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How to Eat to Avoid Acne

A diet high in refined carbohydrates and low-fat dairy products seems to make skin problems worse. Try a low-glycemic-load diet to avoid acne.
How to Eat to Avoid Acne
Frustrated young woman squeezing acne in bathroom

Acne is the bane of adolescence. It can make a self-conscious teenager feel even more insecure. Are there any simple steps that can help a person avoid acne?

Is There a Diet to Help You Avoid Acne?

For decades dermatologists insisted that diet didn’t matter. Sometimes they cautioned against high-fat foods like milk shakes, but more often the dermatology dogma was that there was no relationship between what you ate and how your face looked (Clinical Dermatology, Sept-Oct., 2004; Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, June, 2005).

It turns out they were wrong on both counts. Research now shows that diet does matter and also that low-fat dairy products are worse than full-fat dairy when it comes to complexion.

Acne as a Disease of Civilization:

Starting around the turn of the 21st century, scientists pointed out that acne appears to be a disease of Western civilization (Archives of Dermatology, Dec., 2002).  Although young people in nearly every industrialized country have zits, facial lesions are rare among non-industrialized people in faraway places such as Papua New Guinea or the interior of Paraguay. More recent research confirmed a much lower rate of acne among Dogon adolescents in the African country Mali (Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, Oct. 2, 2016).

Why Is the Western Diet Bad for Your Skin?

What is it about the Western diet that seems to foster acne? Researchers now believe that foods with a high glycemic index (refined carbohydrates like bread, pasta, pizza, cookies and French fries) play a large role. Scientists have noted that such foods raise blood sugar quickly, which results in a rapid rise in insulin levels. Hormonal changes brought on by this process, such as a decrease in the anti-inflammatory compound adiponectin, may contribute to the development of pimples.

A Study of Diet to Avoid Acne:

Dermatologists tested this hypothesis in a pilot study of 54 young men with acne (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Aug., 2007).  In a three-month trial, the men were randomly assigned to a high-glycemic-load diet rich in refined carbohydrates or to a high-protein low-glycemic-load diet with more lean meat, poultry, fish, whole grains and fruit. The men following a low-glycemic-load diet finished the study with fewer lesions, less inflammation and more insulin sensitivity.

In a more recent study, 50 people with acne and 36 with healthy skin kept detailed dietary records for a week. The subjects with acne had been eating diets significantly higher in glycemic load (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, July, 2016).

What About Milkshakes and Other Dairy Products?

Another myth-busting study compared dairy product consumption among teenagers with and without acne. The investigators collected data on 120 youngsters with acne and 105 without. (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Aug., 2016).  They found that drinking low-fat and skim milk, but not full-fat milk, was associated with acne. It seems that skim milk contains more of the hormone-like substance called insulin-like growth factor-1 that has been linked to the development of acne. The researchers hypothesize that the fat in whole milk might have beneficial effects on skin metabolism.

Muddying the water, however, is a study from Norway showing a link between high consumption of full-fat dairy products and moderate to severe acne (Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, July 16, 2016).

Clearly, more research is needed before scientists really understand all the complexities of the best diet to avoid acne is well understood. In the meantime, doctors may need to start giving their acne patients dietary advice that differs from what they probably learned in medical school decades ago.

What Do We Recommend?

Since the research points to a problem with diets high in glycemic load, we suggest that you experiment with a relatively low-carb diet and see if that helps you avoid acne. You might not need to give up on milk or cheese, but at least at the start of your trial period, you might want to limit your intake. Fats may not be a problem so long as they are so-called healthy fats from avocados, nuts, seeds and fish.

We offer guidance on three different diets that would meet these criteria in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. In it, you’ll find details on the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet and a low-carb diet. All of them emphasize fruits and veggies, and one of them might be right for you. As a bonus, these diets have been shown to help middle-aged and older people maintain a healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular system and reduce the risk for diabetes. The whole family might benefit.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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