You’re probably here because you’ve heard a vegan diet for PCOS is a good idea. Or maybe you’ve heard it’s a bad idea and you’re wondering if that’s accurate.
There’s a lot of contradictory information about which PCOS diet is the best choice circulating around the internet and social media. As a registered dietitian living with PCOS, I’m here to provide you with research-backed information on what to eat for PCOS…and to make it simple and realistic too!
This article will break down the pros and cons of a PCOS vegan diet, along with considerations to take into account if you choose to eat a plant-based diet.
Why What You Eat Matters
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormone condition, affecting up to 20% of women of reproductive age worldwide (1). Despite it being so common, there isn’t a general consensus on the best diet for PCOS. That’s because research is limited and this condition can present in a variety of different ways.
Some common symptoms of PCOS include:
- Irregular periods
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Hirsutism (unwanted facial or body hair)
- Mood swings
- Mood disorders such as depression or anxiety
What we do know is that there appear to be some common driving factors in PCOS, such as insulin resistance and chronic inflammation. In fact, up to 80% of those with PCOS have some degree of insulin resistance (2). Inflammation has also been emerging as a key feature in PCOS as well (3). These two conditions can be responsible for high androgen levels (aka male hormones like testosterone) that cause the classic PCOS symptoms you know and hate.
The good news is that diet changes, along with a healthy lifestyle, can drastically reduce insulin resistance and inflammation…which can lead to significantly less PCOS symptoms.
Generally speaking, your diet should keep your blood sugar levels balanced, especially if you’re insulin resistant, and include anti-inflammatory foods. You can achieve these goals with an omnivore diet (aka a diet that includes animal products)…but is a vegan diet better for PCOS? Let’s dive into what we know on the benefits of a vegan diet.
Research on PCOS & Vegan Diets
The research done on PCOS and diets has been extremely limited. So it should come as no surprise that there aren’t many research studies done exclusively on plant-based diets and PCOS. Here’s what the research does say:
One research study found that those who followed a typical Western diet and those who followed a vegetarian diet were at an increased risk for having PCOS. Those who followed a mixed dietary pattern that was mostly plant-based foods with some animal products mixed in had a lower risk of PCOS.
One small study looked at how a low glycemic index vegan diet versus a low calorie diet affects weight loss. This study found that those who were following the vegan diet had lost significantly more weight at the 3 month mark than those following the low calorie diet. However, there wasn’t a difference between the two diet groups by the 6 month mark. This study had a high dropout rate, indicating that these two diets may have been difficult to sustain for a long term period.
Another small study evaluated Indian women with PCOS who were following vegetarian diets or non-vegetarian diets. This study found that the non-vegetarians had higher testosterone and cholesterol levels than the vegetarian group. Interestingly though, the vegetarian group had higher inflammatory markers (such as hs-CRP levels) than the non-vegetarians (4).
While these studies show mixed results, the truth is that they weren’t well-designed studies. These studies didn’t provide the participants with adequate instruction on what a well-planned out vegan or vegetarian diet for PCOS should look like (something we’ll talk about later in this post!). They were also completed with small sample sizes, which isn’t necessarily representative of everyone with PCOS. Ultimately, when it comes to dietary changes for PCOS, what works for one person may not work for another person.
If you want to and choose to follow a vegan diet for personal, ethical, or environmental reasons, I firmly believe that a well-planned vegan diet can be beneficial for PCOS symptoms. That said, there are certainly some things you’ll want to be aware of if you are following a vegan diet.
Benefits of a Vegan Diet for PCOS
With plant-based diets becoming more popular in recent years, there’s no shortage of anecdotes singing their praises. Additionally, there’s actually a good amount of research to back up the positive claims for a vegan diet…albeit, the research hasn’t been done specifically in those with PCOS.
Because of the underlying insulin resistance and inflammation, those with PCOS have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, and weight management are also common struggles, making metabolic syndrome a common feature of PCOS.
A systematic review found that a vegan diet was effective at:
- Improving insulin sensitivity
- Lowering blood sugar levels
- Decreasing type 2 diabetes risk
- Reducing body weight & BMI
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving cholesterol levels
- Lowering cardiovascular disease risk
Given this information, a vegan or plant-based diet may be beneficial for managing PCOS symptoms and lowering your risk of additional health conditions.
Vegan Diet Drawbacks for PCOS
While there do seem to be many health benefits of a vegan diet, there are some drawbacks to a vegan diet that you need to be aware of. Research has shown us that there are certain essential nutrients for PCOS that may be difficult to get in adequate amounts while following a vegan diet.
While a well-planned vegan diet can avoid some of these nutritional issues, the following nutrients are ones you should be aware of and make a point to include in your diet.
One of the biggest myths circulating about a vegan or vegetarian diet is that you can’t get enough protein. In reality, yes you can…you may just need to be more intentional with including adequate amounts of protein.
Another myth is that you can’t eat enough protein without eating too many carbs. This one stems from the thought that carbs = increased blood sugar levels = increased insulin levels = worse PCOS symptoms.
It’s true that animal protein sources are more protein dense and lower carb than plant-based protein sources. While you do want to be mindful of the types of carbs you’re choosing, carbs aren’t the enemy.
Plant-based proteins that are a combination of protein and carbs are usually a really good source of fiber. Fiber is super beneficial for PCOS because it can promote more balanced blood sugars, which keeps you feeling full for longer periods of time. Fiber can also diversify the gut microbiome, improve gut health, and decrease your digestive issues.
Some plant-based protein options include tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, chickpeas, lentils, seitan, quinoa, amaranth, kamut, teff, farro, sorghum, nuts, seeds, and vegan protein powder.
Read more about protein powders for PCOS, including the best vegan protein powders: The Best Protein Powders For PCOS
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are especially important in PCOS. They can reduce inflammation, insulin resistance, and cholesterol levels. Omega 3’s also improve fertility and reduce non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
There are three main types of omega 3 fatty acids: ALA, DHA, and EPA. ALA is mainly found in plant-based foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp hearts. DHA and EPA are primarily found in marine sources such as fatty fish like salmon. Algae and seaweed are two of the few plant foods that have DHA and EPA.
Your body can convert some ALA into DHA and EPA, however, it doesn’t do this very effectively with less than 10% converting. Therefore, obtaining DHA and EPA from food is important. If you don’t consume adequate amounts of omega 3 fatty acids regularly, supplements may be appropriate.
People who follow a plant-based diet are at a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency since most B12 food sources are animal products such as meats or dairy products. Additionally, Metformin, which is commonly prescribed with PCOS, is known to reduce B12 levels (5). Double whammy!
As it relates to PCOS, low vitamin B12 levels have been linked to insulin resistance and inflammation.
Some plant based sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast and fortified foods such as fortified soy milk.
While its name indicates it’s a vitamin, vitamin D is actually a hormone. You may have heard of vitamin D deficiency, which is common in the general population, but especially common in those with PCOS. In fact, one study showed that 67-85% of those with PCOS were also vitamin D deficient (6).
Vitamin D deficiency can worsen insulin resistance, glucose levels, inflammation, and gut health. Vitamin D deficiency can also cause irregular menstrual cycles and infertility.
Plant based sources of vitamin D include the sun’s UV rays, fortified products such as fortified plant milks, and some mushrooms treated with UV rays.
It’s best to have your vitamin D levels checked routinely and take a vitamin D supplement if you’re deficient.
For unclear reasons, higher amounts of the mineral zinc are usually needed in PCOS. Vegans are particularly susceptible to zinc deficiency since the zinc found in plant foods isn’t as bioavailable as zinc found in animal products.
Plant based sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds, cashews, oats, fortified cereals, lentils, tofu, beans, and almonds.
Other nutrients that may be difficult to get adequate amounts of while following a vegan diet include iron, iodine, and calcium.
Now that you’re aware of which nutrients you may need more of from foods or supplements, let’s look at how to actually implement a thoughtful and intentional PCOS vegan diet.
PCOS-Friendly Vegan Diet Tips
Regardless of the type of diet you’re following, you’ll want to make sure you’re doing these basic steps to improve PCOS symptoms:
- Eat consistent meals throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels more stable
- Pair complex carbohydrates with protein and fat at your meals (note: your protein sources may sometimes double as your carb sources too)
- Complex carbs: fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains
- Protein: tofu, tempeh, edamame, seitan, beans, lentils, whole grains
- Healthy fats: olive oil, olives, avocado, nuts, seeds
- Aim to include unprocessed, whole foods most of the time
- Limit simple carbohydrates. Examples include fruit juices, refined grains like white bread, soda, and vegan desserts such as cakes or pastries
- Include anti-inflammatory foods frequently
- Work with a registered dietitian who can assess your dietary intake along with your nutritional needs, then provide you with personalized nutrition advice
For some meal ideas check out these posts:
PCOS Vegan Diet FAQs
Is a vegan diet good for PCOS?
If done strategically, a well-planned vegan diet can be a good choice for people with PCOS. Vegan diets can lower insulin resistance, inflammation, blood pressure, body weight, and cholesterol levels. If not done correctly though, a vegan diet does put you at risk for developing certain nutrient deficiencies, which could make your PCOS symptoms worse. Meet with a registered dietitian who can assess your diet and identify any nutrient gaps you may have.
If I have PCOS and follow a vegan diet, do I also need to avoid gluten?
There’s a lot of misinformation about gluten and PCOS. The truth is that there isn’t any research to support that everyone with PCOS needs to follow any sort of specific diet pattern or avoid any certain foods, including gluten. Seitan is a high protein plant-based food made from gluten. This food can be instrumental in a healthy vegan diet. To read more about gluten and PCOS, check out this post: Gluten and PCOS: Should You Really Go Gluten Free.
The Bottom Line
There isn’t a specific diet that has been proven to be the best diet to follow for PCOS. We have limited research done on vegan diets and PCOS, with mixed results.
When done strategically, a well-planned vegan diet can be a good option for people with PCOS.
If you choose to follow a plant-based diet for ethical, environmental, or ideological reasons, you can still manage PCOS symptoms effectively.
If you want to learn the ins and outs of eating well for PCOS, check out The PCOS Playbook. The PCOS Playbook is a digital ebook that takes the guesswork out of how to eat well for PCOS. It’s easily adaptable for any type of eating pattern, including plant based diets. Learn more about The PCOS Playbook and snag your copy today!
Disclaimer: This is for educational purposes only and not intended to treat polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or replace medical advice. Always consult with your healthcare provider or registered dietitian for personalized health and diet recommendations.