Is a vegan diet for PCOS healthy? What should a vegan with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) know?
Nutrition can be confusing! If you want to continue your lifestyle as a vegan while managing PCOS, you won’t want to skip this article!
As a dietitian and vegan, I’m here to clear up some confusion. Lets go!
Disclaimer: This article is just providing education, and is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Always talk to your doctor about any health concerns, if you want to make major dietary changes, or take a supplement. See our Disclaimers for more details.
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This post was originally published on 5/16/22. The updated date is listed above.
What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
Poly cystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS for short) is considered a common hormonal disorder for women of reproductive age.
In short, polycystic means many (poly) cysts on the ovaries. However, not all women with PCOS develop many cysts. Still, the ovaries may not function normally.
There are a lot of things that we have yet to learn about Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – such as what contributes the most to its development, and why some people have certain symptoms, while others do not.
Hormones involved may include an excess of androgens (commonly referred to as male hormones), insulin levels (helps convert glucose into energy) , and/or a lack of progesterone (a hormone involved with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, etc.(1)
Symptoms experienced by those with PCOS may include (fyi: not a comprehensive list) (1):
- Irregular periods
- Weight gain
- Hair growth in unwanted places
- Cysts on the ovaries
Those with PCOS may have an increased risk of (fyi: again, this is not a comprehensive list)(2):
- Difficulties getting pregnant
- Type 2 or pre diabetes
- Mood changes, anxiety and/or depression
- Sleep Apnea (a disorder in which breathing stops and starts during sleep)
- Metabolic Syndrome (includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol or triglyceride levels in the blood – these increase heart disease risk)
Vegan Diet for PCOS (Is it Helpful?)
First things first!: Managing PCOS may involve medication and lifestyle factors. For example, weight management and blood sugar control is the focus of many (but not all) interventions for PCOS. It’s best to speak with your own doctor about what management options are best for you.
With that out of the way, lets discuss why a vegan diet for PCOS may or may not be helpful!
We don’t have a ton of research on diet and PCOS, and there’s even less studies on the effect of a vegan diet on PCOS symptom management.
As I was doing my research on this subject, I only found one randomized controlled feasibility study on vegan diets for women with PCOS.
In this study, 18 women with an overweight or obese Body mass index and PCOS were assigned to either a low calorie or a low fat, low glycemic index vegan diet. Weight loss was measured at 3 months and 6 months.
While the vegan diet group lost more weight at 3 months, there was no significant difference in the groups at 6 months. Furthermore, other outcome measures did not show significant differences, such as menstrual cycle frequency(4).
There are many limitations to this study including a small sample size and high attrition rates. Some women did not complete the 3 or 6 month assessment. Another question to be left answered is whether or not a low GI non vegan diet would be just as effective (more about low GI diets in the next section)!
We’ really need more larger studies with less attrition.
That being said, the position paper on Vegetarian Diets from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that:
“Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intakes of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to a reduction of chronic disease.”Source: Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets
As mentioned in the last section, those with PCOS may already have or be at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, and factors that increase the risk for heart disease.
PCOS has also been associated with inflammation, and many with PCOS have a weights status of overweight or obese per BMI calculations ( body mass index is a calculation using height and weight)(5).
As hinted at in the quote above, going for more whole food plant based and less saturated fats likely contribute to health benefits from vegan and vegetarian diets.
Additionally, one meta-analysis of observational studies suggests lower CRP CRP (c-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation) in those following a vegetarian diet (as opposed to omnivorous diets) for at least two years. This study suggests that vegan or vegetarian diets may have beneficial effects on inflammation(6).
However, its important to note that the study did not find the same significant difference with certain other inflammatory markers, and that the most of the study participants had a BMI of <25 , and none >30 (classified as the “obese” range).
And finally, grouping a diet as vegan, vegetarian, or omnivores can be vague. For example, some omnivores participants might consume a lot of animal products, while others might not. Some vegetarians may consume even more fruits and veggies, than vegans, and so forth.
In short, a well planned vegan diet might be helpful for PCOS, but we aren’t sure if it’s the best diet for all people with PCOS. Remember, PCOS can manifest differently-so a dietary plan should be tailored to each person’s unique needs (more about this later).
What are some general tips that many vegans may want to keep in mind? We’ll discuss that next!
Nutrition Tips for a Vegan with PCOS
The diet PCOS diagnosed women receive will likely focus on individual risk factors. Not everyone with PCOS will have difficulties with fertility, increased cholesterol levels, etc.
Still, nutrition strategies to help manage PCOS often center on decreasing inflammation and the risk for certain diseases associated with PCOS (such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease).
While you may discover the topic of weight loss comes up a lot in the PCOS space – its important to know that not all individuals with PCOS have what is considered an “excess amount of weight” per BMI standards. Talk to your own health care provider about any concerns you have.
With that in mind, lets get to some pointers a vegan with PCOS should keep in mind!
1. Learn About Vegan Nutrition
This goes for anyone who follows/wants to follow a vegan diet. I highly recommend learning where your nutrients come from!
In particular, vegans may want to keep the following nutrients on their radar:
Check out our article Vegan For Beginners to learn more about where to find these nutrients, what to consider in the supplement aisle, and more.
Of note, metformin (a drug commonly used for those with insulin sensitivity issues) use can reduce vitamin B12 absorption in the stomach (7).
Talk to your doctor about what form and dose of vitamin B12 is appropriate for your situation. He or she can also order a test to help assess your levels.
2. Aim For Foods Higher in Fiber. Foods Lower on the Glycemic Index May Be Helpful for Some, but this is Questionable.
What is the Glycemic index (GI) ? It uses of a scale from 1 to 100 that is based on the rise in blood glucose level for a particular food. High GI foods are believed to be absorbed quicker than low GI foods, resulting in higher blood sugar spikes.
You can find examples of high and low GI foods here. In general, vegan foods with a lower GI will tend to also contain lots of fiber, (for example, barley will have a lower GI than white bread made with refined flour).
It’s important to note that a lot research around PCOS and a low GI diet was done in women with a BMI classified as overweight or obese. Not all women (including vegans) with PCOS have these BMI classifications.
Another limitation is that many studies use a low calorie diet in conjunction with a low GI diet. Further research is needed in this area.
Still, whole, plant based foods are generally low on the GI index, such as veggies, legumes, and whole intact grains. High fiber starchy foods tend to cause less of an insulin response than sugar or simple carbohydrates(8).
Some plant based foods exceptionally high in fiber include:
- Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
- Whole Intact Grains (for example: barley, buckwheat, quinoa (a seed “grain”)
3. Favor Anti-Inflammatory Foods
- Trans Fat (for example, found in foods with partially hydrogenated oils)
- Too much saturated fat
- An excessive amount of added refined sugar (such as table sugar)
In opposition, antioxidant rich grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts (such as walnuts, rich in omega 3 Alpha-linolenic acid fats), may help reduce inflammation.
4. Eat Macronutrient Balanced Meals at Regular Intervals
No one likes to be hangry (including your blood sugar)!
Set yourself up for success by eating balanced meals at regular times to help support more stable blood sugar levels.
When I’m talking about “balanced meals” in terms of macronutrients, I’m talking about including some including healthy carbohydrates, fat, and plant based protein at each meal.
This combination should help you feel more satisfied than say- eating a box of gummy worms (just carbohydrates!) for lunch, and may help reduce blood sugar spikes.
Here is an example of a vegan meal with carbohydrates, fat, and protein:
Quinoa (carbohydrate with fiber) + Black Beans (protein, carbs, fiber) + Avocado slices (fat, fiber). Add some veggies, like lettuce and tomato, and you’ve got a nutritious and delicious lunch!
Will I Need Any Nutritional Supplements?
As a reminder: This post contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner: (affiliate link*)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you.
Disclaimer: You should discuss with your doctor about any supplements that may be beneficial for you, along with any questions you have.
Some studies suggest a benefit of specific supplements on certain conditions/symptoms associated with PCOS (as a reminder, PCOS symptoms differ by individual). It’s also important to factor in your diet when discussing nutritional supplements.
Without further ado, here are some supplements that may be helpful for vegans living with PCOS (Fyi-not a comprehensive list):
- Myo – Inositol (a sugar that affects insulin)(9)
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids ( one meta analysis suggests it may helpful for those with PCOS and insulin resistance, high cholesterol (especially LDL) and triglycerides (fat in the blood)(10).
- Vitamin D ( a hormone that may help with ovarian follicular development. 67-85% of women with PCOS may be deficient (11).
It’s also important to note that insufficient vitamin D is not uncommon. In the US, around 40% of American adults may have insufficient levels(12). Its important to discuss if you need a supplement with your own doctor.
Vitamin D is not found in a a lot of vegan foods, aside from UV ray treated mushrooms or products that have been fortified with vitamin D.
If you are looking for a vegan supplement, know that many vitamin D supplements are sourced from sheep wool.
However, there are vegan supplements available! Some are made with lichen. Here is an example of one that I have taken before. I appreciate that the company uses third party testing.
Nordic Naturals Plant Based Vitamin D3 (affiliate link*):
PCOS Diet and Lifestyle Changes
Before you go, don’t miss these additional things to consider!
Having PCOS can feel lonely and confusing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get answers from your health care team (you deserve it)!
- Work with a Registered Dietitian who is knowledgeable in the area of PCOS. He or she can help personalize a nutrition plan for your unique situation.
- Get some movement in! One meta-analysis suggests that exercise plus diet improve some of the levels of certain hormones associated with PCOS(13). Talk to your doctor about an appropriate exercise routine.
- Try to keep stress levels down as much as possible.
- Focus on getting good quality sleep.
- Don’t ignore disordered eating, anxious, or depressive thoughts. Talk to your doctor and get help from a licensed professional if you have or feel like you have thoughts that are affecting your life.
Vegan Diet For PCOS – In Summary
It is possible to continue a vegan diet and work on strategies to help manage PCOS.
In general, a vegan diet that emphasizes healthy whole foods, adequate fiber, and a reduction in simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, saturated, and trans fats may be helpful.
Keep in mind, that everyone with PCOS is different. Work with your own doctor and Dietitian to develop a personalized diet and lifestyle plan for you.
Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share!
I hope you are equipped with some more talking points to bring up with your health care provider/team.
If you would like to learn more about keeping things plant based, why not explore our blog?
Other topics you might enjoy reading include:
❓5 Steps to Transition to Vegan
📖Intuitive Eating and Veganism: Is it Possible?
📚Plant Based Diet Books(Top Picks from Dietitians)
💊Vegan Calcium Supplements
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