Protein for PCOS: benefits and how much is ideal?

As PCOS cannot be cured we know you are looking for ways to change your lifestyle to help with PCOS management. Although there is no one PCOS diet there are ways we can utilise nutrition to help with symptom management and improve overall health. One of these changes is making sure we are getting enough protein. But what is the significance of protein for PCOS? What is the right amount of protein needed in a balanced diet and what additional benefits does protein have for PCOS?

What is PCOS?

Polycystic ovarian syndrome or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a complex endocrine or hormone condition impacting 1 in 10 people assigned female at birth (AFAB). Despite its name, it does not solely involve the ovaries.

There are many symptoms of PCOS. The most common PCOS symptoms include irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, acne, excess facial hair and/or body hair, loss of hair on the head and hidradenitis suppurativa (skin tags). 

What is protein?

Protein is one of the macronutrients, similar to carbohydrates and fats, which are essential for humans. Proteins are large, complex molecules essential for the structure, regulation and function of all of the cells in the human body.

Proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids which are all linked together to form a chain. There are about 20 different amino acids found in plants and animal proteins. Of these 20 amino acids, there are 9 essential amino acids our bodies require from our diet. You may have heard of leucine and lysine. 

Protein is needed for growth, repair and maintenance in the body, particularly for bones and muscles. Therefore, our protein requirements will change throughout our life. 

How much protein is needed?

General guidelines suggest approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Your protein intake will depend on how active you are and if you are pregnant and/or breastfeeding. As always, speak to a PCOS nutrition professional or healthcare provider for bespoke support.

Why is protein important for PCOS? 3 benefits of protein for PCOS

Protein is an essential macronutrient but why is it important for PCOS? Let’s take a look at the benefits of protein for PCOS.

Improves blood glucose control

People with PCOS often have insulin resistance, which means the body’s cells don’t react to insulin (a hormone) as they should. This leads to more insulin being released than normal in an effort to move glucose (sugar) from the blood to the cells to use.

People with PCOS tend to have high blood glucose levels which is associated with insulin resistance. In order to manage blood glucose control and prevent high insulin levels and blood glucose levels try combining carbohydrate-rich foods with protein.

Combining protein with carbohydrates can help balance blood sugar levels as when your body is digesting your meal or snack there is more work to do so the glucose is digested and absorbed more slowly, than if you were to eat carbohydrates alone. 

Helps reduce carbohydrate cravings

One of the most common symptoms of PCOS is carbohydrate cravings, which is likely linked to the increased risk of insulin resistance in people with PCOS.

Protein can help with these cravings as a high protein diet t can increase satiety, i.e. helping you feel satisfied and fuller for longer. Look at your dietary composition and see whether you can boost your meal or snack with more dietary protein.

Can support ovulation

Despite needing more studies specifically with PCOS patients, a large-scale study has found that increasing the amount of protein consumed may improve ovulatory outcomes. The Nurses Health Study II found that increasing amounts of plant-based protein (such as pulses, mycoprotein, tofu and soy) reduced the risk of anovulatory infertility in participants.

As people with PCOS often have anovulatory infertility (i.e. don’t ovulate), boosting your plant-based protein intake may be helpful.

>> Read More | PCOS and Fertility: the ultimate guide to conception

Should I have a high-protein diet?

Many people assume that when protein consumption is encouraged you need to be going to the extreme by trying a Keto or low-carb diet. But this isn’t the case. Although protein appears to be a great choice for people with PCOS it doesn’t mean overhauling your entire diet. In fact, these diets often promote caloric restriction, nutrient imbalances and even disordered eating behaviours.

Instead, we recommend being mindful of the protein content of your diet and, if necessary, boosting your diet with more protein.

What is the best protein for PCOS?

The best protein for PCOS can differ depending on the type of diet you wish to follow, this could be an omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, flexitarian etc. There is no one type of protein which is best. Instead, combine high-protein foods with carbohydrates and fats to manage blood glucose levels and reduce carb cravings.

10 protein-rich foods for PCOS 

  1. Red meat and other animal protein contain all the essential amino acids the body needs. Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb and processed meats like sausages and ham. Approximately an average portion of meat is around the size of your palm which provides you with 20-30g protein. 
  2. Poultry includes chicken and turkey, which are similar to red meat. A chicken breast fillet portion will be around 20g of protein. 
  3. Fish is a great source of protein and omega-3 fats. Choose white fish, like cod or plaice, or oily fish like salmon or mackerel. Seafood and shellfish are also a good source of protein. 
  4. Dairy products are commonly known to be beneficial for your teeth and bones due to their protein and calcium content. Milk, cheese, yoghurt, and quark are all good examples. If choosing dairy alternatives, check they are fortified with calcium.
  5. Legumes such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and many more are good sources of proteins. Legumes and pulses also count to one of your 5 a day in an 80g portion (3 heaped tablespoons). These plant-based proteins are often a powerhouse of nutrients including fibre. Try adding black beans to your next curry for a nutrition boost.
  6. Nuts and seeds are a great source of plant-based protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals and omega-3 fats. They can be considered an all-in-one. You can add these in the form of nut butter, sprinkle on top of your favourite meals or include a small handful on top of yoghurt or porridge. 
  7. Soy is a protein-rich plant food known to contain all the essential amino acids, similar to meat. Soy protein is found in soy products like tofu, tempeh, and soy milk. You can also eat whole soybeans, called edamame. There has been also recent evidence demonstrating the benefit of soy products for our heart health 
  8. Wholegrains are a type of grain that has been minimally processed and still contain the third layer, the germ. The germ contains a small amount of protein. For example, a portion of brown rice containing 50g of carbohydrates has approximately 5.5g of protein.
  9. Seitan is a meat alternative made from gluten, obtaining the main protein from wheat. Seitan appears to have a similar consistency to that of meat. It is not a complete protein so should be paired with other plant-based protein-rich foods. 
  10. Protein powder is essentially a concentrated form of protein that can be made from animal or plant sources. You can use this powder to make protein shakes, smoothies or protein balls, or boost your meals with extra protein. Commonly, protein powders can be made from whey, casein, soy, hemp and pea protein. Read more about the best protein powder for PCOS in our dedicated article.

Key takeaways: protein for PCOS

In conclusion, protein plays an essential role in a PCOS-friendly diet. As mentioned above protein is needed for both building and repairing muscles and supporting our bone health. Try to vary your choices of protein, whether from animal or plant sources throughout your day or week as they also contain other key nutrients like iron, zinc, iodine and calcium. 

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Sophia Boothby RD Author at The PCOS Collective

Lead Author | Head Dietitian | Registered Dietitian

Sophia is a Registered Dietitian working as a Specialist Community Dietitian within a London NHS Teaching Hospital specialising in gut health such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and the low FODMAP diet, type 2 diabetes, PCOS, and cardiac rehabilitation. Sophia offers 1:1 PCOS support in our virtual PCOS clinic.

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