Whilst there is no cure for PCOS, symptoms can be managed. One of the first avenues explored is lifestyle changes including nutrition interventions.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome, also known as PCOS, is a hormone disorder which impacts 1 in 10 people with ovaries in the UK alone. Symptoms of PCOS include oily skin, acne, fertility issues, excess hair on the face and more.
What is a dairy-free diet?
Simply put, a dairy-free diet involves excluding any foods containing dairy including milk, cheese and yoghurt. Individuals following a vegan diet, or who are diagnosed as allergic or intolerant may have to go dairy-free.
A dairy-free diet can provide all the nutrients you require but careful planning and consideration may be required to ensure vital nutrients such as calcium are consumed. If you follow a vegetarian diet, dairy products can make up a large portion of your protein intake. Therefore more planning to ensure adequate protein intake may be required.
What does the evidence say about going dairy free for PCOS?
There is very little evidence of the effect of dairy on PCOS. And the evidence we do have is usually from short-term studies with small numbers of participants.
Inflammation and dairy
PCOS is associated with low-grade inflammation. And there are claims that dairy may increase inflammation therefore it has been suggested to remove dairy from the diet to improve symptoms. But is there evidence to support this?
In contradiction to this, consuming dairy has not been shown to have adverse effects on biomarkers of inflammation. Furthermore, this analysis of 52 trials found dairy may have anti-inflammatory effects, including in those with metabolic disease.
Insulin resistance and dairy
Insulin resistance is considered both a driver and a symptom of PCOS. Insulin resistance is when the body’s tissues are resistant to the effects of insulin. This means higher blood sugar levels as the cells won’t allow glucose (sugar) to enter the cells from the blood.
Studies suggest that the consumption of milk and dairy products may be associated with higher tissue sensitivity to the activity of insulin and reduced fasting insulin levels, particularly low-fat dairy. Although, this meta-analysis did note that only long-lasting, regular consumption of dairy products made a difference.
More research is required to truly understand the impact of dairy on insulin resistance, particularly in people with PCOS.
What about fertility?
Chronically high levels of inflammation (as seen in people with PCOS) can negatively impact fertility. But, as mentioned earlier, low-fat dairy, full-fat dairy and fermented dairy products may actually have anti-inflammatory effects.
A study looking at the impact of dairy food consumption in people with anovulatory infertility found that low-fat dairy foods may increase the risk of anovulatory infertility whereas intake of high-fat dairy foods may decrease this risk. Interestingly, the largest study to date on fertility and dairy did not find an association between dairy intake and ovulatory problems.
>> Read More | PCOS and Fertility: the ultimate guide to conception
What about acne?
Acne and oily skin are common symptoms of PCOS and are likely linked to increased androgen levels in people with PCOS.
There have been some studies linking acne to dairy intake but the evidence is often contradictory.
A review of 27 studies found that fat-free and low-fat dairy foods did have some impact on acne development. Whereas full-fat dairy products and cheese were found to have less of an effect. It is important to note that this review did not use studies on people with PCOS, therefore we cannot conclusively say whether dairy has an impact on acne in people with PCOS.
Should you avoid dairy if you have PCOS?
There is not enough evidence to suggest that dairy should be avoided if you have PCOS. As with all our advice, choosing what feels good for your body and aligns with your values is key.
Considerations if you’re going dairy free
It is possible to have a dairy-free and nutrient-dense diet. But, some considerations are required, particularly regarding calcium and iodine intake.
Calcium is important for several functions including building bones, keeping teeth healthy, regulating muscle contractions and ensuring blood clots naturally.
Non-dairy sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables such as curly kale and okra, soy drinks fortified with calcium, bread fortified with calcium or fish where you eat the bones.
Iodine plays a role in helping the thyroid gland make thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are essential for metabolism, growth and cognitive function.
Non-dairy sources of iodine include plant-based milks which are fortified (note: not all plant milks or mylks are fortified). Various types of seaweed contain iodine too, as well as white fish and seafood.
FAQ: dairy free for PCOS
Have questions about going dairy free for PCOS? Check out our frequently asked questions below.
Are there any dairy products to avoid for PCOS?
Unless you have a dairy intolerance or allergy or are dairy-free for ethical reasons, there is no need to avoid dairy products for PCOS. There is not enough evidence to support going dairy-free on PCOS symptom management.
Is milk good for PCOS?
Cows milk contains a variety of vitamins and minerals which can support overall health. There is no evidence to suggest that milk is bad for PCOS. If you choose to be dairy-free choose plant-based milks fortified with calcium and iodine to prevent deficiencies.
Is cheese good for PCOS?
Cheese contains a variety of vitamins and minerals and can be a good source of protein depending on the cheese. There is no evidence to suggest that cheese is bad for PCOS.
Key takeaways: dairy free for PCOS
Right now, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that going dairy-free is beneficial for PCOS symptoms like inflammation, insulin resistance, fertility or acne.
Founder and Editor | Registered Associate Nutritionist
Founder of Be The Collective LTD [The PCOS Collective & The Endo Collective] Alex Okell ANutr is a London-based reproductive health nutritionist with experience in research, private practice and digital media. She holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition from King’s College London and has co-authored papers with the University of Cambridge, King’s College London, The Food Foundation and the Food Standards Agency. Alex offers 1:1 PCOS support in our virtual PCOS clinic.