Jun 8, 2023 • 9 min read

PCOS Diet: Meal Plan & Foods to Avoid 

Medically Reviewed by Kim Langdon, MD on 07.16.23
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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disease in women, affecting between 15% and 18% of women in their reproductive years. Despite the name, PCOS does not necessarily mean a woman has cysts on her ovaries. It is a complex and varied disorder in which metabolism is altered, affecting a woman’s appearance, fertility, and future health.

The symptoms of PCOS include excessive hair growth on the face and body, obesity, male-pattern baldness, missed or absent periods, acne, and skin tags. Your healthcare provider may notice a skin-darkening pattern called acanthosis nigricans in your skin folds. Infertility is common. Ovarian cysts are likely but not necessary to the diagnosis of PCOS. 

Many of the issues seen in PCOS (particularly obesity and higher blood sugar) trigger inflammation in the body. The inflammation furthers the rest of the symptoms and makes it harder to get out of the cycle of obesity, hormone imbalance, and insulin resistance. 

While there is no cure for PCOS, a healthy diet matters to the development of PCOS. It can also change the trajectory of the disease so that symptoms are reduced, and you feel better.

This guide goes over what a healthy PCOS diet looks like, including the best foods to eat, which to avoid, and what an example meal plan looks like. We’ll talk about how diet affects PCOS and why you should consider working with a PCOS nutritionist.

Best foods to eat with PCOS

Because PCOS is inherently inflammatory, the best foods to eat are those that reduce inflammation and promote a healthy weight. Fatty tissue is inflammatory, so any amount of weight loss will potentially reduce your symptoms. 

These foods will help reduce inflammation by promoting weight loss with PCOS or by being inherently anti-inflammatory:

  • Whole grains. Whole grains have fiber to help you feel full after eating and contain anti-inflammatory substances like ferulic and caffeic acids. Both are common in Mediterranean and Nordic diets and are linked to reduced signs of cellular aging and reduced belly fat. Choose brown rice, whole-grain bread, and other whole-grain foods. 
  • Lean protein. Most anti-inflammatory diets throughout the world are lower in fat and contain plant-based foods. Protein derived from plants is lower in fat and calories. Seek out beans (kidney, soy, and others) for their high protein content and choose only a few servings of meat per week. Make sure the meats you select are naturally low in fat, such as poultry, fish, and pork. Kaempferol, epicatechin, and cyanidin in beans, and genistein in soy and white or black beans add to these foods’ anti-inflammatory properties.  
  • High-fiber foods. High-fiber foods help keep you feeling full for longer.  Most high-fiber foods contain other healthy ingredients because they are plant-based. Diabetics and those with prediabetes may see improved blood sugar levels because fiber prevents a large influx of sugar from entering the gut. 
  • Healthy fats. Fats are far from bad for you. Extra-virgin olive oil is prominent in the Mediterranean diet and is anti-inflammatory. It’s worth noting that it has been shown that the keto diet can be good for PCOS.
  • Fatty fish. Fatty fish contain a type of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) called omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are naturally anti-inflammatory and will improve insulin resistance. 
  • Berries. Berries have some of the best anti-inflammatory properties of any food you can eat. Quercetin and cyanidin are anti-inflammatory and are found in elderberries. Blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries may also help reduce inflammation. 
  • Other anti-inflammatory foods. There are anti-inflammatory properties in foods like dark chocolate (not milk-chocolate), green olives, black olives, red grapes, red wine, orange juice, plums, rhubarb, and apple cider. 
  • Spices. Some spices are healthy to eat because they are anti-inflammatory. Consider sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, celery seed, and turmeric which are all highly anti-inflammatory. Dried ginger contains gingerol which also helps reduce inflammation. 
  • Whole foods. Whole, unprocessed foods that are based on plants and contain plant fiber can help you lose weight and maintain normal blood sugar even when you have insulin resistance. 
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Foods to avoid with PCOS

Naturally, foods that promote inflammation are more likely to cause an exacerbation of PCOS. Because PCOS is linked to insulin resistance, foods that worsen this problem (like sugar) will increase the chance of having high blood sugar, fat deposits, or the consequences of high blood sugar—diabetes or heart disease.

Sadly, the Western diet contains many foods that contribute to inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease. Such a diet contains foods you will want to avoid in order to reduce PCOS symptoms:  

  • Sugary drinks. Sugar causes insulin to put glucose sugar into the cells. With PCOS, this process fails, leading to worsened symptoms and the risk of developing diabetes. Sugary drinks spike your blood sugar faster than most things you’ll consume. Avoid colas, energy drinks, sweetened teas, and other soft drinks to maintain better blood sugar. 
  • Processed foods. Processed foods contain things like trans fats, low-fiber ingredients, and added sugar you don’t need. Highly processed foods like processed luncheon meat, chips, store-bought baked goods, and similar foods that need to be processed in a factory also contain preservatives that have increasingly been found to be bad for everyone. 
  • Fried foods & other unhealthy fats. Fried foods are naturally high in fats that promote inflammation. Fats are also calorie-dense, so it doesn’t take as much to add too many calories to your diet. Try grilling foods instead to reduce the fat you’d consume if you fried them. Baked snacks or popcorn are a good alternative to chips and fried crackers (read more about how corn can help with weight loss here). Choose peanut, safflower, canola, or rice bran oil if you want to use oil for light frying as these are healthier for you. 
  • Refined carbs. Not all carbs are bad nor are they inflammatory. Those that cause elevated blood sugar and worsen insulin resistance are highly refined with added sugars. Cookies, cakes, and candy are notorious for raising blood sugar. Any foods with high fructose corn syrup are considered refined and may worsen your symptoms. 
  • Full-fat dairy. Full-fat dairy products contain saturated fat, which does not need to be eaten in very high amounts in any diet. Fat does not necessarily promote fatty tissue more than other foods, but the calories in these foods are often great. Reduce saturated fats by selecting low-fat or no-fat dairy products instead. 
  • Excessive red meat. Lean meats are better than cuts of meat that are high in fat. Avoid marbleized meats like ribeye, New York strip, flatiron steak, and short rib meat, which are more likely to have too much saturated fat in their cuts.
  • Alcohol. Alcohol can affect women with PCOS in unique ways. Alcoholic substances can cause brain chemical imbalances that increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and mood swings. These are seen more often in women who have PCOS, even if they don’t drink. Drinking enough to cause hangover effects can cause intolerable physical stress on the body as well. 
  • Sugary foods. Carbs that have fiber in them are not as likely to contribute to sugar spikes as foods with added table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Sugar spikes are not easily managed when insulin resistance is present in PCOS. You can avoid such spikes and their consequences (high insulin levels, mood swings) by avoiding sweets. 
  • Artificial sweeteners. These have untoward side effects in those who are susceptible to weight gain, including women with PCOS. Sweetened foods with non-nutritive sweeteners promote sugar cravings and mood swings. They also stimulate your appetite and may make you eat more than you would otherwise consider eating.   

Example PCOS meal plan

Breakfast

  • Overnight oats: Made with steel-cut oats (whole grain), almond milk (low-fat dairy alternative), chia seeds (high fiber), and a handful of blueberries (berries, anti-inflammatory)
  • A cup of green tea (anti-inflammatory)

Mid-Morning Snack

  • A small bowl of mixed nuts (healthy fats) and seeds (high fiber)

Lunch

  • Quinoa Salad: Cooked quinoa (whole grain), mixed with grilled chicken breast (lean protein), colorful bell peppers, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes (all whole foods), topped with a dressing of olive oil (healthy fat) and lemon juice
  • Water with a slice of lemon (alternative to sugary drinks)

Afternoon Snack

  • A smoothie made from almond milk, a handful of spinach (high fiber, anti-inflammatory), a tablespoon of flax seeds (high fiber, healthy fats), and a cup of mixed berries (berries, anti-inflammatory)

Dinner

  • Baked salmon (lean protein, healthy fats) with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes (whole foods, high fiber)
  • Brown rice (whole grain)

Evening Snack

  • A small bowl of Greek yogurt (low-fat dairy) with a handful of raspberries (berries, high fiber)

>> Find a PCOS Nutritionist That Accepts Your Insurance

Tips for a healthy PCOS diet & lifestyle

While it makes sense that we should all eat healthy, it is even more important to adopt a healthier lifestyle when dealing with PCOS. You’ll want to avoid eating foods that contribute to mood swings, inflammation, diabetes, and weight gain with PCOS while increasing your activity levels and reducing stress. 

Here are some tips for being healthier with PCOS:

  • Hydrate. Consume as much calorie-free water as you can and try not to load up on soda (even sugar-free sodas). Hydration helps flush toxins and keeps you feeling fuller for longer, so you aren’t as likely to eat or snack. 
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Small meals will be less likely to promote blood sugar spikes or the blood sugar reductions that may follow. You will be eating more often but will not gain weight or be hungry when the meals are smaller. 
  • Limit sodium. Sodium does not literally make you fat but may make you feel bloated. Bloating is uncomfortable. And even if you feel fine, your blood sugar may be elevated by taking on too much sodium. 
  • Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating means taking your time and avoiding speed eating. Enjoy your meals free of distractions like TV, phones, and driving. Eat seated at a table, focusing on the food itself (flavor, texture, and other appealing features) to reduce mindless eating. 
  • Meal prep guidelines. The way you cook food matters in how healthy it is for you to eat. Try to avoid frying foods. Add vegetables to as much of your meal as possible to enhance its nutrients. Grilled meats and veggies are good options. Plan on fresh or frozen vegetables. Baking is a better option than frying as well. 
  • Consider supplements good for PCOS. There are certain supplements that can help with PCOS weight loss as well as anti-inflammatory supplements that may help reverse the metabolic disturbances seen in PCOS. Those with the greatest ability to reduce inflammation are curcumin, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, SAM-e, and green tea. Berberine reduces blood sugar fluctuations and may reduce your appetite and weight. There are also PCOS weight loss medications but you’ll want to talk to your doctor before starting those or any supplements.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep triggers an imbalance between your hunger and satiety hormones. When you don’t sleep enough, not only is your mood affected, but you’ll also have difficulty with increased appetite, food cravings, and overeating. 
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise improves your metabolism and your mood. It doesn’t take a great deal of exercise to enhance your metabolism for much of the day. The recommended amount of exercise for healthy people is 30 minutes daily for five out of seven days in a week. 
  • Manage stress. Stress causes an increase in your blood cortisol levels. When this happens, your blood sugars rise in response, triggering an increase in belly fat (sometimes called PCOS belly) and complications. Stress reduction isn’t easy, but it will pay off in better blood sugars and more. 
  • Work with a PCOS nutritionist. A PCOS nutritionist is skilled not only in nutrition but in the effects of diet on PCOS. Many women with PCOS struggle with finding diets or meal plans that work for them; this is where a PCOS nutritionist can be a lot of help. 
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How diet affects PCOS

PCOS symptoms are highly dependent on the quality of your diet and its nutritional composition. Foods that contribute to inflammation, high blood sugar, and mood swings are more likely to worsen your symptoms, while those that have the opposite effect will improve them. 

Research demonstrates that numerous supplements and phytonutrients can be used to mitigate some of the symptoms seen in PCOS, including green mint along with a ketogenic diet for the management of high androgen levels, lack of ovulation, and hirsutism (hair growth). High-fiber diets reduce blood sugar abnormalities and fatty liver disease sometimes seen among those who have the disease. 

Those with PCOS have a greater sensitivity to developing mood swings from sugar highs and lows and are prone to weight gain when eating a typical Western diet. Research also demonstrates that, in places of the world where the Western diet gets adopted, the rates of obesity and PCOS increase, while female fertility diminishes. 

Why you should consider working with a PCOS nutritionist

PCOS is extremely challenging to manage by yourself, particularly if you have several of its issues to manage. A PCOS nutritionist is an excellent resource for you in your journey to manage your symptoms or even help with things like developing a PCOS diet that can help with fertility.

PCOS nutritionists are experts in nutrition and understand the impact of your diet on your health.  They understand the importance of balancing your reproductive hormones and know how to make corrections through diet and/or the use of supplements. 

Dietitians specializing in women’s health issues like PCOS can provide personalized instruction and advice after reviewing your diet and listening to you describe your symptoms. They can assist you in finding a diet plan that will work for you and can help you track your progress toward fewer symptoms, improved health, and a better long-term prognosis.  

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Christine Traxler MD is a family physician, lifelong writer, and author with a special interest in mental health, women’s healthcare, and the physical after-effects of psychological trauma. As a contributing writer and editor for numerous organizations, she brings a holistic focus to her work that emphasizes healing and wellness through daily self-care, connecting with others, and setting stepwise goals toward achieving more balanced and authentic lives.