Protein Needs For PCOS: The Secret Is The Timing

Protein is one of the most dynamic and best utilized nutrients for health and muscle building. Whether it’s the highest level of endurance athlete or the weekend warrior just trying to lose a little extra around the middle, protein is a staple to good performance and getting the most out of your workouts. There is one highly overlooked and underutilized component to protein intake that may make the difference between getting the results you’re looking for and looking to others for answers.

Metaphorically close your eyes and think about your day. When you wake up, when’s the first time you eat? Does it include a high quality protein or is it just a cup of coffee and a starch like a piece of fruit? When is the first time you eat something with protein? For most people it’s probably closer to lunch and then later with a high protein dinner. If you’re one of these people, then you may be missing out on the one thing that could bring you more energy, better muscle function, and a higher metabolism. It’s all about protein timing!

Protein timing is essentially timing out when you take in high quality proteins to stimulate your muscles to keep building/maintaining themselves, ensuring that you’re nearly always in a state that you’re not feeding off of your muscles for energy. The key to this is muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is essentially the creation of new muscle proteins.

The overall amount of protein that you take in also has an impact with stimulating MPS and ensuring that you have enough protein to fulfill the muscle maintenance/building requirements that your body has in store for you. I recommend 15% to 20% of total daily calories due to the increased muscle utilization and higher calorie burning during exercise and at rest. For an individual requiring 2,000 calories, this would look to be 75-100 grams of protein daily. To give you an idea, 1 scoop of protein powder or 3 ounces chicken breast has 25 grams.

Leucine is the only amino acid from protein that initiates MPS. MPS has a threshold where if at any time you take in approximately 2 to 3 grams of leucine content in your protein source, MPS will occur, helping to build/rebuild muscle proteins to help you maintain that high quality muscle you’ve worked so hard for. What is important to know is that MPS has a refractory period, a period of time where it’s active and eventually ceases, which is approximately 3 to 5 hours, depending on the content of your meals, how your body processes nutrients, etc. This is important and will come into play a little later.

To aid you in determining the appropriate amount of protein and types of protein to reach that magical 2 to 3g of leucine at meals/snacks, see chart below.

Protein Source Leucine % of Total Protein Amount of Protein from Source to Reach 2-3g Total Protein
Lentils 23% 8.9g
Almonds 14.25 28g
Whey 11.00% 27g
Milk 9.80% 31g
Casein 8.80% 34g
Egg 8.80% 34g
Soybeans 8.25 36g
Fish 8.10% 37g
Beef 8.00% 38g
Pork 8.00% 38g
Chicken 7.50% 40g
Wheat 6.80% 44g


Source: Norton, Layne. Mighty Meals for Optimal Anabolism. Sports Nutrition Society 2014.

Below is a sample menu of a woman with PCOS who exercises in the morning. Lucy is a busy woman, but makes sure to take in a good protein source at meals and snacks, along with a carbohydrate source, which has been shown to extend MPS. Each meal and snack is between 3-5 hours apart, but never going past that range, so she’s effectively stimulating MPS and ensuring her body is always working hard to build and maintain hard earned muscle. This way of meal timing will also feed off some of the carbs eaten and burn off abdominal fat.

Sample Day

7am: 2 whole eggs and 3 egg whites, oatmeal, some fruit, and coffee

8am: Workout

9am: Smoothie with approximately 25g whey protein.

12:30pm: 3 oz. chicken breast, veggies, and brown rice

3:30pm: handful of almonds and a banana

7:30pm:  3 oz salmon with vegetables

9:00pm: 1 Tablespoon peanut butter and dark chocolate


In addition to leucine and proper meal timing with protein, exercise also stimulates MPS and will raise your metabolism for up to 24 hours after. A big bonus for women with PCOS!

The key to any good nutrition and exercise program is planning and consistency. Planning and prepping high quality protein foods for your meals and snacks throughout the day will ensure that you never go hungry and your body is always working for you, rather than against you. If your goal is to take it to the next level, protein timing may be the key that opens the door to a whole new you!

ZackKnightZack Knight, MS, RD, ACSM-CPT is originally from Chesapeake, VA, currently living in Greensboro, NC, working as a Clinical Dietitian at an acute care hospital in Martinsville, VA. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree with a double major in Kinesiology and Dietetics and a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Physical Activity, both from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. He is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine, and competes in powerlifting with best lifts of a 515lb squat, 340lb bench press, and 525lb deadlift. You can reach him on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter all@TheBarbellRD.

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Comments (4)
  • sue

    September 15, 2016 at 8:19 am

    My 22 years old daughter became so beautiful but now she has grown a beard
    Due to pcos. How can I help?

  • Angela Grassi

    September 19, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Sue, there are many ways to reduce hair growth. Apart from treatments such as lazer or electrolysis, there is a medication called spironolactone that is helpful in reducing testosterone and the appearance of excess hair growth.

  • autum

    November 1, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    so how many women have time to eat at 7 then work out at 8 am ? Not many !!

  • oziva

    March 13, 2020 at 7:42 am

    thanks for your advice and suggestions

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