- Academic research has emerged confirming the link between the consumption of certain foods and acne flare-ups.
- Foods with a high glycemic index, such as refined carbs and sugary beverages, are known to fuel acne.
- Evidence has shown that some foods, particularly those rich in zinc and/or omega-3, can reduce the incidence and severity of acne
- Following a Mediterranean diet may play a role in reducing acne
In spite of the fact that acne is a condition that has affected the vast majority of the adult population (a whopping 79-95% of adolescents) in the United States at some point in their lives, there are still plenty of questions surrounding how best to treat it, and just as importantly, how to avoid acne from developing in the first place.
What we do know is that many factors contribute to acne and no one thing is necessarily responsible for outbreaks. It’s a complex condition that can be brought on by any number of factors, including hormone production, genetic predisposition, wearing the wrong makeup, the climate, and yes, the foods you consume – and avoid.
Do Some Foods Really Cause Acne?
Diet playing an important role in the state of our health should hardly come as news to anyone. And with respect to a diet/acne link, there’s a fair body of evidence confirming that low-glycemic, high-protein foods help to curb outbreaks. There’s also little question that the overall state of our health can play a substantial role in improving acne, the same way it does with many illnesses and skin issues. Put simply, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is more likely to result in fewer incidences of acne than one rooted in pizza, chocolate, and milkshakes.
Further, there are places in the world where acne literally doesn’t exist; Papua New Guinea, Okinawa, Japan, and some areas of eastern Paraguay and Africa to name a few. One thing the people of these acne-free cultures share is a low-fat, plant-based diet with little starch and few or no processed foods, essentially the antithesis of the casual Western diet, which is characterized by high glycemic, fat, and calorie loads with an emphasis on the consumption of meat and insulin- and IGF-1-level elevating dairy proteins.
While this could be coincidental or rooted in other factors outside of diet, some experts speculate that the low-glycemic diets of these cultures discourage acne breakouts because they eliminate spikes in blood sugar levels. Blood sugar spikes cause inflammation throughout the body and encourages it to produce excess sebum, which is well known to be a cause of acne.
Nevertheless, still more research will be required before a definitive link between a low-glycemic diet and acne can be established. For example, while a correlation between a low-glycemic diet and the reduction of acne breakouts has been identified, to date there’s still no consensus on whether a high-glycemic diet does the reverse and leads to acne.
As it stands, The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) does not recommend dietary adjustments to manage acne, citing a lack of sufficient data to arrive at these determinations. So while abundant correlations between diet and acne have been found in the research that has been conducted to date, there are numerous other factors that could also be influencing the results.
Six Foods That May Cause Acne
Milk and other dairy products:
While plenty of questions remain concerning the link between diet and acne, one food group where there is a clear consensus is dairy. In fact, one study performed in conjunction with the Nestle Nutrition Workshop Series Pediatric Program in 2011 concluded that dairy consumption was the single greatest cause of acne in North America.
One reason for this has to do with insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which some studies have concluded increases the production of sebum, a leading cause of acne. Further, dairy products increase the activity of mTORC1, an enzyme believed to contribute to the development of acne along with a host of more serious chronic ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Milk, and skim milk in particular, appears to be one of the biggest culprits responsible for triggering outbreaks in this food group. Some research has determined that people who consume milk on a regular basis are four times more likely to develop acne than those who don’t.
Experts have suggested it could be the hormones in dairy products — along with milk proteins, whey and casein — that spur the outbreaks, theorizing that when they bind to receptors in the digestive tract they signal certain molecules that trigger them.
As for why skim appears to exacerbate the condition more than whole milk remains unclear, but some dermatologists believe it concerns the specific proteins found in it, and that when the fat is removed, producers add more of these proteins to help make the milk appear thicker and taste less watery.
Refined Carbohydrates and Sugar
Studies have shown that people who consume more sugar and refined carbohydrates tend to suffer more acne breakouts than those who don’t. Foods rich in these carbs include: white bread or anything produced with white flour (such as certain cereals and pastas), white rice, rice noodles, soda and sugary fruit drinks, as well as sweeteners like honey, agave or cane sugar.
One study concluded that people who regularly add sugar or sweeteners to their food were 30% more likely to develop acne than the control group, and those who ate a lot of pastries and cake had a 20% greater risk of breakouts occurring. This results from the affect refined carbs have on blood sugar and insulin levels. The carbs are very rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, which quickly raises these levels, and as blood sugar rises, so do insulin levels to help filter the sugar out of the bloodstream and into your cells.
High insulin levels are known to spur acne outbreaks. Insulin increases the activity of androgen hormones and increases insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which boosts sebum production and further contributes to acne by making skin cells grow faster.
Other Foods That Stimulate Acne
Dried fruit: Unlike fresh fruit, dried fruit is a refined carb that is high on the glycemic index, causing blood sugar to spike dramatically, increasing insulin levels as a result. When insulin levels are raised, hormones that may cause excess oil production are affected, potentially leading to an acne breakout.
Trans fat: A staple of processed foods ranging from potato chips to cake mix, trans fats cause blockages in the skin’s blood vessels, triggering inflammation that can stimulate acne.
Fruit juice: Processed fruit juice is loaded with sugar and typically contains no fiber. The spike in blood sugar levels that come with a hearty glass of orange juice in the morning also increases sebum production and potential inflammation, potentially leading to acne flare-ups.
Mixed alcoholic drinks: With both alcohol and most mixers packed with sugar, first and foremost there is the blood sugar spike and inflammation triggers to consider. However, alcohol is also a diuretic that dehydrates the skin, leaving it even more vulnerable to acne as dry skin doesn’t exfoliate properly, consequently clogging pores, leading to breakouts.
Can Some Foods Get Rid Of Acne?
While there are plenty of foods said to avoid in the effort to keep acne at bay, there are also a few that are believed to curb sebum production and aid with other factors that lead to flare-ups.
Academic research is even more scant when it comes to identifying foods that may actually prevent acne, but there is evidence to support, for example, the contention that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the severity of symptoms.
Similarly, research has been conducted to determine if foods laden with antioxidants and dietary fiber may also effectively reduce symptoms, with results indicating that they can, although more study will be required before this can be definitively confirmed. Some foods which may influence acne symptoms include:
Zinc contains anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, both known to be helpful with reducing incidents and the severity of acne flare-ups. One study conducted in 2014 concluded that lower serum zinc levels were likely related to the gravity of acne flare-ups among some people and that increasing the consumption of foods containing zinc can help contain outbreaks. Zinc is found in sunflower and pumpkin seeds, whole grains, nuts and beans, or is commonly available as a dietary supplement.
While supplements are also available, getting one’s vitamins and minerals directly from a food source is always preferable. Foods rich in acne-fighting omega-3 include tofu, eggs, fish (particularly sardines, mackerel and salmon), soy products, kale, flax seeds, walnuts, almonds, mustard seeds and spinach.
Best Diet to Get Rid of Acne
In general, the further you stray from a typically meat-centered, high-glycemic, low-fiber Western diet, the more likely it is that the foods you eat will, at the very least, not antagonize your acne condition and ideally lessen the incidence of outbreaks, along with their severity and duration.
The classic Mediterranean diet, with it’s empathise on fish, fruit, vegetables, high fiber whole grains, olive oil, nuts and legumes, while simultaneously avoiding dairy products like cheese and milk as well as high-glycemic sweets and processed foods, is an ideal diet to follow if curbing acne is one of your priorities.
Foods rich in the aforementioned omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, along with monounsaturated fats and fiber, are widely believed to help with acne, not to mention benefit the overall state of one’s health in general, and as such make for a wise dietary path to follow.
In addition to avoiding the high-glycemic sugary drinks and snacks that tend to increase sebum production and contribute to inflammation, as a basic rule, simply eating fresh, healthy food with an emphasis on fruit, vegetables, and lean meats will not only be a welcome boon to your health, but could also improve the condition of your skin and reduce acne flare-ups.
The sheer ubiquity of acne among North Americans, particularly in contrast to regions of the world where the condition is virtually non-existent, suggests that diet could be a notable factor influencing the frequency, duration, and intensity of breakouts. One thing the acne-free regions of the world share are low-glycemic, plant-based diets void of processed food and sickly sweet, high caloric beverages, two things believed to cause and/or worsen acne breakouts.
While there are other factors to consider when contrasting the typically high-glycemic meat-centered diet of Americans against the diets of these acne-free cultures, studies have shown a definite link between the consumption of certain food groups (such as dairy) and acne, indicating diet could be a causal factor influencing outbreaks. Just how strongly diet influences acne and skin health has yet to be established, however, and more study will be required before a clear consensus on the issue can be reached.
Nevertheless, what is perfectly understood is that the high-glycemic diet characteristic of the West, typically consisting of highly processed food products, excessive amounts of sugar and refined carbs, is not only unhealthy in general but also likely to stimulate the conditions that result in acne. So while there’s still no bona fide cure for the condition, the frequency of acne flare-ups, along with their severity and duration, can be influenced by a variety of treatments and other factors, diet possibly being among them. As such, if chronic acne is a condition you suffer, modifying your diet to avoid the foods that spur it while simultaneously consuming those believed to curb it, may indeed result in an improvement of the condition.
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