Can you manage your PCOS on a vegetarian diet plan? 

If you’re looking for a PCOS diet plan that is vegetarian, you are not alone. PCOS is a common endocrine disorder in women and many of my clients just happen follow a vegetarian diet. Now there are some women’s health practitioners who will not work with PCOS clients if they are vegetarian. Honestly, eating a vegetarian diet (and definitely a vegan diet) makes improving your PCOS more challenging. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. 

The majority of women with PCOS have some level of insulin resistance. The challenge with the vegetarian diet is that many of the proteins associated with this diet plan are also carbohydrates. However, with intentional meal planning and balancing, you can eat vegetarian meals and still improve your insulin resistance. It just takes a little more thought. 

Balancing meals is important with insulin resistance. When we eat carbohydrate foods, our body releases insulin to help shuttle the glucose (which comes from carbs) into our cells. With insulin resistance, this process is less effective. Causing more insulin to be produced. Elevated insulin can cause several PCOS symptoms like anovulation, weight gain, and elevated testosterone. 

An effective PCOS diet plan balances those carbs with protein, fat, and fiber to help slow the rise of glucose and therefore improve the insulin response. On a vegetarian diet, we just have to be more intentional about the protein choices and how to pair them with carbs for better blood sugars. 

Vegetarian Protein Sources

There are several protein sources that are vegetarian (some vegan too) that are lower in carbohydrate.

Lower Carbohydrate Protein Sources

  • Eggs
  • Yogurt (low sugar varieties)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Seitan
  • Protein powders
  • Faux meat products – Beyond meat, Impossible meat, Gardein products, etc
  • Textured vegetable protein

Some protein sources are also good sources of other macronutrients, like fat. 

Higher Fat Protein Sources

  • Nuts
  • Nut Butters
  • Seeds
  • Hemp hearts 

Then there are vegetarian protein sources that are higher in carbohydrate.

Higher Carb Protein Sources

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Bean products (bean pasta, pizza crust, roasted bean snacks, etc)
  • Quinoa
  • Milk
  • Veggie/bean burgers

These are wonderful to incorporate and are a nutritious part of our diets, but if insulin resistant, too big of a portion is going to cause a greater insulin response. All of these foods (except milk) are also great sources of fiber, which help in blood sugar control. It’s not about cutting them out, but knowing how to incorporate them into your meals. 

So how do we make balanced meals for a better insulin response?

We want to incorporate a good balance of all three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carb), as well as fiber.
The easiest proteins to incorporate would be the low carb sources listed above. You can take any of those, and pair with carb, fat, and fiber for a balanced meal. Let’s take eggs. Soft boil some eggs and serve with ramen and vegetables. Bake up some crispy tofu and serve on a hearty salad with a big slice of sourdough. Make a Greek yogurt bowl topped with berries, nut butter, and chia seeds.
The higher carbohydrate protein sources are the ones that we need to be more intentional about balancing.
So let’s say we want to make Banza pasta. We’ve heard it’s a great source of protein since it’s made from garbanzo bean flour. Here’s the details: 2 oz of dry Banza pasta will give you 32 grams of carbohydrate, 5 grams of fiber, 13 grams of protein, and 3.5 grams of fat.
So to build this into a blood sugar balancing meal, let’s take that serving of Banza pasta, add pesto for fat, fresh mozzarella for additional protein, and roasted broccoli for additional fiber. Now we have a satisfying, balanced meal.
Lentils and rice can be a popular combination, and together they are a complete protein. However both of those ingredients are carbohydrates. So if we’re intentional about the portion, we can still enjoy this combo without a large insulin response. 2/3 cup of cooked rice plus 1/2 cup of cooked lentils is 47 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams of fiber, 13 grams of protein, and 1 gram of fat. So let’s take a dish of lentils and rice, like mujadara for example, and add plain Greek yogurt for more protein, caramelized onions for fat and fiber, and maybe a side of a fresh cucumber tomato salad. We’ve taken our carbohydrate and balanced it for a better insulin response.
As you can see from these examples, by being intentional with the balance of our meals, we can follow a vegetarian diet plan for PCOS.

Vegetarian Recipes for PCOS

Nut/Seed-Based Recipes

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An award winning recipe developer, Dietitian Kaitlin’s mission is to empower others to reach their health goals by encouraging them to get back into the kitchen. Co-author of Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating and Cooking with Diabetes.