We know that dirt, bacteria, sebum, dead skin cells, makeup remnants and hormonal changes can cause acne, but what about that thing we need to live — food? Does what we put in our mouths cause our skin to form zits? The answer isn’t so simple.
“Unfortunately, a lot of things in nutrition aren’t black and white,” says Whitney English Tabaie, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist and NASM certified personal trainer. “We can try to draw conclusions based on studies of association, but it isn’t easy to establish cause and effect.”
However, when acne sufferers hit dead ends with traditional treatment methods, they become desperate for answers—and adjusting something they can control, like food intake, could be the help they believe they need. “This is why you’ll see a lot of information online that links food with acne that isn’t evidence-based, but rather based on people’s own experimentation with different dietary patterns,” Tabaie explains. “In most cases, even if the evidence isn’t there, it doesn’t hurt to try certain dietary modifications to see if they improve things,” she reasons, adding, “But what works for one person doesn’t always work for the next.”
With that in mind, what has acne sufferers buzzing when debating the food-acne connection? Here, we look at possible nutrition triggers and antidotes.
The Possible Trigger: Blood Sugar
Enjoy your pasta served with a side of cinnamon rolls? If acne plagues your complexion, you may want to cut down on simple carbohydrates, like those found in white flour, white rice, bread, soda, fruit juice, candy and pastries, according to Tabaie. The reason: Highly processed, high-sugar foods will quickly spike blood sugar when consumed in isolation. “Some studies show that diets high in simple sugars may cause acne by spiking blood sugar and increasing insulin production,” she says. “Insulin may increase the production of testosterone and lead to increased sebaceous gland activity, which is believed to be an underlying cause of acne.”
Though some studies suggest a low-glycemic-load diet could help with acne due to the fact it doesn’t cause blood sugar levels to spike sharply and quickly, Tabaie notes that “the glycemic index isn’t the best indicator for a meal’s actual response in the body. That’s because factors like ripeness, size and meal composition can impact the actual effect on blood sugar.” She suggests eating complex carbohydrates, which contain fiber, to slow down the absorption of glucose into the blood stream and prevent blood sugar spikes. “Combining healthy sources of protein and fat with your carbohydrate-rich meals will also help to normalize blood sugar,” she says.
The Possible Trigger: Dairy
Remember how we listed hormonal changes as an underlying cause of acne? Some studies correlate a connection between dairy consumption and an increase in the production of sex hormones—namely, testosterone. These pumped-up sex hormones, in turn, increase the production of sebum, which can lead to acne. To combat this, Tabaie suggests trying a short elimination diet. “Acne sufferers should try an elimination diet for anywhere from two to four weeks, where they cut out all dairy products to see if [this change] makes a difference in their skin,” she says.
But don’t we need dairy? After all, it’s a source of much-needed calcium and vitamin D (in vitamin D-fortified milk). “You can absolutely meet your needs for both calcium and vitamin D without consuming dairy,” Tabaie assures. “Calcium is found in many non-dairy foods, such as collard greens, kale, beans, nuts and seeds.” While vitamin D isn’t found naturally in many foods (though you can find it in tuna and salmon), she suggests taking a daily vitamin D supplement or spending 15 minutes in the sun during the brightest time of the day — wearing sunscreen, of course!
The Possible Trigger: Fatty Acids
The jury’s out on any true correlation between an imbalance of fatty acids and acne, though some coronary research posits that “bad” fats increase inflammation, and inflammation can lead to acne. According to Tabaie, there’s mixed research showing that supplementing omega-3 fatty acids — the “good” fats in this equation — may be beneficial to fighting acne due to the fact that omega-3 fatty acids have antioxidant properties. “However, because the studies are inconclusive, I wouldn’t recommend supplementation,” she says. “Instead, I’d suggest increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acid-rich food in your diet, like flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts.”
So is there anything we can eat that will help stave off acne? The jury is still out, but there is an answer that can certainly do more help than harm.
The Possible Antidote: Antioxidant-Rich Foods
“Some studies show that free radicals created by sun damage or pollution can trigger inflammation in the skin and lead to acne,” says Tabaie. Antioxidants are the molecules that help neutralize free radical damage, and they’re found in fruits and vegetables. So, if you consumed a diet rich in antioxidants, it could help “fight free radicals internally and be beneficial in the reduction of inflammation and the prevention of disease,” says Tabaie. Less inflammation could equal an improvement in acne. However, she’s quick to point out that current studies have focused on the use of topical antioxidants, like vitamin E applied to the skin, rather than internal antioxidants sourced from fruits and vegetables.
But, don’t throw those healthy veggies and fruits aside; “while the research hasn’t shown that [these foods] can fight acne, they certainly can’t hurt, and may even improve the overall health of your skin,” reasons Tabaie. She lists bright fruits and vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, tomatoes and leafy green vegetables as items to add to your shopping list, as well as nuts and seeds, which also provide antioxidant support.
Dr. Ashley Steffens, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.