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I’m a Registered Dietitian dedicated to helping you eliminate your PCOS symptoms with sustainable and realistic nutrition changes.

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PCOS Vegetarian Diet: A Dietitian’s Ultimate Guide

Whether you’re currently following a vegetarian diet, or thinking about going more plant-based, there are some things you’ll want to know about a PCOS vegetarian diet. 

As a registered dietitian who specializes in PCOS, let me put your mind at ease and answer all of your questions. This post will dive into the benefits and drawbacks of a vegetarian diet for PCOS, my best tips for following a vegetarian diet with PCOS, and I’ll also give you a sample vegetarian menu. 

But first, let’s lay the foundation and dive into how your diet can impact PCOS and your symptoms.

photo of vegetables in the background, text overlay states vegetarian diet guide for pcos.

This post may contain affiliate links. This means that if you click on a link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. 

PCOS: Why What You Eat Matters

PCOS, aka polycystic ovarian syndrome, is a common hormonal condition that affects 6-12% of women of reproductive age in the United States. This condition is commonly linked to insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and high androgen levels (aka male hormones like testosterone or DHEA-S). 

Common symptoms of PCOS include:

What’s even worse is that having PCOS puts you at a higher risk of developing other health conditions, such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gestational diabetes in pregnancy
  • High blood pressure 
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Endometrial cancer (due to infrequent menstrual cycles)

I know, what a drag, right?! The good news is that a balanced diet and lifestyle changes can play an important role in managing your PCOS symptoms and reducing your risk of developing some of those chronic health concerns. 

There’s a lot of buzz around the Mediterranean diet, intermittent fasting, a low GI diet, a vegan diet, or ketogenic diets for PCOS – but which is the best diet for PCOS? The reality is that research hasn’t been able to pinpoint one particular PCOS diet to be superior for managing this medical condition.

A few things remain true though when it comes to a healthy diet for PCOS. You’ll want to eat in a way that maintains balanced blood sugar levels to help improve insulin sensitivity. Additionally, you’ll want to include anti-inflammatory foods to help lower the chronic inflammation seen in PCOS. More on how to do this is coming up!

Research on Vegetarian Diets & PCOS

It’s no secret that research on PCOS in general is lacking, especially considering how many people it affects worldwide. With that said, we do have a lot of research on vegetarian diets in general, and a small amount on vegetarian diets for those with PCOS. 

One research study looked at the differences between those who followed different dietary patterns. It found that those who followed a typical Western diet and those who followed a vegetarian diet were both at an increased risk for having PCOS. It found that 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.

Another small study evaluated a vegetarian diet or a non-vegetarian diet in Indian women with PCOS. 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 than the non-vegetarians (1). 

A recent study confirmed that a higher intake of plant-based foods and a lower intake of meat was correlated with improved metabolic health in women with PCOS (2).

It’s important to note that although these research studies have somewhat conflicting results, it’s important to note that these studies had small sample sizes and weren’t well-designed. More well-designed research studies are definitely needed. 

If you wish to pursue a vegetarian diet for personal, ethical, or environmental reasons, I firmly believe that with careful planning, it can be beneficial for PCOS. 

Now, let’s jump into some of the potential benefits of a vegetarian diet for PCOS…then we’ll talk about some drawbacks that you should absolutely be aware of. 

infographic with the benefits of a vegetarian diet for pcos.

Benefits of a PCOS Vegetarian Diet 

With the explosion of popularity for plant-based diets in recent years, it seems like it’s easier than ever to follow a vegetarian diet. While the research on vegetarian diets and PCOS is relatively limited, there is thankfully a lot of research available on vegetarian diets for the general population. 

A recent systematic review found that vegetarian diets reduced the risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Dementia
  • Cancer
  • Weight gain
  • High cholesterol levels

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Given this information, a vegetarian diet could be an effective and beneficial strategy for managing PCOS symptoms and lowering the risk of chronic health conditions.

Now, let’s dive into some of the potential drawbacks of a vegetarian diet. 

Drawbacks of a PCOS Vegetarian Diet

There are many people who will caution against a vegetarian diet for PCOS.

For starters, there are some essential nutrients that may be harder to get adequate amounts of while following a vegetarian diet. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, you’ll likely just need to be more intentional with including these nutrients in your diet.

Another common objection is the assumption that vegetarian diets are too high in carbohydrates and low in protein. Let’s talk more about each of these in detail.

Protein

Protein is essential for building lean muscle mass, maintaining balanced blood sugar levels and keeping you full & satisfied. One of the biggest misconceptions about a plant-based diet is that you cannot get enough protein on a daily basis. While you may need to be more intentional, it is absolutely possible to get enough protein. 

Another myth is that if you are actually getting enough protein with a vegetarian diet, you’re probably eating too many carbs. The thought process behind this is that carbs = high blood sugar levels = high insulin levels = more insulin resistance and worse PCOS symptoms.

Many plant-based protein sources do tend to also contain carbohydrates, however, they’re typically complex carbs and are a great source of fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that has been shown to keep blood sugar levels more stable, keep you feeling full for longer, and lower the risk of diabetes. Fiber also plays a big role in gut health and diversifying the gut microbiome, something that’s particularly important for everyone with PCOS.

Some examples of plant-based proteins that are also high-fiber foods include:

  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Kamut
  • Teff
  • Farro

Additionally, there are other vegetarian protein sources that are lower in carbs too, such as:

  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Edamame
  • Seitan
  • Eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Protein powder
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Read more about the best protein powders for PCOS here.

I recommend including a variety of vegetarian plant based proteins to ensure you’re getting a wide range of nutrients.

infographic showing the protein, carb, and fiber content of several vegetarian based protein options for pcos.

Another potential drawback of a vegetarian diet is that certain nutrients may be harder to get adequate amounts. 

Calcium

This essential mineral is found in high amounts in dairy products. For those who avoid dairy for PCOS and are following a vegetarian diet, it may be significantly more difficult to get adequate amounts of calcium. 

Calcium plays a role in bone health, blood pressure regulation, and heart health. Calcium needs are about 1,000mg per day for adult women, and 1,300mg per day for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Besides dairy products, fortified products (such as soymilk), soybeans, certain tofu made with calcium, and dark leafy greens like spinach are good vegetarian sources of calcium.  

Iron

There are two types of iron found in foods: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is very easily absorbed, however, it’s only found in animal products. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods and is not very well absorbed. Since plant based iron sources aren’t absorbed as well, vegetarians need almost double the amount of iron per day than omnivores, or those who eat meat.

Iron is necessary for creating hemoglobin and transporting oxygen in the body. If you’re not able to get enough iron in your diet, you could develop iron deficiency anemia. Low iron stores can also cause hair loss, which is a common symptom of PCOS. Vegetarian sources of iron include beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, spinach, cashews, and potatoes.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids are well-studied in PCOS for their ability to lower inflammation, oxidative stress, cholesterol levels, and insulin resistance. They’re also vital for improving fertility and having a healthy pregnancy

There are three main types of omega 3’s: ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA is mainly found in plant foods like chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp hearts, and walnuts…so most vegetarians are able to get adequate amounts of ALA. 

Our bodies can then convert ALA into DHA and EPA, although it does not do this very efficiently. Obtaining EPA & DHA from food sources is important, however, it’s mainly found in fatty fish like salmon, herring, and trout. There are some plant based DHA and EPA sources such as algae, however, supplements may be needed. 

If consuming fish oil is conducive to your diet, I like this fish oil supplement. If not, this is a plant based omega 3 supplement that provides a decent amount of EPA & DHA. 

infographic on the common nutrient deficiencies with pcos vegetarian diets.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common for those who follow a vegetarian diet since many food sources of vitamin B12 are animal foods. Also, vitamin B12 deficiency is particularly common for those who take Metformin, a common prescription medication for PCOS. 

Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause low energy levels, fatigue, insulin resistance, anemia, hair loss, and neurological changes. Vegetarian food sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast, dairy products, eggs, and fortified foods such as fortified soymilk.

Zinc

While the reason why isn’t clear, women with PCOS tend to need higher amounts of zinc than the general population. 

Read more about zinc and PCOS here.

Those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are more likely to be zinc deficient since plant based sources of zinc aren’t as well absorbed as animal sources. Zinc deficiency can cause low energy, hair loss, unexplained weight loss, nausea, and lowered immune function. 

Vegetarian sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds, cashews, oats, fortified cereals, lentils, tofu, beans, almonds, dairy, and eggs. 

Alright, now let’s dive into some of my best tips for implementing a vegetarian diet if you have PCOS. 

PCOS Vegetarian Diet Plan & Tips 

There are many ways to execute a vegetarian diet, and they’re not all created equally. A vegetarian diet that’s high in processed foods and not well-balanced may lead to worse health outcomes. With knowledge and careful planning though, a vegetarian diet can be an effective strategy to manage your PCOS. 

Here are some basic foundations you’ll want to make sure you have in place:

  • Eat consistent meals throughout the day. Avoid skipping meals and going long periods of time without eating. 

  • Combine complex carbs with protein and fat at each of your meals:
    • Complex carbs: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils
    • Protein: tofu, tempeh, edamame, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, beans, lentils
    • Healthy Fats: olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds

  • Ensure you have plenty of protein options on your grocery list.

  • Emphasize unprocessed, whole foods as often as possible.

  • Limit simple carbohydrates on a regular basis. Examples include fruit juices, regular soda, white bread, traditional desserts.

  • Consult with a registered dietitian who can assess your health history and current diet patterns. They can then provide you with personalized nutrition advice and recommendations. 

For more ideas on how to pull together these tips, check out A Dietitian’s 7 Day PCOS Diet Plan PDF

infographic of vegetarian diet plan for pcos.

Vegetarian Recipes for PCOS

Here’s some of my favorite PCOS friendly vegetarian recipes:

PCOS Overnight Oats

10 Best PCOS Smoothies

Peanut Butter Banana Baked Oatmeal Cups

Kale Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples & Pepitas

Peanut Butter Chocolate Cups

chocolate peanut butter oat cups stacked on top of each other with oats and chocolate chips scattered around them.

PCOS Vegetarian Diet FAQs

Can cutting out meat help PCOS?

Eliminating meat and following a vegetarian diet may be helpful to improve metabolic parameters in PCOS. One study found that those with PCOS who followed a vegetarian diet had lower testosterone levels and cholesterol levels than those who followed a non-vegetarian diet. That said, there’s no one particular diet that is the best for PCOS. Some studies have found that those who simply ate more plant foods and still incorporated small amounts of animal products had better outcomes than those who ate a typical Western diet or those who ate a strict vegetarian diet.

What vegetarian foods are high in protein for PCOS?

Tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, eggs, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese are high in protein and great for PCOS.

What foods aggravate PCOS?

Contrary to what you may read on the internet, there are not any specific foods that aggravate PCOS or that everyone with PCOS should avoid. A balanced diet is recommended for PCOS and specific foods or food groups should be avoided on an individual basis, based upon your symptoms and medical history. 

Which vegetables should you avoid with PCOS?

Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, get a bad reputation when it comes to health and PCOS. But in reality, there aren’t any vegetables that you should avoid if you have PCOS. Vegetables provide fiber and various antioxidants that can help improve insulin sensitivity and lower inflammation.

The Bottom Line

A vegetarian diet, along with a healthy lifestyle, may be a good approach to manage PCOS symptoms. A plant-based diet or a plant-forward diet has many health benefits such as a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and dementia. 

If you choose to follow a vegetarian diet, it will require careful planning to ensure you’re doing so in a healthful way and not developing nutrient deficiencies. The following nutrients may be more difficult to get adequate amounts of while following a vegetarian diet: calcium, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and omega 3 fatty acids such as EPA & DHA. Supplements may be needed in some cases. 

If you want to learn everything you need to know about how to eat well for PCOS, check out The PCOS Playbook. Whether you’re following an omnivore diet, vegetarian diet, or vegan diet, this digital download will walk you through the information you need to know to put together healthy meals that work for you. You can thrive with PCOS in any scenario! Learn more and grab your copy of The PCOS Playbook today!

Disclaimer: this is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for or replace professional medical advice. It is not intended to treat polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or any other medical condition. Always consult with your healthcare provider and registered dietitian for more personalized diet recommendations.

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