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Ten Foods That Cause Acne

Acne is a common skin condition that affects nearly 10% of the world’s population.

Many biological factors contribute to the development of acne, including sebum and keratin production, acne-causing bacteria, hormones, blocked pores and inflammation (2). Inflammation is the bane of body health and anyone serious about longevity, fitness and smooth silky soft skin (!) should be familiar with inflammation subject.

The link between diet and acne used to be considered controversial as the food industry lobby pushed its sugar-good carbs-good fat-bad agenda. Recent research shows that diet plays a significant role in acne development (3).

Other than during adolescence (when the hormone roller coaster is unusually unpredictable) bad acne is a result almost exclusively of lifestyle choices: bad diet, high stress, sleep deficit the most common causes.

It’s much easier to make sure you get at least six hours sleep a night and giving yourself breathing space to calm an overstressed mind than to ensure you eliminate everything bad from your diet. Supermarkets are a minefield of processed, industrially farmed foods – including some of the products we think of as “healthy” options.

This article will review 10 foods that cause acne and discuss why the quality of your diet is important. We’re focusing on the actual food items rather than where you’d best source these.

Post-Puberty Acne - Bad Diet

1. Refined Grains and Sugars

People with acne tend to consume more refined carbohydrates than people with little or no acne (45).

Foods rich in refined carbohydrates include:

  • Bread, crackers, cereal or desserts made with white flour
  • Pasta made with white flour
  • White rice and rice noodles
  • Sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Sweeteners like cane sugar, maple syrup, honey or agave

People who frequently consume added sugars have a 30% greater risk of developing acne, while those who regularly ate pastries and cakes with refined sugar have a 20% greater risk (6).

Refined carbohydrates have an immediate impact on blood sugar and insulin levels.

Refined carbohydrates are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, which rapidly raises blood sugar levels. When blood sugars rise, insulin levels also rise to help shuttle the blood sugars out of the bloodstream and into your cells. High levels of insulin are not good for those with acne.

Specifically, insulin makes androgen hormones more active and increases insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). This contributes to acne development by making skin cells grow more quickly and by boosting sebum production (789).

On the other hand, low-glycemic diets, which do not dramatically raise blood sugars or insulin levels, are associated with reduced acne severity (101112).

The world of insulin and sugar is a fundamental to the way your body processes energy and blood sugar stress causes premature aging..

Eating lots of refined carbohydrates may increase blood sugar and insulin levels and contribute to the development of acne. Don’t do it!


2. Dairy Products

Many studies have found a link between milk products and acne severity in teenagers (13141516). Studies found that young adults who regularly consumed milk or ice cream were four times more likely to suffer from acne (1718).

Milk is known to increase insulin levels, independent of its effects on blood sugar, which may worsen acne severity (192021). Cow’s milk also contains amino acids that stimulate the liver to produce more IGF-1, which has been linked to the development of acne (222324).

These days industrial milk production introduces a range of component chemicals to increase yield and extend sell by dates. If you are keeping dairy in your diet, make sure you go for all natural products. If in doubt, don’t.

Consuming dairy products is linked to increased acne severity. This is exacerbated by industrial milk production overloading additives that, while tolerated by our digestion, contribute to both slow degradation and increased chance of acne.

#2 Dairy Products

3. Fast Food

Acne is strongly associated with eating a Western-style diet rich in complex carbohydrate calories, fat, sodium overload and refined added sugars (2526).

Fast food items, such as burgers, nuggets, hot dogs, french fries, sodas and milkshakes, tend to be mass produced, nutritionally compromised and packed full of additives. It’s ironic that fast food is at its most popular among teenagers – those most susceptible to acne breakouts – yet it’s probably the worst possible diet for good skin and healthy body and mind.

Fast food diets are associated with a 43% increased risk of developing acne and other skin complaints. Regularly eating fast food increased that risk by a further 17% (27).

A separate study found that frequently eating burgers and processed sausages leads to a 24% increased risk of developing acne (6). This is in addition to all the well documented fast food’s gradual erosion of health.

Researchers propose that fast food – especially hormone compromised processed meat – affects gene expression and alters hormone levels in a way that promotes acne development (282930).

Regularly eating fast food will increased your risk of developing acne. Processed high sugar, high carb, hormonally compromised mass produced refined food is a slow poison; however tasty its sellers have made it. Be on your guard.


4. Foods Rich in Omega-6 Fats

Diets containing large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, like the typical Western diet, have been linked to increased levels of inflammation and acne (731).

Diets with large amounts of corn and soy oils, which are rich in omega-6 fats, and few foods that contain omega-3 fats, like fish and walnuts (3233).

Imbalance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids pushes the body into an inflammatory state, which worsens acne severity (3435) and puts pressure on your body across the board.

Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may reduce levels of inflammation and if effective, may reduce acne severity (36). It is best to try to eliminate omega-6 from your diet insofar as is possible.

Diets rich in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3s are pro-inflammatory and worsen acne. Elimination is recommended.


5. Chocolate

Chocolate has been a suspected acne trigger since the 1920s (37).

Several surveys have linked eating chocolate with an increased risk of developing acne (3839).

A recent study found that acne-prone males who consumed 25 grams of 99% dark chocolate daily had an increased number of acne lesions after just two weeks (40).

Another study found that males who were given capsules of 100% cocoa powder daily had significantly more acne lesions after one week compared to those given a placebo (41).

Eating chocolate increases the reactivity of the immune system to acne-causing bacteria, which may help explain these findings (42).

There is a proven link between eating chocolate and developing acne, but in moderation chocolate can be consumed – depending on the individuals. Test and assess and see how it goes.


6. Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein is a popular dietary supplement (4344). There are many protein powders on the market and most are a distillation of nutritionally useful ingredients. Powder quality and procedure for that distillation will vary from producer to producer.

Whey protein in particular is a rich source of the amino acids leucine and glutamine. These amino acids make skin cells grow and divide more quickly, which may contribute to the formation of acne (4546).

The amino acids in whey protein can also stimulate the body to produce higher levels of insulin, which has been linked to the development of acne (474849).

Studies have demonstrated a connection between whey protein consumption and acne in male athletes (505152). Further studies made a direct correlation between acne severity and the number of days on whey protein supplements (53).

Data suggests a link between taking whey protein powder (and other powder supplements) and developing acne. This is an area needs more research as the powders are a complex blend of ingredients. If you are on an elimination program to try to pinpoint foods your body doesn’t like, take the powders out of your diet from the get go.


7. Soy and Tofu

Soy was once a popular (and even somewhat trendy) vegan alternative to dairy, but it’s now more popular as a food sensitivity— likely because today, nearly 90% of the world’s soy crops are genetically engineered (16).

Soy also contains phytoestrogens, which mimic the hormone estrogen when absorbed in the body. Similar to the growth hormones found in dairy, phytoestrogens can also disrupt hormonal balance, and lead to excess estrogen in the body if you aren’t deficient in estrogen (17). Estrogen dominance is associated with hormonal cystic acne.

Milk substitutes are your friend but soy is marketed as a cure-all when often it is quite the opposite. Go for nut milks. Replace tofu with beans or organic grass-fed meat.


8. Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other whole grains, such as spelt, oats (unless certified gluten-free), kamut, rye, and barley. Gluten is in almost every breakfast cereal. Gluten also sneaks into many unsuspecting foods, such as sauces, condiments, and processed meats. Many people have a hard time digesting gluten (23).

Even if you’re able to digest gluten without noticing any adverse effects, your body may struggle to process it. But how does gluten affect your skin? A lot of it has to do with how gluten affects your gut.

First off, you have a protein that’s produced by your digestive tract called zonulin.

Zonulin’s job is to moderate the tight junctions between the cells in your digestive tract, which prevent undigested food particles and pathogens from passing through (24).

While this a good thing, gluten exposure can trigger your body to overproduce zonulin. This breaks apart the tight junctions instead (25). End result is slight to significant immune responses that cause (or worsen) inflammations – skin conditions like acne end up telling the tale (26).

Human beings have only been eating glutenous grains for 10,000 years – the blink of an eye in evolutionary time. Gluten is non-essential. Coconut and almond flour are OK. Wheat flour is bad. Brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet and gluten-free oats are good. White rice, most breakfast cereals and regular oats are not.


9. Processed Meat

This is a major component of bad diet, often a slowly building erosion that doesn’t manifest symptoms until later in life. It can be hard to tackle because meat is so ubiquitous (and delicious).

Processed meats such as bacon, and cured meats (such as chicken done in a brine), contain sodium (salt) to mask the effects of low quality industrial farming, which can lead to water retention and can cause swelling and puffiness in your face. Typically this puffy, swollen skin or sudden acne breakout happens overnight so the sodium overload doesn’t create a problem the day you consume but the morning after.

Be particularly wary of cheap restaurant foods or store-bought processed foods. These often pack a sneaky, high sodium content.

Studies also suggest sodium nitrates, which are a preservative added to many processed foods, can break down collagen and elastin and may cause signs of premature aging (27).

In the long term it’s better to exclude processed meats from your diet altogether. In an elimination program your body’s response to processed meats should be tested from the outset. Cheap restaurant food, store-bought frozen meat, industrially farmed meat with additives: avoid these like the plague.


10. Foods You’re Sensitive To

It has been proposed that acne is, at its root, an inflammatory disease (5455). Anti-inflammatory drugs, like corticosteroids, are used as effective treatments for severe acne. People with acne have elevated levels of inflammatory molecules in their blood (565758).

In addition to all the foods mentioned above, each of us has a unique list of food sensitivities, also known as delayed hypersensitivity reactions (59). Whatever the problem-causing food, the end result is usually expressed as inflammation.

Food sensitivities occur when your immune system mistakenly identifies food as a threat and launches an immune attack against it (60). This results in high levels of pro-inflammatory molecules circulating throughout the body, which may aggravate acne (61).

Since there are countless foods that your immune system could react to, the best way to figure out your unique triggers is by completing an elimination diet. Some do this under the supervision of a registered dietitian or nutrition specialist but you can do it on your own so long as you keep on top of exactly what goes in and when; and make sure you cover your nutritional bases each day.

Elimination diets work by temporarily restricting the number of foods in your diet in order to eliminate triggers and achieve symptom relief, then systematically adding foods back while tracking your symptoms and looking for patterns.

Food sensitivity testing, such as Mediator Release Testing (MRT), can help determine which foods lead to immune-related inflammation and provide a clearer starting point for your elimination diet (62).

Detailed research to help better understand how food, the immune system and how inflammation affects acne development is ongoing (63). It’s worth keeping up with latest findings.

Food sensitivity reactions can increase inflammation in the body, which causes a variety of symptoms including acne. Elimination programs can pinpoint your personal sensitivities. Be assured, if you are suffering from adult acne (or other inflammation related skin complaints) it means you are consuming something slightly poisonous to your body.

#10 Foods You’re Sensitive To

What to Eat Instead

While the foods discussed above may contribute to the development of acne, there are other foods and nutrients that may help keep your skin clear. These include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, and regular consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of developing acne (646566).
  • Probiotics: Probiotics promote a healthy gut and balanced microbiome, which is linked to reduced inflammation and a lower risk of acne development (67686970).
  • Green tea: Green tea contains polyphenols that are associated with reduced inflammation and lowered sebum production. Green tea extracts have been found to reduce acne severity when applied to the skin (71727374).
  • Turmeric: Turmeric contains the anti-inflammatory polyphenol curcumin, which can help regulate blood sugar, improve insulin sensitivity and inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria, which may reduce acne (7576).
  • Vitamins A, D, E and zinc: These nutrients play crucial roles in skin and immune health and may help prevent acne (777879).
  • Paleolithic-style (and ketogenic) diets: Paleo diets are rich in lean meats, fruits, vegetables and nuts and low in grains, dairy and legumes. They have been associated with lower blood sugar and insulin levels (80).
  • Mediterranean-style diets: A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grain, legumes, fish and olive oil and low in dairy and saturated fats. It has also been linked to reduced acne severity (81).

Consuming a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, green tea, fruits and vegetables may be protective against the development of acne. Vitamins A, D and E, as well as zinc, may also help prevent acne.

Specific problem foods have healthy non-poisonous non-inflammation alternatives that, if fresh, won’t leave you having to make your daily eating a tasteless chore. Here are the main alternatives:

  • Sugar substitute: Natural sweeteners such as raw honey, maple syrup, apple sauce, greenleaf stevia and coconut nectar are low glycemic sweeteners, which means they may have less of an impact on your blood sugar levels and are less likely to trigger skin breakouts when used in small amounts.
  • Dairy products: Replace dairy with unsweetened nut milk, such as coconut milk, almond milk, and cashew milk. These alternatives are hormone, antibiotic and lactose-free, and may have less of a negative impact on your liver and digestion.
  • Soy and tofu substitutes: Choose nut milk over soy milk, and replace tofu with beans or organic, grass-fed meat if you include animal products in your diet. Sushi lovers, don’t worry— you can replace soy sauce with coconut aminos, which can be found at any health food store. The soy-free options are good for your skin because they’re less processed (which means they’re higher in nutrients), free from phytoestrogens, and are less likely to set off food sensitivities.
  • Gluten alternatives: Coconut flour and almond flour are two low glycemic, grain-free options that are alternatives to wheat flour. Brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet and certified gluten-free oats are also nutrient-containing alternatives to glutenous grains.
  • Processed meat elimination: Replace processed meat with organic, grass-fed meats whenever possible to avoid excess sodium and sodium nitrates. Grass-fed meats are higher in omega-3s than conventional meats, and typically free from hormones and antibiotics (28). If in doubt, see the rules of thumb at the end of this article.

The Bottom Line

Research has linked certain foods to an increased risk of inflammation, erosion of body health and developing acne. But everyone’s different and it’s important to experiment with your diet. Find solutions that work long-term. Don’t make eating a chore. The best, most tasty food is both healthy AND tasty.

It may be beneficial to keep a food log to look for patterns between the foods you are eating and the health of your skin.

The effects of what you eat and drink are felt any time from ingestion to elimination (up to 72 hours later but mostly within 24 hours).

Be patient and thorough.

It can be useful and relatively inexpensive to get a registered dietician to spend an hour working out more personalized advice. There are many websites with excellent advice and daily maintained info on the latest findings in the field of body and brain health. Most of the ten thousand health and food podcasts are 50 shades of garbage but there are some gems. Don’t be sucked into sites pushing you into paid services or podcasts endlessly peddling products.

We’ve included a selection of podcasts and sites with proven credentials:


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