In 2010, researchers surprised some people 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. Scientists found that cow’s milk intake increased acne prevalence and severity, and also found an association between a high-glycemic load diet and acne risk.
An earlier study published in 2007 showed similar results—Australian researchers found that young men between the ages of 15 and 25 with mild-to-moderate acne experienced dramatic improvement when they switched from eating the typical American diet (with white bread and highly processed breakfast cereals) to a healthier diet of whole grains, lean meat, and fruits and vegetables.
“The acne of the boys on the higher-protein, low-glycemic index diet improved dramatically,” said senior author Neil Mann, associate professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, “by more than 50 percent, which is more than what you see with topical acne solutions.”
Some people have long believed that diet affects acne, but only recently have researchers started to find evidence that this is true. If you’d like to try changing your eating habits to enjoy clearer skin, we’d encourage you to try it. You have nothing to lose!
What Not to Eat
Studies so far have focused mostly on the foods that make acne worse. Here are the five that come up most often as culprits in increasing breakouts. Avoid these for about a week, and see if you notice a difference.
- Cow’s milk: The 2010 study found an association between cow’s milk and acne. Scientists aren’t yet sure why this may be, but there are several theories. Cow’s milk spikes blood sugar, which can increase inflammation (leading to pimples). It also increases insulin levels, which encourage the production of skin oils (sebum). A lot of the commercial milk we buy comes from pregnant cows, and thus contains other hormones that can trigger the production of sebum. Milk also has growth hormones that can encourage the overgrowth of skin cells, potentially blocking pores. In 2005, researchers studied data from the famous Nurses Health Study II, and found that participants who drank more milk as teens had much higher rates of severe acne than those who had little or no milk as teens.
- Sugar: You may have already suspected that sugar is related to breakouts. Some studies now suggest that there may be a link. This doesn’t mean that if you eat a cookie you’re going to get a pimple. It comes down to how much sugar you’re eating in a day—particularly at any one time. If you consume a soda and a candy bar, for example, you’re likely spiking your blood sugar levels, and you could break out hours later. If you suspect sugar could be a culprit for you, try to cut back even by one sugary drink a day to notice a difference.
- High-glycemic foods: These are foods that break down quickly in the body, triggering an insulin spike and raising blood sugar levels. They trigger hormonal fluctuations and inflammation—both of which encourage acne. We’re talking foods like white bread, processed breakfast cereals, white rice, pretzels, potato chips, cookies and cakes, etc. Choose low glycemic-index foods instead, like vegetables, whole grains, sweet potatoes, and most fruits.
- Junk food: For the same reasons stated above (hormonal fluctuations, blood sugar levels), junk foods are on the list to avoid if you’re trying to clear up your skin.
- Fast food: Greasy fast food creates inflammation in the body. Studies have already linked fast food to conditions like childhood asthma, strictly because of its ability to raise overall inflammation in the body. Inflammation leads to pimples, so if you’re going to a fast-food restaurant, choose the salad or the yogurt.
What About Chocolate?
Long suspected to trigger acne, chocolate has received a pass until just recently. One small study from the Netherlands published in 2013 found a connection between chocolate and skin changes leading to acne. For the study, the scientists collected blood from seven healthy people before and after they ate 1.7 ounces of chocolate, each day, for four days.
Researchers then exposed the blood cells to bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes—which contribute to acne when they grow inside clogged pores—and to Staphylococcus aureus, another skin bacteria than can aggravate acne.
After eating the chocolate, the participants’ blood cells produced more interleukin-1b, which is a marker of inflammation, when exposed to Propionibacterium acnes. Eating chocolate also increased production of another immune system factor called interleukin 10 after exposure to Staphylococcus aureus. Interleukin 10 is thought to lower the body’s defenses against microorganisms, so higher levels could allow bacteria to infect pimples and worsen them.
This suggests that chocolate could increase inflammation and encourage bacterial infection, making acne worse. This was an extremely small study, however, and more research is needed. Dark chocolate has health-promoting antioxidants, so depending on how much you eat per day, you may want to wait for more evidence. In the meantime, to see if you may be sensitive to chocolate, try eliminating it for a week, by itself, and see if you notice a change in your skin.
What to Eat
Just cutting out the damaging foods listed above will likely lead to clearer skin—especially if you were regularly consuming them before. But what if you’re already eating healthy? Are there certain foods that could give you the edge against acne? Research is in its earliest stages, but we do have some knowledge of particular foods that may help. Here are five of them:
- Fish or flaxseed: The typical Western diet contains too many omega-6 fatty acids, which are tied to inflammation. Eating more omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseed, and the like, can help tame inflammation and improve acne breakouts.
- Green tea: Green tea is filled the antioxidants that can protect from environmental stressors. Drink more green tea throughout the day.
- Oysters: Several studies have indicated that the mineral zinc may reduce the effects of acne. It’s best to get zinc from your food, however, as too much in supplements (more than 100 mg a day) can result in side effects. Eat more oysters, toasted wheat germ (sprinkled on salads and steamed veggies), veal liver, roast beef, roasted pumpkin and squash seeds, and dried watermelon seeds.
- Juicing: Eating more fruits and vegetables can naturally help clear up acne. Many contain beta-carotenes, which naturally help reduce skin oils, and all are naturally anti-inflammatory. Dark, leafy greens also help clear impurities from the body, which can encourage acne. Dark-colored berries contain phytonutrients good for skin when eaten.
- Probiotics: These have been found to reduce inflammation in the gut, which may help reduce acne. According to a 2011 study, intestinal microflora may affect inflammation throughout the body, which in turn, can affect acne breakouts. Since pre and probiotics can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, scientists believe they may help reduce acne breakouts. “There appears to be more than enough supportive evidence to suggest that gut microbes, and the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract itself, are contributing factors in the acne process,” the scientists wrote. To get more probiotics in your diet, try yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, dark chocolate, microalgae, miso soup, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha tea.
Of course, there are many factors that contribute to acne, and diet is just one of them. Along with eating cleanly and avoiding acne triggers, there are many other factors that can contribute to your situation.