The Best Diet for Managing PCOS Symptoms

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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common endocrine disorders in females. There is no cure for PCOS, but research indicates that certain dietary and lifestyle changes can help you manage the condition. If you have PCOS, your healthcare provider may recommend a personalized PCOS diet plan to help prevent the symptoms and potential complications that occur due to the condition's associated hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, and inflammation.

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Benefits

Certain eating habits have been shown to help relieve PCOS symptoms and may reduce your risk of associated health problems. Its benefits stem from the following key goals of a PCOS diet.

Mitigating Hormone-Related Issues

PCOS is primarily linked to hormonal disruption, specifically high levels of androgens like testosterone in females. The classic symptoms of PCOS—abnormal hair growth, acne, trouble getting pregnant, and weight gain—are due to these imbalances.

This is partially influenced by the amount of insulin your body is producing, as well as your weight. Additionally, PCOS disrupts insulin production and regulation, and metabolic functions related to maintaining a healthy weight.

Nearly half of people with PCOS are overweight or obese. Furthermore, roughly half of people with PCOS have insulin control issues, which can lead to prediabetes or type 2 diabetes by middle age. Unmanaged hormonal imbalances can increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers.

Eating low glycemic index (GI) foods and watching your carbohydrate intake can be beneficial if you have PCOS, especially if you are overweight or have high insulin levels.

Weight Management

In a six-month trial, people with PCOS who ate a high-protein (more than 40% protein and 30% fat) diet lost more weight and body fat than those following a standard protein (less than 15% protein, 30% fat) diet.

Neither diet type restricted calories. Since high-protein diets tend to be filling, researchers suggest eating more protein led to less eating and more weight loss.

Studies have shown that even modest weight loss in people with PCOS can improve symptoms and reduce the risk of other health problems.

Reducing Inflammation

Obesity and PCOS can both be related to inflammation. The relationship can feel like an endless loop. People with PCOS are more likely to be overweight or obese. Obesity is linked to inflammation, and inflammation can contribute to PCOS.

Many people with PCOS find that following an anti-inflammatory diet is helpful for managing their symptoms. Research has shown that dietary changes that support a healthy weight and reduce inflammation may interrupt this loop.

In a study published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences, people with PCOS who followed an anti-inflammatory diet for three months lost 7% of their body weight and showed significant improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers.

There also seemed to be reproductive health benefits: 63% of patients in the study returned to having normal menstrual cycles and 12% conceived while following the diet.

Another plan, the DASH diet, reduces salt intake and focuses on heart-healthy foods. It's a popular eating plan for reducing heart disease risk—another concern for people with PCOS.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Hormone and Metabolic Research found that overweight patients with PCOS following the DASH diet lost more abdominal fat and showed significant improvements in insulin resistance and inflammatory markers compared to patients following a standard diet.

In addition to helping your body cope with the physical symptoms, research has also indicated that changes to diet and lifestyle may provide psychological benefits for people with PCOS.

How It Works

There is no scripted PCOS diet. Yours will be designed in a way that suits your needs and helps you achieve health goals.

If you aren't sure where to start, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) can help you design your eating plan.

Duration

There’s no definitive cure for PCOS, and the symptoms and health effects can persist after menopause. If you are making changes to your diet and lifestyle to help manage PCOS, you’ll want to use a sustainable plan.

However, it’s important to remember that your body, including hormones and how you process nutrition, will change as you get older. While the healthy eating and physical activity routines you adopt now will remain beneficial throughout your life, be prepared to make minor adjustments to reflect the changes to your overall health, lifestyle, needs, and preferences. 

What to Eat

The basic guidelines for a PCOS diet are to focus on whole grains, fresh produce, and plant-based proteins while limiting sugar, processed food, and trans fat. 

Depending on your overall health needs, you may need to adjust your intake of specific macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) or add supplements. 

You can use this general list as a starting point, but keep in mind that your healthcare provider or dietician may suggest that you include or avoid certain foods as part of your specific PCOS diet plan. 

Compliant
  • High-fiber fruits and vegetables (apples, plums, broccoli, cauliflower) 

  • Leafy greens

  • Root veggies 

  • Red berries and grapes 

  • Beans, legumes, lentils

  • Whole-grain or multigrain bread, crackers, pasta, tortillas

  • Brown rice, quinoa

  • Oats, rye, barley 

  • Flax, chia, and sunflower seeds

  • Cottage cheese

  • Lean chicken or turkey (without the skin)

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna)

  • Veggie burgers

  • Eggs, egg whites, egg substitutes

  • Low-fat and Greek yogurt

  • Non-dairy milk alternatives (almond, rice)

  • Avocado 

  • Hummus 

  • Coconut and coconut oil 

  • Nuts and nut butters

  • Olive oil, flax seed oil 

  • Fresh herbs and spices (turmeric, cinnamon, ginger)

  • Dark chocolate (in moderation) 

  • Green tea

Non-Compliant
  • Bread, baked goods, crackers, pasta, and cereals made from refined white flour

  • Starchy vegetables (white potatoes, corn, peas)

  • White rice

  • Red meat

  • Full-fat dairy 

  • Processed meat (lunch meat, hot dogs, sausage, bacon)

  • Fried food, fast food

  • Potato chips, microwave popcorn, salted pretzels 

  • Dried fruit 

  • Packaged snack foods

  • Frozen meals and snacks

  • Artificial sweeteners 

  • Granola, cereal bars

  • Margarine, shortening, lard 

  • Instant noodles, packaged pasta/soup mix

  • Bouillon cubes, broth, stock 

  • Commercial salad dressing, marinades, seasonings 

  • Milk/chocolate, candy 

  • Ice cream, pudding, custard

  • Pastries, cake, cookies, pies

  • Soda

  • Sugary fruit juice 

  • Energy drinks 

  • * Gluten and wheat

  • ** Soy products (tofu, soy milk)

*You may choose to experiment with reducing or eliminating gluten, wheat, and/or soy from your diet. For some people with PCOS, these food groups worsen their symptoms, but others have no problem with them.

**Phytoestrogens from plant-based proteins like soy have a complicated relationship with hormonal conditions. Research in rats and humans has been mixed; some studies demonstrated dietary phytoestrogens worsen symptoms, while others noted that compounds have a neutral or protective effect. 

Fruits and Vegetables: Fresh produce is versatile and nutrition-packed. Choose fruits and veggies that are full of fiber, like crucifers (e.g., broccoli), leafy greens, apples, and plums. Red berries and grapes also have anti-inflammatory properties that make them particularly well-suited for a PCOS diet.

Dairy: The PCOS diet generally recommends avoiding full-fat dairy. Small portions of low-fat, low-lactose dairy products like cottage cheese or Greek yogurt are usually fine. Consider also trying dairy-free and low sugar alternatives like almond, rice, or coconut milk.

Grains: Whole-grain or multigrain bread, pasta, and cereals are approved on a PCOS diet. Avoid heavily processed food made with refined white flour. Choose brown rice instead of white, make overnight oats topped with fresh fruit instead of instant oatmeal packets (which can have added sugar), and try adding protein-packed quinoa to salads instead of salty carbs like croutons.

Protein: You can have a mix of proteins on a PCOS diet, but many people choose to focus on plant-based sources such as nuts, nut butter, and vegetarian meat patties. Avoid red meat or any meat or fish that's fried or prepared with a lot of salt, butter, and/or oil. Lean cuts of poultry cooked without the skin are good picks. Eggs are another good choice. Avoid processed meats such as hot dogs, sausage, lunch meat, and bacon, which are high in sodium, trans fat, and additives.

Desserts: Sugar can increase inflammation, so it's best to try to limit sweets. While a small serving of dark chocolate in moderation can be fine for a PCOS diet, avoid baked goods, candy, packaged snacks, and other treats.

Beverages: You may choose to avoid caffeinated beverages like coffee and black tea if they worsen your symptoms. Alcohol can cause you to rack up calories quickly, so it's best to avoid it or consume it only occasionally. Avoid high-sugar beverages like soda, sweetened fruit juice, and energy drinks. Water is the healthiest choice for staying hydrated, and other options like coconut water and green tea are also approved on a PCOS diet.

Recommended Timing

If you are working to manage your weight with a PCOS diet, it's helpful to structure your eating plan around several well-balanced, nutritious, meals each day and to limit snacks. Research has shown this approach can promote weight loss in people with PCOS.

If you have other health conditions that cause digestive symptoms or have trouble with your blood sugar levels, you may need to eat frequent small meals. 

Try not to go more than a few hours without eating. A regular eating routine keeps your blood sugar level stable, and it can also help prevent food cravings, snacking, overeating, and binge eating behaviors, which can affect people with PCOS.

Cooking Tips

The nutrition you get from the food you include in your PCOS diet can be affected by how you choose to prepare it. Some produce is most nutritious when purchased fresh and eaten raw. Others benefit from a little steaming or boiling. 

Some cooking methods can make food less nutritious and even make it unsuitable for a PCOS diet. For example, eggs can be the basis for a protein-packed breakfast, but not if they’re fried with butter. Instead, try poaching eggs and pairing them with whole-grain toast and a piece of fruit, instead of bacon or sausage. 

If you’re trying to lose weight, you may find it helpful to use low-fat and low-carb swaps, such as spiralized veggie “noodles” instead of pasta.

Modifications

If you are trying to get pregnant or are currently pregnant or breastfeeding, you have special nutrition needs. You may need to adjust your PCOS diet or take supplements during this time to ensure you are properly nourished. Seek guidance from your healthcare provider.

Research has shown a link between gluten and inflammation, but it's unclear if reducing or eliminating it from your diet helps PCOS. If you choose to experiment with making this change, be sure to learn more about the pros and cons so you are aware of how this might impact your health.

Considerations

A PCOS diet has a fair amount of flexibility, and the eating plan may differ from person to person. Still, there are universal considerations to keep in mind if you embark on this diet to improve your symptoms.

General Nutrition 

This type of eating plan isn’t highly restrictive, so potential nutrient deficiencies are not a major concern. However, if you aren't getting enough of certain nutrients, that can impact your condition.

If you have any vitamin deficiencies, your healthcare provider may recommend adding supplements if to your PCOS diet.

Vitamin D deficiency is linked to worse PCOS symptoms. Research has shown that it may be especially beneficial for people with PCOS and vitamin D deficiency to increase their levels with supplements, even if it does not lessen their symptoms. 

Flexibility

Many of the foods to avoid on a PCOS diet are standard fare at fast-food drive-thrus, chain restaurants, and convenience stores. French fries, high-fat, high-carb meals in large portions, and salty, sugary, packaged snacks lack nutrition and can contribute to symptoms and health issues related to PCOS. 

For example, a diet high in sodium can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), which increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. The added and hidden sugar in processed snacks, baked goods, and soft drinks can worsen insulin resistance. 

If you’re planning to dine out, it can be helpful to get acquainted with the menu ahead of time. The more you know about the ingredients in your food, how it’s prepared, and what the portion sizes are, the easier it will be to order something that fits your PCOS diet.

Support and Community

There may be times when you feel like talking with someone who is also living with your condition.

You can. look for support groups for people with PCOS in your community or online. Many reputable organizations have websites, social media accounts, blogs, and forums that patients can use to communicate.

Ask others for an idea of what has (and hasn’t) worked for them on their PCOS diet. While their guidelines may not always be right for you, these discussions can give you suggestions to work with and even inspiration, motivation, and emotional support. 

Cost

If your healthcare provider recommends nutritional supplements as part of your PCOS diet, these products can be expensive. Ask your healthcare provider if they can prescribe these supplements for you. If you have health insurance and your healthcare provider orders the supplements, your plan is more likely to cover some or all of the cost.

PCOS Diet vs. Other Diets

Some popular eating plans for weight loss, lowering blood pressure, and managing insulin levels may work well for you if you have PCOS.

Frequently Recommended Diets for PCOS

One study reviewing different dietary approaches found that losing weight improves metabolic and reproductive health for people with PCOS regardless of which of these specific diets they choose.

Your decision about which diet to try will likely be guided by whether you are also managing other conditions in addition to your PCOS. For example, people who have high blood pressure and PCOS may benefit from trying the DASH diet. 

Work with a qualified professional to design a PCOS diet plan that's tailored to your health needs and personal preferences. Research has generally supported this type of patient-centered approach.

A Word From Verywell

After starting your PCOS diet, be sure to give the changes time to have an effect. Be patient with your body and continue to make adjustments to the way you eat as you tune into how it makes you feel.

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15 Sources
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