Acne Foods: Do’s and Don’ts

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What foods are bad for acne? What foods help acne? This discussion has been around for ages. We asked our Dermveda panel of integrative medicine experts to weigh in on the do’s and don’ts of foods to reduce acne.


Types of Food that Help Acne (The Do’s) 

Low Glycemic Index Foods

Glycemic index refers to how much a food can increase the blood sugar (glucose) levels. Low glycemic index foods lead to a slower increase in the blood glucose level and high glycemic index foods lead to a quicker increase in the blood glucose levels. When blood glucose levels rise, this triggers the body to secrete insulin. Therefore low glycemic index foods lead to lower increases in insulin, and high glycemic foods lead to a quicker and larger spike of insulin.

Low glycemic index food based diets can be helpful in reducing acne.[1,2] Diets rich in vegetables, fruit, and dietary fiber are considered to be low glycemic diets. The fiber in low glycemic index foods slows digestion and slows the conversion of carbohydrates to glucose. This results in less insulin being secreted, so the pathways that lead to acne are not triggered as quickly. One recent study found that people who eat a Mediterranean diet are less likely to have acne.[3] Additionally, reduction of milk and dairy intake has been correlated with improved acne as these tend to be food items with high glycemic indices.[4,5]

Fermented Dairy

Fermented dairy products like kefir and yogurt have healthy probiotic bacteria and may have different effects on acne than non-fermented dairy such as milk. One study suggested that ingestion of fermented dairy may be helpful to combat acne.[6] Fermented milk may help reduce acne by altering the skin oils toward a more healthy balance.[7] Although promising, more studies are needed to understand how fermented dairy products influence acne.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids from fish such as salmon, sardines, and walnuts may be beneficial in reducing acne. A study from 2008 showed approximately 20% improvement in the acne after 10 weeks of supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids (500 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid and 500 mg of docosahexaenoic acid daily).[8] One theory is that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation replenishes the right balance of oils in the skin.[9] 

Foods to Avoid for Acne (The Don’ts): 

Diet has been long debated as a factor in causing acne. Greasy food and chocolate have been blamed anecdotally for decades! We now know it is true that what you eat does affect the formation of pimples and inflammation in the skin.

High Glycemic Index Foods

High glycemic foods are simple carbohydrates and sugars, which are quickly converted to glucose. The glucose is rapidly absorbed into the blood, resulting in a spike in insulin. Insulin spikes can trigger signals in the skin that are an important factor in the occurrence of acne.[10] This spike in insulin is not only bad for your acne but for your waistline too!

Skim Milk and Whey Protein

Several studies have shown that milk intake, specifically skim milk, may be related to more severe acne.[11,12] As discussed above, this may be due to skim milk having a higher glycemic index than low fat or full-fat dairy. Whey protein can spike insulin, and whey protein supplementation has also been observed to flare acne,[13] which can be important among those that use these supplements regularly such as bodybuilders and athletes.

The Alternative Perspective on Acne and Food

Alternative medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, and Naturopathy, have long thought that what you eat will be reflected in your skin condition. The advice from diverse perspectives agree: plant-based diets that have few fried foods and unfermented dairy are best for reducing acne.

In Ayurveda, high glycemic load diets aggravate and increase kapha and can cause a flare in comedone (pimple) formation. Diets should focus on vegetables and fruits, with a low to moderate amount of dairy and refined sugars. Fried foods and meat, which have been associated with an increased presence of acne, can also aggravate kapha.[14] 

Naturopathic medicine frequently recommends diet as a first line approach to acne. The ideal diet would closely resemble a Paleolithic diet,[15-17] which focuses on increased vegetable, fruit, and fish intake, and avoidance of sugars.

Eating refined sugar, overly sweet foods, and dairy products lead to dampness in TCM. Dampness is a common cause of inflammatory acne. Chinese medicine also recommends eating less refined sugars and greater quantities of low glycemic foods.[17,18] 

In summary, both current western medicine perspectives and alternative medical practices show support for a healthy diet that takes into account the specific food types discussed in this article, which can help reduce the occurrence and severity of acne.


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