Being diagnosed with PCOS can be a confusing time, particularly if it has been diagnosed with minimal information. There is no ‘best’ diet to follow for PCOS, no matter what some google searches have come up with. But maybe you are curious about a vegetarian diet for PCOS… if so, keep reading!
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine (hormone disorder) with metabolic and reproductive consequences. It can display as a collection of symptoms. These symptoms include acne, oily skin, lack of or irregular periods, lack of ovulation, excess hair growth, insulin resistance, increased testosterone levels and fertility issues.
What is a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet includes:
A vegetarian diet does not include meat, poultry, fish or any by-products such as gelatine, stock or fat from animals.
Is there evidence that a vegetarian diet for PCOS can be beneficial?
The evidence to support a plant-based diet such as a vegetarian diet for our heart health, gut health, immune system and mental health is abundant. Usually, this means a person is having a diet rich in dietary fibre from fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins and generally a lower amount of saturated fat from red and processed meats. But is a vegetarian diet good for PCOS?
One study comparing vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets in individuals with PCOS found lower testosterone and cholesterol levels within the vegetarian individuals. The findings also concluded higher inflammatory markers within the vegetarian individuals with PCOS, however, they do mention there is no consideration of other contributing factors such as stress and environment.
A recent study in 2022 found individuals with PCOS following a vegetarian or plant-based diet had better eating habits overall and a lower impact from insulin resistance. There is further research needed in this area to determine if a plant-based dietary approach is a better solution.
What foods should you include?
The key food groups of a vegetarian diet remain similar: carbohydrates, protein, fats, fruits and vegetables. Maintaining a balance of these foods within your meals and snacks will help to stabilise blood glucose levels, manage insulin resistance and keep you satisfied for longer.
The Vegetarian Society adapted the UK guidelines of a healthy diet for a vegetarian diet. This outlines the key difference in your protein food sources.
It’s a common misconception that you can’t get enough protein following a vegetarian or vegan diet. This is definitely not the case, however, it will require more planning to ensure you are getting a variety of protein-rich foods from beans and pulses, dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds and wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice and cereals.
Our bodies do require multiple essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) from the food we eat and that must be present in our diet to support the wide range of functions protein has in our bodies including supporting our muscles, skeleton and hormone. These are known as the 8 essential amino acids: Isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Therefore to ensure you are getting everything you need try to aim for diversity.
Choose different types of beans, lentils and chickpeas and meat-free alternatives alongside dairy and eggs on a weekly basis, partner with different grains such as brown rice, basmati rice, quinoa, bread etc at mealtimes. With snacks aim to have a protein source such as yoghurt, nuts and seeds. A tip could be choosing the mixed bag of unsalted nuts so you have that diversity all ready for you.
Considerations for people with PCOS who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet
As mentioned already there may be extra planning when following a vegan or vegetarian diet as there can be a higher risk of being deficient in certain nutrients.
Vitamin B12 is primarily found from animal products including dairy products and eggs. If you are following a vegan diet then choose yeast extracts and other fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, dairy-free mylks and soy foods. You can check the labels to make sure they are fortified with vitamin B12. Otherwise taking a supplement is a good way to ensure you are having sufficient amounts following a vegan diet.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and Vitamin D work together for absorption to support our bone health. If choosing dairy alternatives, choose ones with added calcium. Avoid organic dairy alternatives as they can’t fortify with added nutrients. Other food sources rich in calcium include green vegetables, pulses and oranges. During the winter months, all adults are advised to take a vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms daily.
Read more: Do I need to go dairy-free for PCOS?
Iron helps our red blood cells transport oxygen around our bodies. Animal foods, such as red meat contain haem iron which is better absorbed by our bodies than plant-based foods sources. Try to partner up your protein sources with a range of foods rich in vitamin C, to help better absorb iron. Avoid drinking coffee or tea at the same time as often they can interfere with absorption.
Iodine is found in dairy products and cheese primarily but can also be found in seaweed and peanuts. It’s often advised for individuals following a vegan diet to take a whole vitamin and mineral supplement to minimise the risk of nutrient deficiencies such as iodine. Iodine is needed to support our thyroid hormones, metabolism and muscle functions.
Omega-3 can primarily be found in oily fish and we are advised to consume two portions a week. Alternatively nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, soya products and green leafy vegetables also contain omega-3 but some people prefer to take a supplement. As well as being great for brain, skin and heart health, they have been found to help reduce chronic inflammation associated with PCOS. Algae omega-3 supplements could be useful for people with PCOS.
Learn more about supplements for PCOS here.
How to decide if a vegetarian diet is suitable for you
Ultimately the decision to follow a vegetarian diet is yours. The main reasons do fall into animal welfare, environment and sustainability and the health benefits it can bring. With any dietary changes, it’s important to also consider how achievable it would be to sustain in the long term. You may need to consider finances, the ability to plan ahead and family responsibilities.