The Best Foods for PCOS
When you think of diet and PCOS, I bet you think of what you should NOT eat instead of all the healthy foods you CAN eat. The good news is that certain foods can help heal your PCOS by several mechanisms, including lowering insulin and androgen levels, decreasing inflammation, and decreasing risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sounds better than a pill – right? Hippocrates was right when he said “Food is Medicine”. Nutrients in food have the ability to heal the body. Read on to learn about the best foods for PCOS.
It’s not just about limiting carbs
When it comes to nutrition for PCOS, many women get overly focused on strictly limiting carbs. While a lower carb diet may be helpful for some women with PCOS, this is by no means the only thing to consider.Often times, overly focusing on cutting out carbs can be harmful as it leads to cutting back on nutrient rich foods like fruit, legumes and whole grains and loading up on fat and protein.
Health concerns of women with PCOS
When meal planning for PCOS and trying to decide what foods to include it your diet, it’s important to take theses health concerns into account:
High levels of androgens
High levels of insulin
Chronic low grade inflammation
Increased risk of diabetes/prediabetes
Increased risk of heart disease.
Altered gut microbiome
The good news is that certain nutrients can help lower androgens, insulin levels and inflammation as well as decrease risk of heart disease and diabetes. There are many healthy foods to choose from, but I picked out my top 18 foods and beverages (not in any specific order).
The 18 best foods for PCOS
- NUTS (tree nuts and peanuts)
Health benefits: Nuts are nutrient rich foods with wide-ranging health benefits. They contain heart healthy monounsaturated fats, fiber, protein, magnesium, fiber, Vit E, α-linolenic acid, L-arginine, and antioxidants. Studies show they decrease inflammation and insulin resistance. In addition, they protect against cardiovascular disease (CVD) by several mechanisms including lowering cholesterol and decreasing inflammation. Nuts are rich in magnesium, which may help decrease risk of diabetes, especially in women. Lastly, epidemiological studies have demonstrated nuts can aid in weight loss.
Tip: While nuts are super healthy, they are calorically dense. So keep tabs on portions! One ounce of nuts has about 170 calories. One ounces equals about ¼ cup of nuts or 24 almonds, 14 walnut halves, 46 pistachios, 18 cashews. If you have trouble with portion control, buy mini bags!
Nutrition: 1 oz almonds: 163 cal, 14 gm fat, 6 gm carbs,, 3.5 gm fiber, 6 gm protein 75 mg calcium, 76 mg magnesium
- LEAFY GREENS
Health benefits: Leafy greens are low in calories but rich in nutrients including vitamins A, C, K, folate and potassium. Spinach and other green leafy veggies may reduce type 2 diabetes risk because of their high concentrations of polyphenols and vitamin C, both of which have antioxidant properties. They also contain magnesium, which may further reduce risk of diabetes as well as insulin resistance and as well as heart disease. Magnesium may also aid in bone health, mood, and sleep. In addition, leafy greens help decrease inflammation, and contain fiber which can aid in gut health. The folate found in leafy greens is important in cell formation during pregnancy. And the Vit K is important for bone health.
Tip: When possible, buy organic leafy greens, especially spinach as it has a high level of pesticide residue. And the darker the greens, the more nutrition. Add to salads, smoothies (mild flavor), soups, omelettes, stews and chilis.
2 cups arugula: 30 cal, 0 gm fat, 3 gm carbs, 2 gm fiber, 50% Vit A, 220% Vit C, 20% calcium, 15% iron
1 cup cooked spinach: 7 cal, 0 g fat, 1.2 g carb, 1 gm fiber, 1 g protein, Vit A 28%, Vitamin C 14%, iron 10%, calcium 4%
- FATTY FISH
Health benefits: Fatty fish is rich in protein, B vitamins and is an excellent source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are known for decreasing inflammation as well as lowering blood pressure and improving the function of the cells that line your arteries Reference. According to the American institute for Cancer Research, some studies are also suggesting fatty fish may reduce risk of cancers such as colon and breast. Additionally, omega-3s also aid in decreasing insulin resistance as a by product of reducing inflammation. Salmon is one of the richest sources of omega 3 fats. Other sources of fatty fish include herring, mackerel, and sardines.
Tips: When possible, try to purchase wild salmon as it contains fewer PCBs (possible carcinogens) Canned salmon tends to be wild. However, if wild salmon is not available or it’s too expensive, farmed salmon is an option as it still contains omega 3 fats. Reference Although there is no recommended daily intake (RDI) of omega-3 fatty acids, many health organizations recommend that healthy adults get a minimum of 250–500 mg of combined EPA and DHA per day (3).
Nutrition: 3 oz portion cooked salmon: 156 cal, 0 gm carbs, 0 gm fiber, 6 gm fat, 23 g protein.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion of farmed salmon has 2.3 grams of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, while the same portion of wild salmon contains 2.6 grams (1, 2). Salmon is an excellent source of B vitamins. Below is the B vitamin content in 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of wild salmon: Vitamin B1 (thiamin): 18% of the RDI; Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): 29% of the RDI; Vitamin B3 (niacin): 50% of the RDI; Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): 19% of the RDI; Vitamin B6: 47% of the RDI; Vitamin B12: 51% of the RDI Reference
Health benefits: Blueberries are rich in nutrients and offer a wide range of health benefits. They are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium, and folate. Blueberries are also loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals including anthocyanins, quercetin, kaempferol, myricetin, and chlorogenic acid. It is these antioxidants and phytochemicals that are associated with cardiovascular and cognitive health, decreased inflammation and cancer prevention. Epidemiological evidence also suggests that incorporating blueberries into the diet may lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Clinical studies also show blueberries improve insulin resistance as well as improve blood pressure.
Tip: Add blueberries to shakes, oatmeal and yogurt. Buy fresh or frozen.
Nutrition: One cup: 60 calories, 15 gm carbs, 2.5 gm fiber, .8 gm protein, .4 gm fat
Health benefits: Contain over 20 vitamins and minerals and are rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats have been shown to improve heart health and may help decrease inflammation. In addition, the fiber in avocados slow the rise and fall of blood sugar levels, which helps prevent insulin spikes. While considered a fruit, avocados contain minimal carbs.
Tips: Add to sandwiches, salads, smoothies, salad dressings, make avocado toast or just eat with a spoon and a little lemon and salt. Keep in mind that while healthy, avocados are high in calories – so keep tabs on portions!
Nutrition: 1/2 cup cubed avocado: 120 cal, 7 gm carbs, 5 gm fiber, 11 gm fat, 1.5 gm protein
- EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Health benefits: Olive oil is the natural oil extracted from olives, the fatty fruit of the olive tree. 73% of the fat in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which is has numerous health benefits. Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) contains oleocanthal, phenolic compound that has potent anti-inflammatory benefits. EVOO also plays a role in heart health. It’s a known fact that the Mediterranean diet is one of the most heart healthy diets in the world. Results from the Predimed study shows that augmenting the Mediterranean diet with four T of virgin olive oil/day helps improve the way HDL (good) cholesterol functions, thereby decreasing heart disease risk even more. This meta-analysis provides evidence that the intake of olive oil could be beneficial for the prevention and management of T2D
Tip: Extra virgin olive oil is the only type that contains all the antioxidants and bioactive compounds. There has been some fraud on the market with some companies putting EVOO on the label – when it’s not accurate. Do your research with brands. Sauteed with it, use it to make salad dressings and roast veggies.
Nutrition: 1 Tablespoon: 120 cal, 14 gm fat, 0 gm carbs, 0 gm fiber, 0 gm protein
Health benefits: Flaxseeds contain the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, lignans, fiber, some protein and vitamins and minerals. They have numerous health benefits including improving heart health, lowering cholesterol and decreasing risk of stroke. They are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber.These fibers aid in gut health, may help lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes and help with weight control by keeping you full longer. Flaxseeds also contain lignans which may help prevent certain types of cancer. Lastly, one small study showed consuming 4 T. of flaxseeds a day for 4 months lowered all 3 scores of androgen markers decreased significantly.
Tips: Flaxseeds need to be ground or purchased as flaxmeal in order to reap the full nutritional benefits. In addition, they need to be refrigerated once opened. Add 1-2 T. to yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal or sprinkle on a salad.
Nutrition 2 T. ground flaxseeds: 90 cal, 7 gm fat, 4 gm carbs, 4 gm fiber, 3 gm protein, 3.4 gm omega 3 fatty acids from ALA (but remember ALA is not nearly as potent as omega 3 fatty acids)
Health benefits: Cacao is rich in antioxidants called flavanols as well as magnesium. Both have been shown to have positive effects on blood sugar. Magnesium plays an important role in glucose metabolism. It’s been found that a higher dietary intake of magnesium is associated with a significantly lower risk of diabetes as well as improved insulin sensitivity. Adequate levels of magnesium are linked to improved heart health and bone health. It may also help with sleep, migraines, PMS and depression. Magnesium is a mineral that can’t be made in the body so you need to consume adequate amounts daily. But it is estimated that 50-80% of people are deficient in magnesium.
Tip: Add 1-2 T. to yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, chia pudding.
Nutrition: 2 T: 125 cal, 10 gm fat, 7 gm carbs, 5 gm fiber, and 13% of the RDA for magnesium
Health benefits: Glucomann is a fiber-rich extract from the root of the Asian konjac plant and has been consumed in China, Japan and South East Asia for centuries as both a food and a traditional medicine. Glucomannan (or konjac) contains mainly soluble fiber – also called viscous and fermentable fiber that becomes a gel when mixed with liquid. When consumed, these gels help to prevent cholesterol from being absorbed and slow the rise of blood sugar. They also help make you feel full which can aid in weight loss. It’s a excellent source of prebiotics which are important for gut health. It can also help prevent constipation. Both of which are important if you are on a low carb diet which tends to be low in fiber. See my previous blog post on health benefits glucomannan.
Tip: Try Japanese style shirataki noodles (one popular brand is called Miracle Noodles). See my blog post for recipes. You could try adding glucomannan powder to smoothies, yogurt or oatmeal
Nutrition: entire package of shirataki noodles has 20 cal, 0 gm fat, 3 gm carbs, 2 gm fiber, <1 gm protein. *nutrition may vary slightly depending on the brand
- OATS (steel cut, whole oats or oatbran)
Health benefits: Oats contain carbohydrates, some protein and fiber. They are a rich source of beta-glucan, a viscous soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol well as non-HDC and apoB compared to control diets. (these are all risk factors for heart disease) . The beta-glucan has also been shown to have an anticarcinogenic properties. . Because of their low glycemic index, they also have less of an impact on blood sugar and insulin levels. The high fiber intake can help you feel fuller longer and aid in digestive health.
Tip: Eat oatmeal for a filling breakfast. Add some nuts or nut butter or even a little protein powder to bump up the protein. No time to cook it in the morning? Use a slow cooker and make them overnight or just add a milk (dairy or plant-based), refrigerate and it will turn into overnight oats. Make a big batch on the weekend, portion out and freeze (can also do with regular oats). Top with sprinkled cinnamon. Oatbran is an even more concentrated source of beta glucan than oatmeal – with fewer calories and carbs.
¼ cup dry steel cut oats: 150 cal, 27 gm carbs, 4 gm fiber, 5 gm protein, 2 gm sugar
2 T. oat bran: 34, 1 gm fat, 2 gm fiber, 2 gm protein, 0 gm sugar.
- CHIA SEEDS
Health benefits: Similar to flaxseeds, chia seeds contain the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, fiber, some protein and vitamins and minerals. The seeds absorb double their weight, swell in your stomach and help you feel full. They are rich in fiber, which may help lower cholesterol and promote gut health. Studies show that chia seeds may lower the rise in blood sugar after a high-carb meal, possibly benefiting people with type 2 diabetes.While more studies are needed, some studies suggest that the high antioxidant content of chia seeds may help decrease inflammation. Chia seeds have a 3:1 ratio of omega 3: omega 6 fatty acids. It is important to have this ratio because too much Omega 6 can cause more inflammation.
Tip: Add to smoothies, yogurt, salads and make chia seed pudding
Nutrition: 1 Tablespoon: 70 cal, 3g protein, .5g fat, 7g carb, 6g fiber
- GREEN TEA
Health benefits: Green tea is considered one of the world’s healthiest drinks and contains one of the highest amounts of antioxidants of any tea. Natural chemicals called polyphenols in tea are what are thought to provide its anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic effects. Green tea contains a catechins, EGCG, which is an antioxidant that help sprevent cell damage. Recent studies are suggesting green tea has health benefits in the areas of cancer, heart disease, stroke, memory, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and weight loss.
Tips: While more research is needed to prove these benefits, there is no downside to drinking several cups a day. Of note, bottled green tea usually contains fewer polyphenols than brewed tea. If you buy green tea supplements, keep in mind that supplements are not regulated by the FDA so you can not be guaranteed what is in the supplement.
Nutrition: Tea is a zero calorie beverage. It contains caffeine (~ 20-45 mg/8oz cup)), but less than black tea (~ 50 mg/cup) and coffee (~ 95 mg/cup
Health benefits: Eggs are packed with nutrients including iron, folate, Vitamin B12 ,Vitamin B2, and selenium. Eggs also contain lutein and zeaxanthin which are good for vision as well as choline which promotes brain and nerve health. B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation. Eggs are rich in protein and fat, both of which keep us feeling full longer. Studies have shown that a high protein breakfast of eggs aid in weight loss, promote a more stable blood glucose and insulin response, while also suppressing ghrelin (the hunger hormone) For years we’ve been told to limit eggs due to their cholesterol raising effect. Luckily this has been proven inaccurate except for a very small percentage of the population who is genetically susceptible to dietary cholesterol. But for the majority of us, eggs have been given the green light!
Tip: Start the day with eggs in a variety of forms – omelettes, eggs in muffin tins, egg in ½ avocado. Hard boil them ahead of time for a satisfying snack. Add to salads for extra protein or make an quick omelette for dinner. Add veggies, maybe salsa and you have dinner in 5 minutes!
Nutrition: 1 large egg : 72 cal, 4.6 gm fat, .35 gm carbs, 0 gm fiber, 6 gm protein
Health benefits: Legumes (beans and lentils) contain carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, and zinc. Legumes are also rich in both insoluble and soluble (or fermentable) fiber. This fiber helps keep you feeling full longer, lowers cholesterol, and aids in gut health. Because of the high fiber and protein content, beans have a low glycemic index, thereby causing a slow rise and fall of blood sugar. Beans and peas specifically contain lignans and saponins which may help prevent against certain types of cancer.
Tip: Add legumes to salads, soups and stews for more fiber. Or make homemade hummus or bean dip to snack on with veggies. You can soak and cook beans yourself, buy them frozen or canned in BPA free cans (just drain and rinse before eating) There is one lectin known to cause temporary gastrointestinal distress in humans, however it is easily avoided. A lectin called phytohemagglutinin found in raw beans (red kidney beans in particular) binds to a carbohydrate present on human intestinal cells. This lectin is inactivated by cooking. If you use dry beans, take the necessary precaution of making sure they are thoroughly cooked – don’t eat undercooked beans.Note: many people have trouble digesting beans due to certain fermentable carbs founds in the beans. Eating small portions at a time can help your body get used to digesting them. Some people find an enzyme such as Beano can also help with digestion. People with IBS may be best avoiding beans totally if they cause a lot of gastric distress.
Nutrition: 1/2 cup black beans : 110 cal, 1 gm fat, 19 gm carbs, 9 gm fiber, 7 gm protein, 1 gm sugar
Health benefits: Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the branches of trees of the “Cinnamomum” family. This sweet, spicy bark has been shown to improve blood glucose levels by slowing down carbohydrate absorption, decreasing insulin resistance by the cells, increasing glucose uptake by cells and decreasing glucose production by the liver. It also has anti- inflammatory properties which may play a role in preventing or reducing the progression of diabetes. It has even been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL. Even as little as <1-6g (0.5-2tsp) of cinnamon can be a safe an effective amount per day. References This small study suggested that “antioxidant spices,” including cinnamon, may help reduce the body’s negative response to eating high-fat meals. Six people consumed dishes containing 14 g of a spice blend. Blood tests showed that antioxidant activity increased by 13 percent and insulin response fell by 20 percent.
Tip: Cinnamon comes in two forms: Ceylon and cassia. Cassia is commonly used in the United States and contains small amounts of a substance called coumarin. Some people are sensitive to this chemical and, if they take it in large doses, they can develop liver disease. People who already have liver disease are especially at risk. People should consider also using a Ceylon cinnamon supplement rather than the more readily available cassia cinnamon. The studies done so far on cinnamon’s effects on diabetes have used small quantities of cinnamon – usually a teaspoon or less. People interested in trying cinnamon as a supplement to traditional diabetes medication should start small, with about 1 g per day (about ¼ to ½ teaspoon). Reference Sprinkle in coffee, add to oatmeal, yogurt, cottage cheese or sprinkle on an apple.
Nutrition: One teaspoon of ground cinnamon weighing 2.6 g contains: 6 cal, .3 gm fat, 2.1 gm carb, <1 gm protein, 26 mg calcium
- FERMENTED VGETABLES
Health benefits: Fermented vegetables, including sauerkraut, kimchi and naturally fermented pickles are rich sources of probiotics. The word “probiotic” means “for life”; they aid in keeping our guts healthy. And as we know, gut health leads to overall health. Other food sources of probiotics include: yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, cultured cottage cheese, miso, tempeh, and kombucha. But don’t assume they all contain probiotics. Read food labels for “live, active” cultures. For example, not all sauerkraut contains live, active cultures. And kimchi or sauerkraut in a jar has likely been heat treated which destroys the live cultures. And even yogurt in the United States is not required to contain any live cultures, and tests have shown that some yogurt products have a wide range of levels of live bacteria.
Tip: You only need small amounts to get a rich source of probiotics. Add a few Tablespoons of kimchi with 1-2 meals a day
Nutrition: 2 T. fermented cabbage: 10 cal, 0 gm fat, 1 gm fiber, 1 gm protein, 14% Vit C
- PREBIOTIC RICH FOODS
I’m kind of cheating here because this is more than “one” food. Prebiotics are natural, non-digestible ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of healthy bacteria (probiotics) in the colon. Think of them as “food for probiotics” already living in the gut. They are found in plant foods including Jerusalem artichokes, onions, chicory, garlic, leeks, bananas, fruit, soy beans, burdock root, asparagus, peas, legumes, eggplant, green tea, chicory root, inulin as well as prebiotic supplements
Health benefits: Aid in weight loss by reduced energy intake and appetite, decreasing BMI and body fat%, play a role in bone health by enhancing calcium and other mineral absorption, reduces fasting and postprandial glucose, stimulation of neurochemical-producing bacteria in the gut, reduces risk of heart disease by decreasing cholesterol and inflammation, reduces inflammation. Inflammation is linked to many diseases, improves gut health and digestion.
Tip: Add more plant based foods to your diet.
Nutrition content: it depends up on the food.
- SPEARMINT TEA
Health benefits: Preliminary findings are encouraging that spearmint has the potential for use as a helpful and natural treatment for hirsutism in PCOS. Research has suggested that spearmint tea lowers androgen levels in women with hirsutism. Further research is needed to determine how effective it might be in treating hirsutism. But in the meantime, it’s worth a try! .
Tip: Most studies used spearmint tea twice a day to see benefits.
Nutrition: Tea is a zero calorie beverage
As you can see, there are many delicious foods you can incorporate into your diet to help heal your PCOS. Let us know some of your favorites from my Best Foods for PCOS list!
A special thanks dietetic intern, Rachel Feldman, for helping with some of the research for this article.
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.