCOS.

Forty women with PCOS aged around 27 years old took part in the study. In order to examine the effect of eating meals more frequently independent of weight loss, half of the participants in the study were classified as overweight or obese and the other half within normal weight range. The participants were randomly assigned into two groups and followed a weight maintenance diet as either three or six meals daily for 12 weeks. They then switched to the other meal pattern for a further 12 weeks.

The participants in both groups consumed 1900 kilocalories a day consisting of 40% carbohydrates, 25% protein and 35% fat. However, they distributed their carbohydrates differently over their meals as follows:

Three meal pattern: 20% breakfast; 50% at lunch; and 30% at dinner.

Six meal pattern: 20% at breakfast; 10% at morning snack; 30% at lunch; 10% at afternoon snack; 20% at dinner; and 10% on a bedtime snack.

The participants followed a weight maintenance diet as either three or six meals daily for 12 weeks

The participants maintained their usual level of physical activity, with most described as “sedentary” before taking part. All of the participants underwent an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT), used to diagnose insulin resistance, at the beginning and end of the intervention. The participants weren’t tested before or after eating meals and the researchers acknowledged this would be useful to determine whether their insulin levels were maintained during the rest of the day.

The researchers found that the women eating six times a day had decreased fasting insulin levels and improved insulin sensitivity. They also reported feeling less hungry compared to those eating three meals. No differences were found between either of the meal patterns for feelings of fullness, glucose levels, and blood lipids, which are fatty substances found in the blood. The exact mechanism by which eating more frequently had a favourable impact is not fully clear.

In summary, the study showed that eating the same amount of calories, intended to maintain the participants weight, over three meals and three snacks a day improved insulin levels and insulin sensitivity in PCOS compared with eating only three meals. The researchers recommended that further research is needed to examine whether distributing calories over more frequent meals could aid weight loss in women with PCOS.


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1: E. Papakonstantinou et al (2016) Effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin levels in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: a randomised trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 70 (5): 1-7