Are plant based diets good for pcos?
If you’re confused on what kind of diet to follow for PCOS, you aren’t alone! Low carb, keto, dairy free, gluten free or paleo? Most of the plans touted for PCOS are a form of low carb, higher protein diets. But what about plant-based diets for PCOS? You’re probably thinking they’re too low in protein and high in carbs. But with some planning, plant based diets can be a healthy option for some women with PCOS. Now I’m talking “whole foods” plant based diets. The trick will be to do it correctly! So are plant based diets good for PCOS? Read on to get the answer and see if they are right for you.
What is a plant-based diet?
You may be thinking bowls of white pasta and bagels are ok because they come from plants. But this is not part of a whole foods plant based diet! And here’s the difference between plant based diets and vegan diets:
A plant-based diet eliminates all animal-derived products, this includes; meats, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, and focuses on wholesome and unrefined plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes. In addition, it emphasis minimally processed foods and excludes refined foods like added sugar, white flour and refined oils. It also promotes locally sourced, organic foods when possible. Keep in mind there is no ONE definition of a plant based diet.
Vegan diets similarly eliminates all animal by-products but additionally eliminates the use of makeup that contains or has been tested on animals and certain clothes (leather, fur, silk, wool). However, a vegan diet does not eliminate processed foods, as long as the food item does not contain any animal by-products, it’s a go! So technically you could have a oreo cookie on a vegan diet but not on a plant based diet. (But in my opinion, you can have an oreo on any diet if that’s what you really want!)
Health benefits of plant-based diets for PCOS
We’ve all heard about the health benefits of lower glycemic, higher protein diets for PCOS. As a nutritionist specializing in PCOS, I’m on board with this type of diet for most of my patients. But here’s the thing – plant based diets may offer additional benefits because they’re packed with nutrients including fiber, Vit B6 and Vit C, folate, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, beta-carotene, and phosphorus. Of course, this assumes you are eating a balanced plant based diet.
There are 4 major areas of concern when it comes to PCOS: insulin resistance, chronic low grade inflammation, altered gut microbiome and elevated androgens. And there are the additional health risks of increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. In addition, up to 80% of women with PCOS are overweight or obese. Read my previous blog post for A LOT more details on these studies.
Plant based diets have been found to improve many health conditions associated with PCOS, including:
- Decreased insulin resistance
- Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes
- Decreased cholesterol levels
- Decreased risk of heart disease
- Decreased inflammation
- Healthier gut microbiome. Dr. Felice Gersh is doing some great research in this area.
- Weight loss (of note: other women find an easier time losing weight on non plant based diets)
(see my blog post for more details on the studies)
A 2017 review study published in Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews noted that “a favorable dietary plan in women with PCOS should contain low amounts of saturated fatty acids. … Additionally, sufficient intake of fiber-rich diet from whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits with an emphasis on carbohydrate sources with low glycemic index is highly recommended. Sounds kinda like a plant based diet?
Nutrients of concern in plant based diets
Although plant-based diets are wholesome and are abundant in fruits, vegetables and legumes, there are some nutrients of concern that you should be aware of before embarking on a plant-based lifestyle. These include protein, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, omega 3’s, and choline. Read my previous blog post on how to obtain these nutrients in detail. It’s actually not so difficult with some planning and maybe supplementation.
Is soy bad for PCOS?
Soy is rich in protein and consumed by many people following plant based diets. It’s actually an easy way for you to meet your protein needs. But is soy good for PCOS? I get asked all the time by my patients with PCOS. There is so much controversy that I wrote a LONG blog post on it: Is Soy Bad for PCOS; Read What the Experts Say. There are studies that actually show soy can have benefits for women with PCOS. But many women feel they have a sensitivity to it and feel best avoiding it. In addition, most soy contain GMOs which can be endocrine disruptors. In a nutshell, if you consume soy, choose non-processed soy and make it non GMO (and don’t go overboard on consumption).
Tips to make your plant-based diet PCOS friendly
If you decide you want to give a plant based diet a try, we’ve come up with some tips to keep in mind.
- Eat healthy types of carbs. As mentioned above, a plant-based diet doesn’t contain “white”or processed carbs. But some people forget this! Eating a lot of refined carbs takes away many of the health benefits.
- Consume a variety of foods to help you get the important vitamins and minerals your body needs. Pay special attention to meeting your calcium, protein, Vit B12, iron, choline, and omega 3 needs. Supplements may be needed, especially Vit B12 and omega 3 and choline if you are pregnant or trying to conceive
- Add in a protein source at each meal. It helps keep you feeling full longer and is important for muscles. Studies also show that your protein needs are higher if you are decreasing calories in attempts of losing weight. An example would be a quinoa bowl with added legumes, nuts/seeds and lots of veggies.
- Add a fat source to each meal. This also helps you feel full longer and slows the rise and fall of blood sugar and insulin. An example would be to add some olive oil and avocado to the bowl above.
- Add fiber in slowly. It’s possible to get too much fiber especially if you are going from a highly processed diet to a plant-based diet. The large increase in high-fiber foods can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. So add fiber in slowly and see how your body reacts. You may also find that certain types of carbs (i.e. beans or onions/garlic) cause more digestive upset than fiber from chia or flaxseeds.
- Carb control if you are insulin resistant. Even though plant based diets contains unprocessed carbs that tend to be low glycemic, eating too many of them (especially fruit and root vegetables) can cause elevated blood sugar and insulin levels in some people. Try to fill up on veggies versus large portions of grains.
- Be mindful of portion sizes if you’re watching your weight. I doubt anyone gained weight from eating too much broccoli or beans! But other healthy foods like nuts, seeds, and avocado are also calorie dense. The calories can add up quickly if you are trying to fill the void for protein (i.e. grilled chicken) with nuts and avocado. No need to calorie count …. just be mindful!
- Ask your doctor to check for nutrient deficiencies with blood tests. Examples include Vit D, Vit B12, iron.
- Pay attention to how your body feels on a plant based diet. If you feel more fatigue, have worsened carb cravings, or just don’t feel satisfied, this style of eating may not be for you! Some women feel better eating animal protein, or at least fish.
- Consume “nutrients of concern” rich foods:
Protein: nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, quinoa, chia/flax/hemp seeds, (optional non GMO soy like firm tofu and edemame), seitan (if you don’t have issues with gluten)
Calcium: fortified nondairy milks and yogurts, chia seeds, almonds, leafy greens, (optional calcium processed non GMO tofu)
Vit B 12: nutritional yeast, fortified non-dairy milks/yogurts
Omega 3: flaxseeds, leafy greens, walnuts and a vegan omega 3 supplement
Choline: will likely need a supplement, especially if trying to conceive or pregnant
Iron: legumes, spinach, fortified cereals and grains, soybeans, cashews, dark chocolate
- Don’t try to meet your protein needs with overly processed soy products (like fake chicken!) If you are going to include soy in your diet, go for unprocessed non GMO firm tofu or edemame.
- Want to try out FREE plant based meal plans? No obligation or credit card needed!
Check the 5 Day free Plant Based Meal Plans HERE
Check out the 3 Day PCOS Meal Plans HERE
Who should NOT follow a plant based diet
While there are many health benefits from plant based diets, they aren’t for everyone.
– Many women feel better eating more protein from meat, fish or dairy. They may end up eating more grains in order to feel full. Too many carbs, even healthy carbs may raise blood sugar and insulin levels.
– IBS is common in PCOS. This may mean you have trouble digesting legumes, which is a major source of protein in plant based diets. In addition, the overall high fiber content of the diet may cause gastric upset.
– Many women with PCOS choose to avoid soy, which is a major source of protein.
– Lastly, if you eat many of your meals on the run, it can be difficult to eat a healthy plant based diet. Finding lunch spots or take out dinner places that serve whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fresh veggies isn’t that easy! It can also be difficult socially (unless you hang out with a plant based crowd) as most food served at parties or restaurant isn’t plant based – or if it is, it’s not that healthy! In order to commit to this diet, you’ll need to meal plan and cook most of your meals at home.
Bottom line: are plant based diets good for PCOS?
There is no one size fits all diet that works best for PCOS. Genetics, food preference, lifestyle, concurrent medical conditions and metabolism play a role in what diet is best for you. A plant based diet is a healthy option for some women. What I like best about plant based diet is that it’s rich in nutrients and fiber, both of which have numerous health benefits on inflammation, the gut microbiome, insulin resistance and risk of disease.
But it has to feel right for you! In my experience, while plant based diets are a healthy option, the majority of women feel better with eating more protein from meat, poultry – or at least fish and eggs. But even if you don’t want to follow plant based diet 100% of the time, but want to dip your toes in the water, flexitarian! Have a few plant based meals a week or even one a day. You’ll still get some of the health benefits.
Just make sure to follow our 9 tips above to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs. Read my previous blog post to get even more details on potential nutrients of concern with a plant based diet.
I’d like to thank Catherine Scott Fisher for helping to do research in writing this blog post!
If you’ve tried (or are on) a plant based diet, I’d love to hear how it works for you!
I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.