Why Protein Is Important in a PCOS Diet

For women with polycystic ovary disease (PCOS), increasing dietary protein may be a helpful strategy for preventing weight gain, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes— all common complications of the condition.

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This is because in addition to fueling the body with calories (along with carbohydrates and fats) and providing the so-called building blocks for bones, muscles, skin, and blood, protein helps facilitate digestion and metabolism and plays an integral role in the synthesis of hormones, including estrogen, testosterone, and insulin, functions that often are impaired in women with PCOS.

In order for an increase in dietary protein to be beneficial for managing PCOS, it must be accompanied by a relatively lower intake of carbohydrates and come from foods that are low in saturated fat. Getting the proportions and food sources right, ideally with the help of a dietitian, may be an effective way to stave off many of the adverse effects of PCOS.

More than half of all women with PCOS develop diabetes by age 40.

Benefits of Protein in PCOS

While not a “cure” or direct treatment for PCOS, studies show a high-protein/low-carb diet can be beneficial in a number of ways:

  • Help boost metabolism: All foods have a thermic effect, meaning they increase the rate of metabolism and the amount of calories burned. The thermic effect of protein is between 15% and 30%, far greater than that of carbohydrates (5% to 10%) or fats (0% to 3%). Eating more protein can increase the number of calories burned per day by as many as 100.
  • Control appetite: Protein stimulates the production of cholecystokinin, glucagon-like peptide 1, and peptide YY, hormones that are involved in satiety, helping to reign in appetite and reduce cravings.
  • Improve blood sugar control: All foods trigger a glycemic response in which blood sugar (glucose) levels increase. Because protein is digested slowly, its impact on blood sugar is relatively low. A 2019 study in Diabetologia reported that adults with type 2 diabetes who followed a high-protein diet for six weeks had reductions in both postprandial (post-eating) and fasting glucose levels.
  • Temper the insulin response: Protein stimulates the release of glucagon, a hormone that raises blood glucose levels and counteracts the action of insulin. The right amount of protein can help balance the levels of glucagon and insulin in the blood.

Research looking at the effects of a high-protein diet on PCOS has been promising. For example, a 2012 study from Denmark reported that women with PCOS who followed such a diet for six months lost an average of nine pounds of body fat.

Similar results were seen in a 2012 study from Iran in which 60 overweight women with PCOS who followed a diet made up of 30% protein not only lost weight but also had lower testosterone levels and improved insulin sensitivity.

Dietary Recommendations

There are no specific dietary recommendations for women with PCOS. There is evidence, however, to suggest increasing the amount of protein in the diet from 15% of calories to 30% or even more than 40% may be highly beneficial.

This is along the top end of recommendations by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that women 19 and over get 10% to 35% or more of their daily calories from protein.

DHHS Recommendation for Daily Protein Intake in Grams (g)
Age Female Male
1-3 13 g 13 g
4-8 19 g 19 g
9-13 34 g 34 g
14-18 46 g 52 g
19-30 46 g 56 g
31-50 46 g 56 g
51 and oer 46 g 56 g

There are reasons for this guidance. Even though protein is broken down slowly, 50% to 60% of it is converted to glucose. If eaten alone, its effect on blood sugar is minimal since the glucose will be distributed to the bloodstream at a slow, steady pace.

The same may not be true when protein, carbohydrate, and fat are combined. In some cases, protein actually can increase blood sugar levels if the balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat is not carefully controlled.

A 2015 review of studies in Diabetes Care demonstrated this, reporting that combining 30 grams of protein with 35 grams of carbohydrates can increase postprandial blood glucose by 2.6 mmol/L. This is enough for some people to push them from a normal to a high blood sugar level.

According to a 2014 study in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, even a 5% drop in weight can improve insulin sensitivity, hyperandrogenism (high testosterone), menstrual function, and fertility in women with PCOS.

Tips and Considerations

If you decide to try a high-protein diet to prevent weight gain and/or lower the risk of diabetes due to PCOS, the best way to start is to speak with a dietitian experienced in metabolic disorders. They can devise an eating strategy that meets your nutritional needs and also helps you lose weight safely and keep it off.

To lose one pound of weight per week, you would need to reduce your daily calorie intake by 500 calories. This makes preparation all the more important since you will not only need to reduce calories but do so with an entirely new ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

If you have diabetes, it is also important to talk with your doctor before starting any diet and to have your condition routinely monitored. The same applies if you have advanced kidney disease in which a high-fat diet may be contraindicated.

Protein Sources

The best sources of protein for weight loss are low in saturated fat (such as red meat, an otherwise ideal source of protein). Good choices include:

  • Almonds: 6 g protein and 164 calories per ounce
  • Eggs: 6 g protein and 78 calories per egg
  • Greek Yogurt: 7 g protein and 100 calories per 6-ounce serving
  • Milk: 8 g protein and 149 calories per cup
  • Quinoa: 8 g protein and 222 calories per one cup (cooked)
  • Pumpkin Seeds: 9 g protein and 158 calories per 1-ounce serving
  • Oatmeal: 11 g protein and 307 calories per one cup (uncooked)
  • Lentils: 18 g protein and 230 calories per one cup (cooked)
  • Shrimp: 20 g protein and 84 calories per 3-ounce serving
  • Lean Sirloin: 25 g protein and 186 calories per 3-ounce serving
  • Turkey Breast: 26 g protein and 125 calories per 3-ounce serving
  • Canned Tuna: 27 g protein and 128 calories per can
  • Cottage Cheese: 28 g protein and 163 calories per cup
  • Soybeans: 29 g protein and 173 calories per cup
  • Chicken Breast (Without Skin): 53 g protein and 284 calories per half breast

Protein powders and shakes can also be useful in boosting your daily intake but should not be used as a substitute for real food.

Animal vs. Plant-Based Proteins

There are two sources of dietary protein: plant (such as soy, nuts, and beans) and animal (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs). With the exception of soy, only animal-based proteins are complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids the body needs to function normally,

Because plant-based proteins do not, it's important for people who do not eat meat (namely, vegans and vegetarians) to learn how to combine different plant sources of protein so they ultimately get an ample amount of each amino acid each day.

For example, grains are low in the amino acid lysine, while beans and nuts are low in methionine. When grains and legumes are combined (such as rice and beans or peanut butter on whole-wheat bread), they form a complete complementary protein.

A Word From Verywell

If you have PCOS and struggle with weight or blood sugar control, you may well want to consider trying a high-protein/low-carb diet. Work with a doctor or dietitian to find the eating regimen that is not only appropriate for your age, weight, and medical condition but that also is based on foods you truly enjoy. This way you'll be able to sustain your diet and any benefits it provides.

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