If you’ve been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), chances are that you’ve been told to cut out dairy. This can be disheartening if you love a good charcuterie board, bowl of ice cream, latte – you name it. We know that dairy products are a good source of Calcium, Vitamin D, Protein, Vitamin A, Potassium, and some B-Vitamins – but can dairy potentially be harmful for PCOS, acne, fertility, and hormonal health? Or is this just misinformation?
Let’s break down the science.
Dairy and your Hormones
We’re talking about the hormones insulin and androgens. Insulin is released from your pancreas and helps glucose enter your cells so that the glucose (which is made from carbohydrates) can be used for energy. Insulin resistance, which is common in those with PCOS, leaves insulin in the bloodstream and can lead to elevated blood sugar levels. Androgens, such as testosterone, are commonly elevated in those with PCOS. In fact, this is part of the diagnostic criteria for PCOS.
Androgens, and possibly insulin, contribute to the sebaceous glands making oil, which can lead to acne. What we eat, such as dairy, can influence these hormones. Milk, especially fat free, may play a role in raising insulin and androgen levels. High insulin levels can make acne worse. Low fat dairy products have also been associated with the clinical signs of elevated androgens.
Dairy and Acne
What does the research say? That’s right, not the influencer who told you to cut out dairy because they felt so much better.
Most studies about dairy and acne are observational with self-reported data, leaving room for error. There are no randomized controlled trials at this point – which is one of the most reliable forms of research. Some observational studies showed a greater association with acne in those who drank fat free skim milk than those who drank low fat or full fat whole milk. In other studies, there was no association between cheese and yogurt consumption and acne, but acne was associated with fat free, low fat, and full fat milk.
It’s important to note that family history could matter even more than one’s dairy consumption. In one study, family history was the most reliable predictor of moderate to severe acne. Diets high in milk were associated with a higher risk of acne – but cheese was not (what a sigh of relief for some of you reading this).
Dairy and Fertility
Those with PCOS may struggle with fertility. So maybe you’ve heard advice that you should cut out dairy when trying to get pregnant. Again – what does the research say about that?
In one study from Harvard, women who reported that they consumed low fat dairy products – particularly yogurt, sherbet, and frozen yogurt – were more like to experience anovulatory infertility (trouble getting pregnant due to lack of ovulation, resulting in irregular periods – a common PCOS symptom).
Those who reported that they consumed high fat dairy were less likely to experience anovulatory infertility. The researchers’ potential explanation for these results is that the high fat dairy consumers may have had better insulin function. Improved insulin function can help with ovulation, making fertility easier.
Bottom Line – Consuming Dairy with PCOS
Your decision to consume dairy or not is highly individualized. The current research is not consistent enough to conclude that everyone with PCOS needs to completely cut out dairy. You may consider drinking full fat milk, eating cheese and yogurt, and limiting your overall dairy intake to assess how you and your skin feels.
Remember, there are several ways to care for yourself if you have PCOS – such as eating balanced meals and snacks, sleeping enough, managing stress, and moving your body. Try to “zoom out” and recognize that dairy consumption is just one small piece of the puzzle.
Tips for Consuming Dairy with PCOs
- Consider switching to full fat dairy products
- Try some probiotic rich options – such as Kefir, Greek Yogurt, and Skyr for gut health
- If you consume a lot of milk, consider replacing some of your milk intake with water or milk alternatives. Think in terms of adding variety to your diet – not elimination.
- If you’re looking for dairy free options, look for a higher protein content in your yogurt and milk
- If you need support navigating PCOS, join my PCOS Food Freedom program! I help my clients manage their PCOS confidently without restrictive dieting.
- Azzaro, M. G. (2021, October). DIFM Webinar: Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Managing Insulin Resistance with Diet and Lifestyle. Lecture, Recorded Webinar.
- Chavarro, J. E., Rich-Edwards, J. W., Rosner, B., & Willett, W. C. (2007). A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility. Human reproduction (Oxford, England), 22(5), 1340–1347. https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/dem019.
- Webb, D. (2019, February). The Diet-Acne Connection – Today’s Dietitian Magazine. Today’s Dietitian. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0219p38.shtml.
- Grassi, A. (2014, March). Pcos Nutrition. PCOSChallenge E-ZINE, 1(3), 9–9.
- Di Landro A, Cazzaniga S, Parazzini F, Ingordo V, Cusano F, Atzori L, Cutrì FT, Musumeci ML, Zinetti C, Pezzarossa E, Bettoli V, Caproni M, Lo Scocco G, Bonci A, Bencini P, Naldi L; GISED Acne Study Group. Family history, body mass index, selected dietary factors, menstrual history, and risk of moderate to severe acne in adolescents and young adults. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2012 Dec;67(6):1129-35. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2012.02.018. Epub 2012 Mar 3. PMID: 22386050.
- Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22386050/ – acne, family history
- Almond, A. (n.d.). Close Up Photo of Cheese on Wooden Tray. Pexels. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-photo-of-cheese-on-wooden-tray-3758144/.
- Chetan, V. (n.d.). Sliced Red Strawberry Fruit. Pexels. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from https://www.pexels.com/photo/sliced-red-strawberry-fruit-3212808/.