- Some believe the high fat/low carb keto diet has beneficial side effects for skin health
- In theory, the alleged anti-inflammatory effect of the diet should reduce the incidence and severity of acne, eczema and psoriasis outbreaks
- The keto diet has been shown to reduce acne for some people, but be the root cause of flare ups for others
- The extreme nature of the keto diet renders it unsuitable and dangerous to maintain for long periods of time, making it an unrealistic long-term skin health solution
The ketogenic diet, or as it’s perhaps more widely known, the “keto diet”, has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, and not all of it good.
As a weight loss program it’s already considered controversial, with advocates insisting the diet’s focus on consuming copious amounts of fat and protein while severely limiting carbohydrates is a radically new and effective approach to losing weight, while others express concern that “restrictive eating” diets as typified by keto are extreme, unnecessary, and only promote unhealthy eating practices.
One indirect consequence of the keto diet is that it’s also believed to be beneficial for the skin, although just how beneficial is questionable, as is whether this incidental side effect alone is justification enough to take on what’s generally considered to be a pretty extreme, even borderline unsafe, diet regimen.
Studies May Be Limited, but They’re Promising… in Theory
According to Dr. Jeanine Downie, a dermatologist at Image Dermatology P.C. in Montclair, NJ, there is some reason to believe a high fat/low carb diet may in fact be good for skin health. “There’s been a lack of extensive testing concerning the theory that the keto diet can improve the effects of skin aging, “says Downie, “but theoretically, the effects this anti-inflammatory diet has on the skin make sense clinically.”
As Dr. Downie explains, “the keto diet works because you devoid your diet of glucose-providing carbohydrates and must therefore use the fat in your body for energy. This breakdown of fat is a process called ketosis. By forcing the body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates for energy, it’s been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect via calorie reduction.” Inflammation, of course, equals pimples, eczema, psoriasis, and other skin problems like rosacea, so when something has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, theoretically it should help with these conditions.
Of course, while all diets play an important role with respect to skin health, it remains to be seen if it’s the wider, cumulative effect of a high fat/low carb diet that impacts the skin (either positively or negatively) or if it’s more a matter that some foods are just good for the skin and the positive results keto dieters experience come by simple virtue of consuming them, rather than any anti-inflammatory effects from the state of “ketosis” the diet gets its name from.
“The biggest issue with this diet,” says Downie, “is its lack of clinical studies and therefore accurate results/conclusion about it’s effects.”
How the Keto Diet Influences Skin Health
Until fairly recently it was widely accepted that diets high in sugar and refined carbs were apt to encourage skin inflammations, such as acne breakouts. This theory has since been discounted as mounting evidence indicates carbohydrates are the main dietary culprit responsible for acne — and other, similar skin inflammations like eczema or psoriasis — due to the negative effect they can have on hormonal regulation. And the keto diet is, as we know, definitely a low carb regimen.
It’s further believed that people who follow a low glycemic-load diet will experience a reduction of acne lesions. Given that all keto diets significantly reduce carb intake and are rich in foods that lower blood sugar levels, it follows that skin health would improve as a result. Again, in theory, as the bulk of evidence supporting these claims remains anecdotal.
How the Keto Diet Could Be Beneficial for the Skin
As an anti-inflammatory. In addition to lower blood sugar levels and reduced carbohydrate intake, there are a number of reasons why the keto diet would in theory be beneficial for people who suffer from certain common inflammatory skin conditions.
Except while the limited studies devoted to the subject have been promising, they’ve also been largely inconclusive, with the consensus being that still more randomized controlled trials will be required in order to confirm any alleged benefits. One study from 2012, however, concluded that the keto diet may reduce the severity and frequency of outbreaks by:
- Reducing insulin levels. High insulin levels stimulate the production of skin cells, sebum and androgens, which can all lead to acne. The keto diet decreases insulin levels, which in theory should reduce the severity and incidents of acne breakouts.
- And again, as an anti-inflammatory. The study offered further evidence that the diet produces an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Skin texture, glow: Keto diets contain a high oil content, which helps to make the skin appear younger and healthier as more oil is released through its oil glands.
Reduce fine lines and wrinkles: Too much sugar in the diet leads to glycation, which in turn weakens collagen and leads to wrinkles, fine lines and saggy skin. By dramatically lowering the consumption of carbs and sugar in one’s diet, it follows the result would be an overall improvement to the appearance of the skin. Keto diets are very low in carbs and refined sugars.
Photodamage: The keto diet emphasizes eating healthy fats rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, nutrients that are understood to prevent sun damage. At the same time, the diet avoids trans fats common to fried and processed foods, which are known to cause inflammation, acne, and a loss of collagen.
How the Keto Diet Might Be Damaging to the Skin
As with other alternative, largely unproven skin care solutions, what works for one person won’t necessarily produce the same effect for somebody else. The keto diet as it influences acne appears to be a case in point. Some people report their strict adherence to the diet has produced a gradual yet notably positive effect on their acne, while others contend nothing of the sort, that instead the diet actually causes their skin to break out.
Dr. Downie explains that “the (fat-rich) keto diet includes fats that can either contribute to sebum production or act as anti-inflammatories, lowering the likelihood of inflammatory acne”. However, in general, diets high in fat are believed to increase inflammation in the body, sparking skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. Again, it appears as though much of the reaction depends on the individual.
Another area of concern is that keto diets are partially designed to help shed water weight, with the side effect being it can leave dieters dehydrated. A lack of proper hydration can shrink skin cells, resulting in dry, irritated skin that highlights wrinkles, fine lines, and other unflattering signs of aging.
One study conducted in 2017 looked at levels of a specific marker for inflammation called the C-reactive protein, concluding that diets high in fat were associated with increased levels of the protein. This could be another reason why some people who’ve taken up the diet believe it encourages their acne to flare up.
Finally, the keto diet is an intense weight loss plan that dramatically alters one’s intake of nutrients and is prone to throwing the entire digestive system off-balance. Consequently, following the diet can compromise important gut bacteria, which in turn leads to poor skin, hair, nails, and overall weak health.
Ultimately, unless you’re looking to go on the keto diet to lose weight anyway, the potential benefits it might offer the skin simply aren’t worth the risks the diet entails. There are many other ways to boost skin health and reduce inflammation that don’t demand the same level of commitment, let alone present the potential hazards, of the keto diet.
“I’m not particularly in love with this diet”, concludes Dr Downie, “but I can see how it could possibly benefit the skin in the short term. However, the premise of it being high in fats, including unhealthy fats, make it unsuitable over the long haul.”
“In general, so far as going on a diet to benefit the skin is concerned, I’d recommend following one that is low carb, low fat, and includes lots of vegetables and lean protein. And then compliment it with daily exercise, ideally a combination of cardio and weightlifting.”
“Yes, I’ve had patients tell me their psoriasis improved when they went on a keto diet’, adds Downie, “but realistically, it’s devoid of some important micronutrients that our bodies need long-term. I’d strongly recommend to anyone considering undergoing such a diet that they thoroughly discuss the idea with their health provider first.”
Chances are your doctor will firmly recommend that you drop the idea.