- Research confirms that the consumption of certain foods can raise the risk of acne
- Foods with a high glycemic index are known to fuel this skin disorder
- Some foods can help reduce acne incidence and severity
- A Mediterranean diet incorporates whole foods, fruits and vegetables to stabilize blood sugars and protects against the development of acne
Acne is a skin disorder that develops when oil, dead skin cells and debris clog pores, resulting in blackheads and whiteheads (noninflammatory acne) or papules, pustules, nodules and cysts (inflammatory acne). A number of triggers have been identified, and foods that cause acne are one of them.
Do Some Foods Really Cause Acne?
Acne develops due to a number of reasons including genetic, hormonal and environmental instigators. Additionally, a growing body of research has established that diet plays a role in acne development.
Specifically, foods with a high glycemic index—those that are rapidly digested and absorbed— cause spikes in blood sugar. Whey proteins found in milk (more so than the actual fat or milk content as was first believed) contribute to the formation of acne.
Other substances that have been identified as favorable in treating or preventing acne include foods and oils containing omega-3 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory properties. Recently, research examining probiotics has also found some promising results.
Six Foods That May Cause Acne
A number of studies have identified foods that are linked to causing or increasing the severity of acne; milk products are the most studied of all.
Milk and other dairy products
When looking at milk and other dairy products, there are a wide range of studies – but the results are conflicting.
Whey protein, a substance that is found in milk and supplement form, has been linked to increasing acne as it has been demonstrated to overstimulate a hormone similar to insulin called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). This in turn promotes sebum production, a main component of acne development.
This theory was also established in one study comparing whole milk to low-fat milk in children. In this study, researchers found plasma hormone levels were found to be higher in the whole milk group.
Another small study established the correlation between IGF-I and the severity of acne in women but also included the influence of androgen hormone levels; researchers concluded that there was an interplay between the two and that both impacted acne severity.
One large meta-analysis examining previous published studies found the following: consuming any dairy product, regardless of frequency, was associated with a higher rate of acne compared to no consumption; cheese consumption had a very weak link to acne.
Another meta-analysis found a positive correlation between dairy, whole milk, low-fat and skim milk consumption: acne occurrence with total milk had the greatest impact on acne. They did not find a causal effect between yogurt and cheese and acne development.
A large retrospective study concluded that the quantity of milk consumed—particularly skim milk—was associated with acne. The authors reasoned that comedogenic components were rendered more bioavailable during the manufacturing process of skim milk; skim milk contains less estrogen than whole milk and this hormone may work to reduce acne.
This study also showed a positive correlation between acne and cottage cheese and cream cheese.
In sum, numerous studies point to dairy products, notably whole milk, as triggering acne breakouts, but they don’t always reach the same conclusions, sometimes because different variables were being examined.
Evidence also shows that consuming refined carbohydrates is associated with acne severity.
Carbohydrates can cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels which increases androgen and IGF-1 levels and prompts acne development. These high-glycemic foods are typically low in fiber (which works to effectively slow digestion), and high in sugars and processed grains. These include breakfast cereals, white bread, pasta, pastries, rice and potatoes.
One study examined eating patterns of acne-free participants with those with acne and found a link between carbohydrates, glycemic load and acne. Participants with moderate-to-severe acne consumed more carbohydrates compared to participants without acne. They were also found to have higher insulin and IGF-1 concentrations.
In a small 10-week study, researchers showed strong evidence of how a low-glycemic diet can provide significant improvements in both noninflammatory and inflammatory acne as well as reduce the size of sebaceous glands.
Sugar is referred to as a simple carbohydrate and can be found naturally in such foods as fruit and milk products; they are also found in processed foods such as sweet desserts, processed fruit juice, sodas and candy; and sweeteners such as honey, syrups and table sugar.
The scientific community has established that foods high in sugar cause high glycemic loads which affect serum insulin and IGF-1 levels; both increase androgens to trigger acne.
In a large study examining diet and acne, researchers concluded that in addition to milk products, there was a significant association between acne and consumption of sugary beverages and food products.
Saturated and trans fatty acids
Fats and trans fatty acids (TFA) can increase the activity of mTORC1, a protein complex believed to aggravate acne. TFAs have replaced natural oils and solid fats in such products as fast food, snacks, fried foods and baked goods.
Some foods, such as red meat, cheese and butter are high in saturated fats which elevate IGF-1 signaling which in turns encourages sebum production.
Nuts are considered a healthy food group due to their high protein and low carbohydrate profile. However, for some people with acne, some nuts can worsen acne symptoms due to the presence of omega-6 fatty acids. These acids are known to promote inflammation, and include pine nuts, walnuts and peanuts.
One study examining dietary patterns among study subjects with and without acne found, in addition to other foods, a significantly higher consumption of nuts in those with acne.
Unlike fresh fruit, dried fruit is a refined carbohydrate that is high on the glycemic index, causing blood sugar to spike, resulting in increased insulin levels. This in turn increases oil production and prompts acne development.
Can Some Foods Get Rid Of Acne?
While there is no research that identifies specific foods that can prevent acne, there is evidence that supports the inclusion of specific vitamins, fatty acids, and antioxidants to effectively control or reduce acne symptoms.
Foods that contain antioxidants attack free radicals in the body that are responsible for skin damage as well as acne breakouts.
Zinc contains anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, both known to be effective in reducing the incidents and severity of acne flare-ups.
Zinc is found in a wide variety of foods such as whole-grain breads, cereals; oysters, crab, lobster; almonds, pumpkin seeds, cashews; chickpeas, kidney beans, legumes and peas; and commonly available as a dietary supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids
A diet rich in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent or reduce the severity of acne symptoms.
In one study of subjects with acne taking a fish oil containing a dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, researchers concluded that there was overall improvement, especially for those with moderate-to-severe acne.
Foods rich in acne-fighting omega-3 include mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, tofu, flax and chia seeds.
Relatively new to market, probiotics are gaining traction as acne-fighting agents. Taking probiotics is thought to alter the skin’s own microbiome to reduce inflammation, ward off toxins and bacteria, and prevent acne breakouts.
Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Bifidobacterium are two probiotics with the greatest potential in treating acne. Studies have demonstrated a significant reduction in lesion count as well as reduced sebum production. Probiotics are available in pill and powder form.
Best Diet to Get Rid of Acne
The best diet to get rid of acne is one that focuses on high-fiber fruits and vegetables with a low glycemic load, and includes seafood that is high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
A diet that restricts consumption of whey protein and dairy products will also have a favorable impact on acne.
The classic Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes; fish, high-fiber whole grains and olive oil; and shuns dairy, sweets and processed foods. It also includes red wine for heart-healthy benefits. This is a diet that will support skin health and has been proven to protect against acne.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, along with monounsaturated fats, are also known to have an inhibitory effect on oil production.
Studies have shown a definite link between the consumption of certain foods and acne. Foods with a high glycemic index cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels which both contribute to acne formation.
While milk and milk products are the most studied food group, refined carbohydrates, saturated and trans fatty acids have all been identified as triggers for acne development.
Limiting or eliminating known acne-causing foods have been demonstrated to have a positive effect on clearing acne. Eating a healthy diet that contains whole food, fresh fruits and vegetables, such as the Mediterranean diet can go a long way in improving your health and rebalancing your skin.
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