- The low-carb high-fat keto diet is purported to have beneficial effects on skin health.
- In theory, the 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 potentially dangerous to maintain for long periods of time.
The keto diet is a highly controversial weight loss program, with advocates insisting the diet’s focus on consuming considerable quantities of fat and protein—while severely limiting carbohydrates—is a radically new and effective approach to losing weight.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, opponents are adamant that restrictive eating diets such as keto are extreme, unnecessary, and promote unhealthy eating practices.
Regardless of position, this diet is also believed to have a positive impact on skin, most notably targeting skin aging and reducing acne formation.
How the Keto Diet Affects Your Skin
Throughout the past few decades, beliefs about diet and its effects on acne formation have changed dramatically. For years it was accepted that diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates were responsible for skin inflammations such as acne breakouts.
Then, a number of studies emerged claiming there was insufficient evidence to prove a connection, and that diet could not be linked to acne.
However, in recent years there’s been mounting evidence to indicate that carbohydrates are, in fact, a main dietary reason for acne—and other, similar skin inflammations such as eczema or psoriasis—due to the negative effect they can have on hormonal regulation.
Given the keto diet significantly reduces carb intake and is rich in foods that lower blood sugar levels, people who follow a keto diet should see a reduction in acne lesions.
Skin Care Benefits of Keto
The keto diet is reputedly correlated with better textured and healthier-looking skin. Other potential skin health benefits include anti-aging and acne management. There have also been claims that it can help ease the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis.
Keto diets are posited to help firm up the skin because they are very low in carbs and refined sugars. Too much sugar in the diet leads to glycation (the binding of sugars to protein), which in turn weakens collagen and leads to wrinkles, fine lines and sagging skin. Dramatically lowering the consumption of carbs and sugar in one’s diet should therefore provide an overall improvement in skin firmness.
The keto diet also emphasizes eating food rich in omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, nutrients that are understood to prevent sun damage. At the same time, the diet omits trans fats common to fried and processed foods, which are known to cause inflammation, acne and collagen loss.
While there is a lack of clinical studies to prove the keto diet’s ability to treat acne, some researchers have speculated that it may be able to improve certain acne symptoms. This is due to the diet’s anti-inflammatory effects.
In theory, the keto diet should be beneficial for people who suffer from inflammatory diseases such as acne because it reduces glucose intake. Glucose oxidation has been found to produce a higher level of free radicals than fat oxidation. Free radicals damage skin and other parts of the body by scavenging cells for extra electrons; this damage activates the body’s immune response, which results in inflammation.
Because the keto diet replaces glucose with fat, this could reduce the overall concentration of free radicals in the body that are caused by diet. In turn, inflammation and redness should diminish to ease inflammatory acne such as papules, pustules, nodules and cysts.
Keto diets are also thought to help improve certain dermatological conditions like eczema and psoriasis, but again, scientific studies are minimal. However, one case study found that in a patient with psoriasis, the keto diet both promoted weight loss and improved their response to psoriasis treatment.
What Do Dermatologists Have to Say About It?
According to dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD, from Montclair, NJ, there is some reason to believe a low-carb high-fat diet may 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 Dr. 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, the skin changes on this diet, and has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect via calorie reduction.”
Having an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, it would be reasonable to presume that this would have a positive impact on inflammations such as pimples, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea blemishes, ideally with both their severity and length of duration reduced.
All diets will affect skin health, but it remains to be seen if it’s the actual low-carb high-fat aspect of the keto diet that actually impacts the skin. Some foods in their own right are beneficial for skin, so it’s possible the improvements keto dieters experience come by simple virtue of consuming these foods, rather than the anti-inflammatory effects from the state of ketosis.
“The biggest issue with this diet,” says Dr. Downie, “is its lack of clinical studies, and therefore accurate results and conclusions about its effects.”
Can a Keto Diet Damage the Skin?
As with other alternative, largely unproven skin care solutions, what is beneficial for one person may not necessarily be for another. The keto diet, in relation to acne, appears to be a case in point.
Some people have reported that a strict adherence to this diet produced a gradual, yet notably positive effect on their acne, while others said this diet caused their skin to break out.
Dr. Downie explains that, “The 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 this diet is designed to help shed water weight, with one negative outcome being dehydration. This state can shrink skin cells, resulting in dry, irritated skin that highlights wrinkles, fine lines and other unflattering signs of aging.
One study on weight loss examined levels of a specific marker for inflammation called C-reactive protein, concluded that diets high in fat were associated with increased levels of this protein. This could explain why some dieters see their acne flare up.
Lastly, the keto diet is an intense weight loss plan that dramatically alters one’s intake of nutrients and can cause an imbalance in the entire digestive system. Consequently, following this diet can compromise important gut bacteria, which in turn can have negative affect skin, hair, nails and overall health.
“While I’m not in favor of this diet,” concludes Dr. Downie, “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 for the long haul.”
In general, to benefit the skin, following a low-carb, low-fat diet that includes lots of vegetables and lean protein is recommended. Complementing such a diet with daily exercise—ideally a combination of cardio and weightlifting—will provide further skin health benefits.
“Yes, I’ve had patients tell me their psoriasis improved when they went on a keto diet,” adds Dr. Downie, “but realistically, it’s devoid of some important micronutrients that our bodies need long term.”
As such, anyone considering a keto or similarly structured diet for the primary purpose of improving skin health should thoroughly discuss this with their healthcare provider first. While it may provide some benefits, it’s a fairly radical approach to take, and may indeed do more harm than good.
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