PCOS resources

Worst Foods for PCOS and What to Eat Instead

Learn which foods to skip if you have PCOS.

What you eat may relieve or worsen your PCOS symptoms.

Research shows this is a well-proven fact. A meta-analysis of eight randomized controlled trials found diet, specifically a low-carb diet, could manage insulin resistance, reduce body mass index (BMI), and regulate testosterone levels in PCOS. 

Many people, myself included, have used a diet to lose weight, clear up their skin, and regulate their periods.

All this to say, if you have PCOS, the right diet can treat the underlying causes of the hormonal disorder.

PCOS and diet

The reality is some foods aggravate PCOS, resulting in blood sugar level spikes and weight gain. On the other hand, certain foods can reverse PCOS symptoms.

Once I understood the importance of diet in managing PCOS, I set out to learn everything about the best and worst foods for PCOS. I’m still learning. 

Throughout the post, I’ve referenced a few of the most useful books and resources I used to make changes to my diet.

Below, you’ll learn which foods to avoid, which foods to limit, and which foods to add to your diet.

5 worst foods and beverages to avoid for PCOS

Here are the foods you’ll need to remove from your diet if you have PCOS.

1.Processed carbs

The worst carbs for PCOS are heavily processed. Also known as simple or refined carbs, these carbs are usually found in white-flour-based products, like bread and pizza.

Simple carbs are “quick-digesting sources of energy” that cause intense fluctuations in blood sugar levels, writes Angela Grassi in The PCOS Nutrition Center Cookbook.

“Eating simple carbs worsens PCOS by raising insulin levels and contributing to weight gain. Simple carbs wreak havoc in a PCOS body, so do your best to eliminate simple carbs from your diet, wherever possible,” explains Grassi.

Such insulin surges can lead to serious health problems, per HelpGuide.

“All this insulin can leave you feeling hungry soon after a meal, often craving more sugary carbs. This can cause you to overeat, put on weight, and over time lead to insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes.”

Foods containing simple and refined carbs include:

  • Chocolate
  • Crackers
  • Pizza dough
  • Pasta
  • White bread
  • Pastries
  • Most baked goods

2.Unhealthy fats

Studies tie saturated fats and trans fats to an elevated risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Processed foods, red meat, packaged sweets, and packaged snacks are high in saturated fats and trans fats.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are found in some oils and animal-based products, like red meat. Decades of research link these fats with raising cholesterol and heart disease.

When it comes to red meat and PCOS in particular, common advice is to avoid excess red meat. The authors of a 2021 review of 123 research articles on PCOS and dietary habits examined how red meat affected PCOS. They found women with PCOS who followed a diet low in red meat, like the Mediterranean and DASH diets, saw a reduction in follicles on their ovaries. Consider avoiding corn-fed meat in favor of grass-fed red meat, recommends Healthline.

But here’s the caveat: researchers dispute that all saturated fats are unhealthy. In The Insulin Resistance Diet Plan and Cookbook, Tara Spencer, who has PCOS, writes about this nuance:

“Saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. There is much debate in the health community as to what extent certain saturated fats can be beneficial to health, especially coconut oil.”

Foods high in saturated fats include:

  • Animal sources of food - red meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products
  • Coconut oil
  • Eggs

Trans fats

The most common, and dangerous, form of trans fats is hydrogenated oil, usually found in processed baked and fried foods. It’s associated with hiking up the type of cholesterol that blocks arteries.

Because of these health risks, some countries have gone as far as to ban trans fat. A team of researchers analyzed the impact of a trans fat ban on public health. Their evaluation was published in the Swiss Journal of Economics and Statistics. The analysis specifically focussed on Denmark:

“Following the ban, cardiovascular mortality dropped considerably, while the trends of adolescent and child obesity came to a halt and decreased significantly compared to the synthetic control group.”

Trans fats are found in:

  • Processed foods 
  • Processed snacks like chips and crackers
  • Packaged sweets like chocolate and chips 

4.Sugary drinks

If you have PCOS, you should skip artificially sweetened drinks, like juices and sodas,

An animal study showed sugar-sweetened drinks increased insulin resistance and sugar levels. Researchers published their findings in Frontiers in Endocrinology. They found a high-sucrose diet (HSD), specifically sugar drinks, led to “ovarian dysfunction in rats and could be correlated with PCOS in women”. Researchers concluded:

“Therefore, we reinforce the deleterious impact of HSD to the ovarian system and suggest that the reduction of added sugars intake could be beneficial to ovarian health.”

Grassi writes in the PCOS Nutrition Center Cookbook:

“We recommend avoiding all juices, sodas, and other caloric beverages because of their dramatic effect on raising insulin levels. 

“While beverages containing artificial sweeteners don’t appear to affect glucose levels, the effect on insulin levels isn’t clear. For this reason, we recommend women with PCOS avoid artificially sweetened beverages.”


Avoid desserts high in added sugar and white flour. These foods will cause your blood sugar levels to dip and spike. Plus, you’ll likely end up dealing with “intense” sugar cravings.

As an appetite stimulant, insulin increases sugar cravings, writes Grassi.

“This explains why so many women with PCOS report intense, almost urgent cravings for sweets, even just after finishing a meal. The best way to manage these cravings is to limit the amount of sugar in your diet. The less sugar you have, the less you will want it.”

And since most desserts use white flour, they’ll also spike your insulin levels.

The good news is you can still indulge your sweet tooth with these PCOS-friendly desserts.

6.Fried fast foods

Most fried foods are cooked in hydrogenated oil, according to Healthline. For this reason, steer clear of fried fast foods, like fried chicken and chips. 

A Food Chemistry paper found high levels of “trans fatty acids” in fast food”. A team of researchers found women who consumed fried food, like fried chicken, regularly were at higher risk for cardiovascular death. 

Foods to limit

These foods can form part of a healthy PCOS diet - in moderation.

Starchy vegetables 

Starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn, have a higher carbohydrate content and contribute to raising insulin levels more than non-starchy ones, according to the PCOS Nutrition Center Cookbook.

Grassi recommends keeping the serving size of starchy vegetables to a quarter of the plate.

This means you could still enjoy a starchy vegetable like sweet potato. When compared with white potato, sweet potato is higher in fiber, has a lower GI, and contains more antioxidants, according to Insider. I substitute white potatoes for sweet potatoes for mash and fries.

Here’s a full list of starchy vegetables.

High-GI fruits

Fruits have a place in a PCOS diet, but some increase your insulin levels too quickly.

Medical News Today advises checking a fruit’s glycemic index (GI) score. The GI measures how quickly different foods affect your blood sugar levels.  Foods with a score between 70 and 100 are high GI.

High GI fruits include:

  • watermelons
  • pineapples
  • overly ripe bananas

Dairy products

While there’s no clear evidence that dairy is bad for PCOS, some people do better on a dairy-free diet.

Generally, there have been health concerns due to the hormone levels in cow’s milk. However, an analysis of the research, published in the European Society of Endocrinology, suggests estrogen levels in cow’s milk are too low to “cause health effects in humans”.

For PCOS specifically,  studies indicate dairy doesn’t necessarily interfere with fertility. Though researchers said the data on PCOS and dairy was too scarce to make firm recommendations on dairy and PCOS.

Grassi’s recommendation is this: limit your dairy servings to two or fewer servings per day.

“Milk is a rich source of calcium and protein and is also considered a carbohydrate due to its lactose content. There is evidence that milk, in particular nonfat milk, can contribute to increasing androgen and insulin levels”.

Here’s the thing: you might need to experiment with dairy. I feel much better when I limit dairy, and even then I prefer options like goat’s cheese. Goat’s cheese contains less lactose than cow’s cheese. Look for low-fat dairy products like parmesan or feta, recommends Healthline

5 best foods for PCOS  

A large body of research shows certain foods produce major health benefits for PCOS.

Unprocessed or minimally processed carbs

Minimally processed or unprocessed carbs are loaded with fiber and nutrients. In addition, your body doesn’t absorb them as quickly as refined carbs. Therefore, they're less likely to trigger blood sugar surges. 

In the Insulin Resistance Diet Plan and Cookbook, Spencer sums up the health benefits of slower-digesting carbs:

“Complex carbs provide a gradual release of energy, as well as valuable vitamins and minerals. They are a much better choice for insulin resistance individuals.”

A good example of whole grain for PCOS is quinoa. Considered a superfood for its health benefits, quinoa is associated with reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Good sources of these kinds of carbs:

  • Whole-grain flours
  • Whole grains
  • Oatmeal

Non-starchy vegetables 

Thanks to their lower carb content, non-starchy vegetables won’t cause your blood sugar levels to spike, per the PCOS Nutrition Center Cookbook.

“Non starchy vegetables are full of fiber but low in calories so you should feel free to eat them to your delight.”

Non-starchy vegetables include:

  • Cucumber
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach

Here is a full list of non-starchy vegetables

Herbal teas

Drinking herbal teas can help to regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.

Several studies find specific teas are beneficial for PCOS. These include:

  • Spearmint tea is linked to reducing androgens 
  • Green tea contains anti-inflammatory properties 
  • Chamomile tea regulates blood sugar levels

For more check out this list of the best teas for PCOS.

Healthy fats 

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in seeds, some fish, and avocado, are an important part of the PCOS diet.

“Monounsaturated fats improve blood cholesterol levels and improve insulin sensitivity. This type of fat is found in olives, beef, nuts, seeds, and avocados,” writes Spencer.

Polyunsaturated fats improve cholesterol levels and can also lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Omega-3 fats also have health benefits for women, writes Grassi:

“In regard to fertility, omega-3 fats have been shown to improve egg quality and ovulation and are necessary for a healthy pregnancy.”

Olive oil, oily fish, nuts, and seeds contain healthy fats.

Low-GI fruit

When selecting fruit, look for Low GI options that won’t increase your insulin levels.

Grassi recommends:

“To get the most benefit without too many carbs, try to choose fruits with the skin on them (such as apples, blueberries, and strawberries).”

Pick foods to manage PCOS symptoms  

Understanding the worst and best foods for PCOS will help you make better choices. It’s not an overnight fix, and it’s normal to fall back into bad habits. But over time, you’ll find it easier to completely cut some foods out of your diet. 

Before jumping into a new diet, chat with your doctor about which foods to skip and which to incorporate.

Featured image credit: Photo by Tim  Samuel