When I first started trying to eat healthfully, I thought vegan was the best way to go. I used to spend hours upon hours reading vegan food blogs. While I never went totally vegan, there was a period of 5-7 years where I was nearly vegetarian. Chicken was the only animal protein I would touch.
Upon entering nutrition school, I figured EVERYONE would be vegan.
Little did I know that eating styles featuring good amounts of animal proteins (like Paleo) would be the favourite among my teachers and classmates.
Since finishing school and starting The Hormone Diva, I have taken a whole-foods approach in everything I do, and firmly believe in the power of good quality animal foods for healing – especially healing hormones and conditions like PCOS.
All of The Hormone Diva meal plans I’ve since created follow this unprocessed, whole-foods philosophy.
Then many of the lovely ladies with PCOS in my community starting speaking up that they were vegan, and where were all the no-animal recipes?
I do believe there are HUGE benefits to eating a plant-based diet. In this blog post I want to first help you understand the difference between plant-based and vegan eating styles, as well as whether you can truly be healthy on a vegan diet and what some of the benefits of plant-based eating for PCOS are.
I do still have a big opinion on this subject, and will share this at the end of the article. Until my opinion arrives, all the info I’m sharing is unbiased and based on what I’ve been taught and research I’ve done.
I do want to mention that I’m not really addressing veganism as a cultural, religious or ethical choice here. I am not getting into that debate. Rather I’m focusing on women who choose to be vegan for health reasons.
Plant-Based vs. Vegan
Does eating plant-based mean you’re vegan? Not necessarily.
Does eating vegan mean you’re plant-based? Maybe not.
Plant-based eating is simply eating a diet free of processed foods and (most, if not all) animal products while focusing heavily on fresh vegetables, some fruits, legumes/beans, nuts/seeds and whole grains.
Veganism on the other hand simply means eating no animal foods. This doesn’t mean a vegan diet is necessarily high in plant-based, whole, unprocessed foods. For example, those vegan “meats” found in the grocery store, pastas/noodles, and many packaged snacks are technically vegan because there’s no animal products, and there’s really very little nutrition in these as well.
So, in theory, a vegan could be extremely unhealthy if they rely more on these processed convenience foods, rather than eating an actual plant-based diet.
Veganism and plant-based eating are not one in the same but they can be, if you’re conscious with your food choices.
Can You Be a Healthy Vegan with PCOS?
This is a tricky question. There are definitely success stories of women who have gone vegan and reversed many of their PCOS symptoms. A simple google search will find you those stories. Even one of my clients found she felt best on a plant-based, vegan diet.
Then there’s the overwhelming number of cases where women switch to a moderate carb, high protein/fat diet including animal foods and have a lot of success. This is the camp where the women using my meal plans and going through my PCOS Bootcamp live.
Truthfully, with a vegan diet (even heavily plant-based), there’s nutrients that are harder to get. For example, B12 is nearly impossible to get from plant-based foods. Yes, some plant foods have B12 (like spirulina), but in research, the form of B12 they contain isn’t really usable by our bodies, unlike the B12 in beef, for example.
Additionally, the macronutrient protein can be more difficult to get. Yes, many plant-foods have high levels of protein in them- but this also comes with high levels of carbs in most cases. High carb diets typically aren’t great for PCOS because they don’t take into account insulin and blood sugar issues.
That being said, if you are conscious 100% of the time about your foods choices (and supplement smartly), it is possible to be healthy on a vegan, plant-based diet. This requires a lot of work and knowledge, and is often where women fall short.
3 Benefits of Plant-Based Eating for PCOS
Regardless of your beliefs or choices, eating even some of your meals in a vegan, plant-based style can be beneficial, and here’s why.
Fibre is incredibly important for PCOS for a couple of reasons.
First, fibre binds to and helps us excrete excess estrogen (through our poops). Most women with PCOS have some level of estrogen dominance, and getting estrogen balanced is key for regulating cycles and reducing symptoms.
For example, excess estrogen can be converted into androgen hormones like testosterone, which can lead to facial hair, acne and hair loss.
Second, fibre helps to feed our good gut bugs, or “probiotics”. We need probiotics for so many different reasons, including regulating estrogen. The set of specific probiotics that balance estrogen are known as the estrobolome, and fibre will help to keep these guys happy.
Third, fibre is helpful for regulating insulin and blood sugar. It works even better when combined with protein and fat (the 3 components to any PCOS-balancing meal). Fibre helps to reduce the spike of blood sugar when eating something with carbs. This is great news for all PCOS symptoms and especially for weight loss.
For example, white bread has zero fibre, and it a nightmare for your blood sugar (and pretty much everything). On the other hand, eating a sweet potato gives you plenty of fibre, and sweet potatoes won’t spike blood sugar and insulin as drastically as white bread.
Happy Hormones Tip: Aim for 35g to 45g of fibre daily. If you have irregular or absent menstrual cycles or are trying to conceive, aim for 30g-35g of fibre daily.
#2: Vitamin and Mineral Rich
When you eat plant-based, you’re eating a lot of colourful foods. Each colour has different nutrients, and each plant within a colour has different nutrients.
Some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat come from plants.
For example, dark leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale and collard greens are jam packed with fibre (win!), B vitamins, folate, vitamin C, minerals like magnesium, calcium and manganese.
Replenishing nutrient deficiencies is key for PCOS because it will help to reduce inflammation, reset insulin sensitivity and help us produce the right hormones in the right amounts at the right times.
Happy Hormones Tip: Eat from the rainbow everyday. Have you gotten something green, orange, red and blue/purple today?
#3: Cleansing + Detoxifying
Due to the fibre, vitamins, minerals and other anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in plant-based foods, eating a vegan, plant-based diet can be very detoxifying.
All that fibre is going to have you pooping 2-3 times per day (which is ideal), thereby clearing out many toxins your liver has dumped.
All nutrients help your liver, skin, lungs, kidneys and colon (aka your detox organs) to work more effectively to remove toxins (like BPA from plastic), medications (like birth control) and built-up hormones from our system.
Usually this results in more energy, clearer skin, a sharp mind and better mood for most.
Happy Hormones Tip: Include green leafies, beets and lemon daily to boost detoxification.
My Opinion on PCOS, Plant-Based Eating and Veganism
Now we come to my opinion.
I still 100% believe that using SOME animal foods is extremely beneficial for women with PCOS.
Animal foods provide certain nutrients (like B12 and amino acids) in forms that our bodies are actually able to use and assimilate and in amounts high enough to be beneficial.
Including animal foods makes it easier to moderate carb intake, an important factor in PCOS. Many high-protein plant-based foods are also high in carbs.
Typically what I see is women with PCOS who go vegan feel a lot better for 1-3 months, because they are really detoxifying and often giving their bodies loads of nutrients for the first time ever.
Then after this “honeymoon” period, symptoms can come back, get worse or new symptoms can form. For example, many women I’ve worked with feel more fatigued after a few months of veganism (even the plant-based kind) than women who eat even a small amount of animal products.
Additionally, while they may initially lose weight (due to dumping toxins and getting nutrients), they often gain some (or a lot) or weight back after a while, as they aren’t getting enough easily assimilable protein and fats to counteract the many carbs they’re consuming.
Also, eating super well on a plant-based, vegan diet is difficult. Taking short cuts helps no one. Many women revert to convenience foods over time, losing out on many benefits of fresh, unprocessed plant foods.
Again with this post I’m not addressing religious, cultural or ethical considerations in being vegan or vegetarian. I’m not entering that debate. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and if plant-based vegan is already working for you- more power to you!
Below you’ll find one of my favourite vegan recipes, straight from the NEW batch of plant-based vegan recipes I’ve added to The Hormone Diva’s 28-Day Fat Loss Meal Plan for PCOS.
Even one plant-based day or meal per week will provide incredible benefits, so I encourage you to try it!
- 1 can brown lentils
- ⅓ cup almonds- sliced, slivered or chopped
- 3 cups shredded brussels sprouts
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ⅓ cup Basic Dressing or Oil + Vinegar with a Kick (both in PCOS Meal Plan) or your fav vinaigrette
- ½ cup shredded carrot
- ¼ cup sunflower seeds
- 1 cup sliced cremini or shiitake mushrooms
- Sprinkle seaweed - arame, wakame or chopped nori sheets
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a pan over medium heat, melt the coconut oil. Once heated, add the lentils, mushrooms, brussels sprouts, garlic and carrots to the pan. Add some salt and pepper, and saute until brussel sprouts have wilted a bit and everything is heated through, 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat.
- To serve, place cooked mixture on a plate, top with seaweed, sunflower seeds and top with Basic Dressing or Oil + Vinegar with a Kick.
- Can also be served cold. Keeps in the fridge up to 3 days.