If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), you may already know that what you eat can impact your symptoms.
Protein powders are a popular and easy way to add protein into your diet. But with the endless options available, how do you know which is the best protein powder for PCOS?
Let’s dive into what you want to look for when choosing a PCOS-friendly protein powder and which type is the best protein powder for PCOS.
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First things first, why is protein important for PCOS? You’ve probably heard “eat more protein” a lot but why exactly is it important?
Protein is the building blocks of every aspect of our bodies. It’s involved in the creation and maintenance of every cell in your body. So making sure you’re getting enough protein is essential for maintaining overall health.
But what does protein have to do with PCOS management? Let’s take a look at that.
Although estimations vary, up to 80% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance (1). If you are insulin resistant, your body’s cells cannot use the hormone insulin effectively, which can lead to high insulin levels. High insulin levels are associated with many symptoms of PCOS such as weight gain, menstrual cycle irregularities, and hair loss.
When you include protein at meals, it helps to regulate blood sugar levels, which can increase your energy levels. Protein prevents your blood sugar level from rising too high, too quickly…which is one of the key ways to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance.
Protein can also keep you feeling full for longer periods of time. Studies show that protein can actually decrease ghrelin, our hunger hormone; while increasing peptide YY, a hormone that reduces appetite (2, 3).
Since protein can have a profound effect on reducing appetite and promoting satiety, research shows that it can be instrumental in promoting weight loss. One study showed that women who increased their protein intake from 15% to 30% of their total calories ate 441 less calories per day and lost 10 lbs on average (4).
Before we dive into protein powder supplements, it’s important to understand that protein naturally occurs in food, in both animal and plant foods.
Animal Protein Sources: beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy
Plant-Based Proteins: tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, lentils, quinoa, nuts, nut butters, seeds
I always recommend trying to meet your dietary protein needs with food first, whenever possible. When you choose whole foods, you can get a good source of protein, but you usually get a lot of additional benefits from other essential nutrients that are also in that protein food.
For more info on food sources that are high protein, be sure to check out this post: A Dietitian’s PCOS Grocery List & Pantry Staples.
The answer for this is going to depend on the person and their nutritional needs. As a registered dietitian, I’m always going to advocate for getting your protein from real, protein-rich foods. Aim to include a variety of whole food protein sources like those listed above as part of a healthy diet.
Of course, there’s also situations where protein powder can make life easier and be a convenient way to boost your daily protein intake. In those situations, a quality protein powder can be a great addition to your diet.
There are endless ways to include protein powder into your PCOS diet.
Some of my favorite ways are to incorporate it in:
For more information on a balanced diet for PCOS including meal plans, check out this post: A Dietitian’s 7-Day PCOS Diet Plan (PDF Included).
With the popularity of using protein powders exploding over the past couple decades, there are several different protein powders on the market, including animal based protein powders and plant-based protein powders (vegetarian or vegan protein options).
There are many protein powders that are made with natural ingredients, however, many have a lot of artificial ingredients you may want to be cautious of.
In general, when searching for a protein powder supplement, I recommend looking for:
I know that may seem like a laundry list of things to focus on! This section will explore the most popular types of protein powders, who might benefit from each, and some product recommendations for each type.
Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk. It’s known for being quickly digested and absorbed.
Whey is a complete protein, meaning it has all of the essential amino acids that our body cannot make on its own. It also contains high amounts of branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are important for muscle growth.
There are different forms of whey protein available: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate.
Whey protein concentrate is perhaps the most popular type of protein powder on the market; it’s also the most cost-effective. It is about 70-80% protein. It typically has some lactose and fat in it, so this may not be the best option if you are lactose intolerant (5).
Whey protein isolate is about 90% protein. It has less lactose and fat than whey protein concentrate. Most research studies on muscle growth have used whey protein isolate, so it is considered the gold standard when it comes to building muscle.
Whey protein hydrolysate is a pre-digested form of whey. It does get absorbed the quickest and can cause a higher increase in insulin levels versus whey protein concentrate or isolate.
Overall, whey protein can increase insulin levels, however, whey protein has been shown to improve blood glucose levels and lower type 2 diabetes risk (6).
This is my favorite whey protein isolate.
If you tolerate milk, whey protein is a great, cost effective PCOS protein powder. It contains all of the essential amino acids and is considered the gold standard for building lean muscle mass. If you have lactose intolerance or are trying to build muscle, whey protein isolate may be the better choice.
Collagen peptides are small pieces of protein from animal collagen – most frequently from cows, chickens, or fish.
Unlike whey protein, collagen peptides are not a complete protein source. Research has shown they’re not as effective at building muscle mass as other protein sources, however, they do appear to have health benefits for joints, skin, hair, and nails (7, 8).
Collagen peptides may be a good option for you if:
This collage peptide supplement is my favorite.
There’s a lot of misinformation floating around regarding soy and PCOS, with many people claiming you need to avoid it entirely.
Soy is one of the few plant based foods that is a complete protein, containing all of the essential amino acids that our body cannot make on its own. For that reason, it can be a great protein option, especially for those following a plant based diet.
Research has actually shown that moderate soy intake can improve glucose, insulin, BMI, and cholesterol levels. Soy protein may also create a more diverse gut microbiome, which researchers equate to improved overall health (9, 10).
However, it’s important to note that these favorable studies utilize soy from foods rather than soy protein powders. In large quantities, such as from high intake of a soy protein powder, the effects of soy on PCOS symptoms is unknown.
Since we don’t yet know the full effects of soy protein powder on PCOS, I usually recommend consuming unprocessed soy foods (such as tofu, tempeh, and edamame) rather than utilizing soy protein powder.
Pea protein is another plant-based protein that is a complete protein option. It’s my pick for the best plant-based protein powder.
One solution to creating a more complete amino acid profile is by using a blend of pea protein and brown rice protein since brown rice protein is higher in methionine.
Since peas are a legume, an added bonus of pea protein powders is that it generally contains some added fiber. Fiber is beneficial for blood sugar stability and improving gut health.
Pea protein powder may be a good option for you if you:
This is my favorite unflavored pea protein powder.
This is my favorite flavored plant based protein powder. It includes a blend of pea protein and brown rice protein.
Hemp protein powder is another plant based protein that is a complete protein. It is lower in certain amino acids like leucine though, which is essential for building muscle mass.
Despite being lower in protein per serving than some other options, it has higher amounts of fiber and omega 3 fatty acids. These two nutrients are both essential for blood sugar balance and lowering inflammation.
Hemp protein powder may be a good choice for you if:
This is one of my favorite hemp protein powder options.
Brown rice protein powder is not a complete protein source. It can be a good option for those with multiple food allergies or sensitivities since it’s hypoallergenic.
Unless you have multiple food allergies to other protein sources, I don’t recommend using a protein powder that is strictly brown rice protein.
As mentioned previously, brown rice protein is a nice addition to a pea protein in a plant based protein powder blend like this one. That’s because these two types of proteins compliment each other, and together they provide good amounts of the essential amino acids.
Protein is an essential macronutrient that can regulate blood sugar levels, keep you feeling full, and aid in weight loss.
The best way to increase your protein consumption is by using real food options that are high in protein. But protein powders can be a great way to meet your protein needs.
If you’re looking to build lean muscle mass, whey protein is a great, cost-effective option. For those who are dairy free, or follow a plant-based diet, pea protein is another great option for building muscle.
If you’re looking to improve the health of your joints, tendons, hair, skin, and nails, collagen peptides may be the better option for you.
Search for protein powders that undergo third-party testing, have high-quality ingredients, offer little to no added sugars or artificial sweeteners, and provide at least 15g of protein per serving.
Disclaimer: This is for informational purposes only and not intended to be substituted for medical advice for any medical condition, including polycystic ovarian syndrome. Always consult with your healthcare provider for personalized recommendations.
Learn the most common nutrition mistakes I see women with PCOS making and what to do instead!