In 2010, scientific researchers caused a stir when they reported that diet could indeed affect acne outbreaks. That year, an article in the scientific journal Skin Therapy Letter reported the results of a 27-study analysis—21 observational studies and 6 clinical trials.
Flash forward to 2019–many of us now recognize how our food choices impact the quality and health of our skin. Unfortunately, aside from the rather generic 3-part rule (drink water, eat veggies, reduce sugar/meat intake), every individual is different, and ruling out "bad foods" requires some trial and error.
If you're prone to acne, here are some starter foods you may want to try cutting out:
SUGAR AND PROCESSED FOODS
Though junk food like french fries and chocolate always seemed to get a bad rap when it comes to acne, a growing stack of dermatology research suggests more specific links between diet and acne. One of the biggest dietary culprits may be how the food you eat affects your blood sugar.
The "Glycemic Index" of a food refers to the effect the food has on your body's blood sugar levels. The GI ranks food on a rising scale up to 100 to describe how quickly carbohydrates in the food are broken down and absorbed into your bloodstream. White bread (with a GI of 70) is often used as an example of a high GI food.
When you eat foods containing carbohydrates (sugars and starches), your blood sugar rises. The higher the rise in glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, the more insulin is produced to store it. Over time, this can lead to higher insulin levels that can result in inflammation, weight gain and resistance to insulin's ability to store sugar (or ultimately, Type 2 Diabetes).
How does this affect acne? When your blood sugar spikes, it can lead to inflammation, which plays a role in acne. Eating lots of high GI foods (e.g. processed flours can also elevate hormones that increase the activity of oil glands in the skin, which ultimately contributes to the formation of acne.
In fact, acne is rarely seen in populations with low GI diets. And when people switch to low GI diets, they tend to see fewer breakouts and smaller oil glands (ie. reduced pore size).
Basically, try to avoid simple, processed carbs and foods high in sugar (e.g. common junk foods, candy, cheap chocolate, and even sugary fruits and vegetables).
Watermelon and cantaloupe are high on the GI index, while kiwi, blueberries, and blackberries are lower. That doesn’t mean you should cut out fruit completely, just consider it an occasional treat.
Other low GI foods include whole grain breads, green vegetables, seeds, and legumes.
Another notorious food group is dairy. While it is important to note there is no clinical data showing that consuming dairy has a negative impact on the skin, dermatologists concede there is an increasing number of patients who claim that skin-care issues like eczema improved upon limiting dairy consumption.
That said, food sensitivities are intimately connected to our skin. Inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract caused by dairy intolerance can cause acne and other rashes like rosacea.
Cow’s milk is known to increase insulin levels, and also contains amino acids that stimulate the liver to produce more IGF-1, which has been linked to the development of acne. Notably, these breakouts tend to occur on the chin or forehead.
Finally, high levels of hormones found in generic milk and milk-based products could cause our skin to overproduce oil, exacerbating acne problems. When possible opt for organic, locally sourced milk from responsible dairy farms.
Unfortunately, the harmful effects of dairy as it relates to skin is not just limited to milk, cheese, and yogurt. Dairy can hide in many foods—like an innocent hummus or salad dressing, for instance.
Though dairy may be hard to avoid, consciously reducing consumption or switching to non-dairy alternatives may help you on your quest to clearer skin. And hey, if you sneak a bite of that cake or pungent omelette-du-frommage, at least you'll know what you're getting your skin into.
Acne is strongly associated with eating a Western-style diet rich in calories, fat and refined carbohydrates. And fast food items, like burgers, nuggets, hot dogs, french fries, sodas and milkshakes, may increase acne risk.
In fact, one study of over 5,000 teenagers and young adults (published in 2010 in The US National Library of Medicine) found that high-fat diets were associated with a 43% increased risk of developing acne. Regularly eating fast food increased the risk by 17%.
A similar study found that participants who regularly consumed fast food, specifically sausages and burgers, had a 24% increased risk for acne.
It is still unclear why eating fast food may increase the risk of developing acne, but some researchers propose fried foods may affect gene expression and alter hormone levels in a way that promotes acne development.
WHAT TO EAT INSTEAD
While the foods discussed above may contribute to the development of acne, other foods and nutrients may help keep your skin clear. These include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, and regular consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of developing acne.
- Fermented Foods: promote a healthy gut and balanced microbiome, which is linked to reduced inflammation and a lower risk of acne development.
- Paleolithic-style diets: Paleo diets are rich in lean meats, fruits, vegetables and nuts and low in grains, dairy and legumes. They have been associated with lower blood sugar and insulin levels.
- Mediterranean-style diets: A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grain, legumes, fish and olive oil and low in dairy and saturated fats. It has also been linked to reduced acne severity.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While research has linked certain foods to an increased risk of developing acne, it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Poor dietary patterns are likely to have a larger impact on skin health than eating — or not eating — any one particular food.
It is probably not necessary to completely avoid all the foods that have been linked to acne, but rather consume them in balance with the other nutrient-dense foods discussed above.
We also recommend keeping a food journal to track any sensitivities or signs of irritation that might occur.