How PCOS Can Lead to Obesity

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a complex condition characterized by small cysts that develop in the ovaries. It is thought to affect approximately 5 to 10 percent of women in the United States. Aside from the reproductive issues that PCOS causes, the condition is also highly associated with weight gain and obesity. Whether obesity causes PCOS or vice versa, both conditions have common factors which make it difficult for women with PCOS to lose weight.

Hormonal Factors

PCOS is an endocrine system disorder, which means that it causes a disruption in the normal production and release of hormones in the body. In women, the ovaries produce female sex hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. Women also produce a certain amount of male hormones, but PCOS causes these to be abnormally elevated.

Due to higher levels of male hormones (androgens), the type of obesity associated with PCOS is abdominal or central obesity, meaning that fat accumulates in the abdomen around the internal organs. This type of fat is associated with a greater risk for developing hypertension, insulin resistance (prediabetes) and diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Insulin Resistance

In addition to altered levels of sex hormones, PCOS causes an abnormal response to the pancreatic hormone insulin. Insulin controls blood sugar by removing excess from the bloodstream and transporting it to body cells where it can be used as fuel. Women with PCOS develop an insulin resistance, meaning the hormone is not able to deliver the glucose adequately to the cells. Since the cells cannot use the circulating glucose, the excess is stored as fat. 

Genetic Factors

Although the cause of PCOS is not known, there may be a genetic link. Women are at a greater risk of developing PCOS when a close female family member has the condition. 

One study found that a gene that is implicated in the development of obesity is also linked to an increased risk for developing PCOS. The FTO gene is located on chromosome 16 and appears to influence an increase in fat mass by increasing hunger, especially for high-calorie foods.


Even the medications used to treat PCOS can have effects on body weight. Steroidal treatments are often used to minimize the overproduction of androgen hormones. However, one of the most common side effects of steroid use includes rapid weight gain. Some steroid medications can also cause fluid retention. 

Weight Loss Tips

Losing weight may help to improve some of the symptoms of PCOS, but weight loss is difficult to attain. The best diet is one that limits processed foods, refined carbohydrates and sugar. Choose low-glycemic foods such as whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables to control blood sugar levels and improve the body’s use of insulin. High fiber foods will also increase satiety, leaving you less likely to overeat or crave unhealthy foods. Lean meats, low-fat dairy and unsaturated fats are also healthy additions.

Exercise regularly using a combination of cardiovascular activities and strength training. This will help to build and maintain lean muscle which improves metabolism and burns more calories, even when at rest. Exercise can also help to lower blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol and improve mood (women with PCOS have a tendency to develop anxiety and depression).


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