The question of a PCOS diet plan, what that “should” look like, alongside what it could inherently exclude, are all common questions that frequently follow a PCOS diagnosis. And it can be a confusing, if not overwhelming, line of inquiry as you’re barraged with conflicting information like whether dairy is good or bad for you, how to lose weight in a sustainable way, and other hotly debated topics.
But rest assured: we’re here to tell you that the only “PCOS diet” you need is that one that best serves you.
Yes, there are certain food groups, vitamins, and nutrients that are particularly adept at reducing unpleasant symptoms associated with polycystic ovary syndrome, but of equal importance is finding a diet that promotes a healthy relationship with food and improves your overall well being.
So that being said – let’s get into some foods to love that are proven to help manage PCOS.
General PCOS Diet Advice
Oftentimes, how you eat matters just as much as what you eat. So that being said, we have some general advice on the topic of approaching a PCOS diet:
- At Allara, we promote mindful eating, which essentially means that you listen to your body regarding what to eat, when, and how much.
- Asking questions like “am I hungry?” and “am I satisfied?” are good questions to ask both before you begin eating and after you finish, in addition to paying attention to physical cues, like irritability, fatigue, and a rumbling in your stomach.
- Try not to shame or stigmatize certain foods.
- No food or snack is inherently “bad,” focus on indulging in your favorite foods in moderation. If you really struggle approaching certain foods and finding a balance, absolutely consult with your dietitian and/or medical provider.
- If in doubt, always opt for something simple: you can’t go wrong with fruit, vegetables, (plant-based) proteins, and whole grains. The majority of your diet should be rich with nutrient-dense foods. Try to avoid overly processed foods, as they often have unnecessary fats and sugars, while they are lacking in nutrients.
Vegetables and fruits
- Takeaway: Vegetables and fruits are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are essential to your overall health. Load up on 3 or more servings of vegetables, with 2 or more servings of fruit per day.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, a diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent certain types of cancer, and promote better blood sugar levels. Specifically, “their low glycemic loads prevent blood sugar spikes that can increase hunger” – which essentially just means that fruits and veggies are great at keeping you satiated for longer.
On top of that, with 9 different families of fruits and vegetables in existence, each has hundreds of different plant compounds that are highly beneficial. (If possible, choose a rainbow of colors, to ensure that you’re providing yourself with a mix of nutrients).
Among the most nutrient dense vegetables are the following:
- One cup of spinach contains over 50% of your daily Vitamin A needs
- One study found that dark green leafy vegetables are high in beta-carotene and lutein, two types of antioxidants associated with reduced risk of cancer
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale, collard greens, and broccoli are all packed with good-for-you vitamins and minerals
- This small but powerful food is known to reduce blood sugar levels and promote heart health
- Sweet potatoes
- Offering fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and manganese, sweet potatoes are an easy, inexpensive, and delicious way to get a bunch of health benefits in one fell swoop
Any and all fruits are also an excellent way to round out a healthy diet (while also satisfying a sweet tooth!), but we’ve narrowed down some especially beneficial favorites:
- Rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, apples help manage blood sugar levels, promote good digestion, and keep your gut bacteria happy.
- Linked to lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer, blueberries are known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
- Offering good amounts of Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium, bananas are an inexpensive, quick way to get a dose of prebiotics, which are a type of fiber that promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Both unripe and ripe bananas are also linked to improved blood sugar levels and better digestive health.
Nuts and seeds
- Takeaway: A great source of protein, healthy fats, and anti-inflammatory agents, nuts and seeds are a healthful way to tackle PCOS symptoms. Opt for nuts as their own afternoon snack, or even add them to salads and smoothies throughout the day.
Nuts and seeds combine two powerful superheroes against PCOS: omega-3s and inositol.
Omega-3s are particularly good at fighting inflammation in the body, which means that some hormonal pathways can be restored enough to see better reproductive function.
On the other hand, inositol (previously classified as Vitamin B8) works to not only keep your metabolism ticking along, but it also works to regulate hormones essential to triggering your menstrual cycles, blood sugar levels, and insulin response. Interestingly, women with PCOS appear to have issues making enough inositol, so getting extra doses through your food is a great means of helping reduce the severity of PCOS symptoms (among other means).
Nuts and seeds we love include:
Note here on flax seeds: to get the most nutritional bang for your buck out of these, purchase pre-ground flaxseeds, or break them up in a blender before adding to foods, since the hard outer-shell will make it difficult for your body to access all the healthful components of this food if it’s digested whole, as-is.
Note on chia seeds: An easy way to uptick your omega-3 intake is to substitute eggs for chia seeds (otherwise known as ‘chia eggs’ in blogs) when baking. These are practically unnoticeable when ground and incorporated into cakes, smoothies, and cereal. Rich in omega-3, protein, and fiber, chia seeds are some of the most nutritious seeds on this list.
Special note on Omega-3
In fact, because of how powerful Omega-3 is in tackling PCOS, we’re also including a subsection here to highlight some omega-3 rich foods – apart from those in the nuts and seeds category – to incorporate into your diet:
- Takeaway: whole grains are an ideal way to source more fiber into your diet, and represent an easy switch from refined grains.
Whole grains are simply grains that have all three components – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm – intact, and they often present a great source of fiber and protein.
They’re often thought of as nutritionally superior to refined grains as during the process in which a grain is refined, the benefits gained (such as improved shelf life and finer texture), come at a cost: iron, fiber, and many B vitamins are often lost.
For women with PCOS, opting for whole grains would be beneficial, since it will keep you satiated for longer, prevent blood sugar spikes, and offer higher doses of fiber and B vitamins, all of which should help in relieving PCOS symptoms, at least incrementally.
You may already know, but examples of refined grains include white flour, white bread, and white rice, while instances of whole grains to incorporate into your diet may include:
- Whole oats
- Whole wheat
- Whole grain rye
- Whole-grain bread
- Whole-wheat pasta
- Takeaway: if you eat meat, chances are you get enough protein as it is. Consider mixing in plant-based protein sources to widen your nutrient and vitamin intake while still fortifying your body.
Protein is an essential component of a balanced diet.
In fact, protein does a lot to make sure our body runs smoothly: according to the US National Library of Medicine, it’s literally “the building block of life.” As a macronutrient, it helps boost feelings of fullness and satisfaction, keeps muscles strong, and prevents blood sugar spikes; interestingly, though, Americans by and large have no issue hitting adequate protein intake.
Think “protein” and you probably think: chicken, beef, and maybe turkey. And though these sources contain high levels of protein, there is also plenty of this macronutrient to be found in other places. This may be especially worth considering given a high-protein diet of red meat is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and colon cancer, according to Harvard Health, while higher amounts of plant-based proteins aren’t associated with these same health implications.
Just like with any of the other foods on this list though: balance and moderation are key. Serving size may be smaller than you think. The serving for protein is 3-4 oz., or approximately 100g, which is about the size of one’s palm or a deck of playing cards.
As such, here’s a list of some high-protein plant foods that offer a host of nutritional benefits:
- 10-19 grams of protein per 100g
- 19g of protein per 100g
- 9g of protein per 100g
- 6g of protein per 100g
- 12g of protein per 100g
- (Tofu, tempeh, and edamame actually all originate from soybeans)
- 27g per 100g
- (This means it actually overtakes chia seeds and flaxseeds in protein content per 100g!)
Note on plant-based proteins: It is best to combine legumes and whole grains to get complete proteins, such as those in meat. Pairing the two together ensures all essential amino acids are present.
- Takeaway: dairy can be an excellent source of macronutrients and micronutrients, while also increasing fertility; if you are dairy-free, then choose an alternative that closely profiles dairy in its health benefits.
Did you know that three servings of full-fat dairy products per day may increase fertility by up to 70%?
Popular sources of full-fat dairy include whole milk, yogurt , and cheese. When choosing yogurts, it is important to watch out for excessive added sugars, and stay below 10g per serving. If you are looking for higher protein options, Greek yogurt or quark are the highest.
If, however, you choose not to consume dairy for ethical reasons, or you simply cannot tolerate it, then consider trying out a dairy alternative.
Check out the table above for a side-by-side comparison.
Keep in mind that when choosing an alternative, it’s important to still prioritize nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus.
Full fat dairy sources
- Whole milk
Alternative dairy sources
- Fortified soy milk
- Most alike to milk in micronutrient and macronutrient content
- Oat milk
- Lower levels of protein, but still offers good levels of micronutrients (although these might be less bioavailable than cow’s milk)
- Almond milk
- Low protein, low fat dairy alternative with high levels of calcium and low levels of phosphorus. (Also the least sustainable of the non-dairy alternatives, given the high amounts of water and pesticides necessary to make almond milk).
Note on dairy alternatives: watch out for added sugars in flavored alternatives (for instance, vanilla soy milk), which often include unnecessary added sugars
Spices and flavor
- Sprinkle some of these anti-inflammatory spices into your meals to gain easy-wins when it comes to bigger health benefits.
Spices are a wonderful way to turn bland or ‘blah’ foods into delicious meals. But they also present an excellent means by which to add more nutrients to your diet, without even realizing it.
There are some spices which are specifically lauded for being anti-inflammatory, and though research is in the early stages as to the understanding of ‘why,’ results seem to indicate that foods with anti-inflammatory properties on the whole (whether they’re in the form of fish, nuts, or even chocolate) are capable of reducing “chronic inflammation and pain.”
- It is thought that curcumin in turmeric is responsible for its anti-inflammatory benefits
- Add turmeric to meals with rice (it may turn the recipe yellow, but otherwise have minimum effect on flavor), smoothies, soups, and tofu scramble
- You can buy this fresh or powdered, and add it to smoothies, tea, stir frys, glazes, and sauces for a subtle (or big!) kick.
- Who doesn’t love cinnamon? Add this anti-inflammatory ingredient to your baked goods, filtered coffee, tea, pancakes, and oatmeal.
- Garlic works wonderfully in soups and stir frys, while you can even dice up small pieces to add to bread before placing it in the oven to create home-made garlic bread.
- Ever heard of capsaicinoids? Well, these often overlooked natural compounds are responsible for cayenne pepper’s anti-inflammatory effects.
- If you’re not averse to spice, add a dash of cayenne pepper to your next savory dish.
Ultimately, the best PCOS diet for you is the one that leaves your body feeling its best.
As you slowly experiment adding in more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and spices, consider finding easy ways to make adjustments that suit your lifestyle, and pay attention to how you feel. Because at the end of the day the most sustainable “PCOS diet” will be the one that you genuinely enjoy and that serves your body and its needs.
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.