What Foods Cause Acne? Plus, Habits That Will Help Improve It

by | May 22, 2019 | Beauty, Debunking Myths, Healthy Lifestyle, Nutrition, Nutrition Facts | 0 comments

Inside Scoop: What foods cause acne? Here are seven main groups to be careful with as well as a list of foods and habits to incorporate for glowing and clear skin.

This post was submitted by Marianna Draws, professional writer by choice and health savvy by habit.

Acne, or Acne vulgaris to use its proper name is by far the most common skin disease in the western world. It can affect as many as 85% of the population, mostly during puberty, but some people will struggle with it their entire lives.


What is Acne?

Acne is a disease of hair follicles on the skin, and mostly affects adolescents. The exact causes of the condition are unclear, but we do know Propionibacterium acne or Staphylococcus aureus, are the two microorganisms involved. It is primarily found in affluent countries following a Western style diet, with low rates in third world countries.


What contributes to Acne?

It is not fully clear what causes acne, but research has pointed to some components that contribute to acne. Here are the major etiologic factors:

  • Bacterial balance of the skin – the make-up of the bacteria in the follicles.
  • Excess sebum production (often triggered by physical and emotional stress)
  • Hyper proliferation of follicular cells
  • Hormone imbalances – cortisol surges exacerbate acne, often caused by inadequate sleep.

Whether diet contributes or not is rather unclear, as the American Academy of Dermatology’s recommendations states there is no clear link (2007) but recent research studies have highlighted some specific food enemies. So, what foods cause acne? Dermatologist Ivy Lee, MD, of Pasadena Premier Dermatology in California says whilst the evidence is still being gathered, he follows the motto of ‘what is good for the heart is good for skin too’.



Refined grains and sugars/foods with high glycemic index

When your diet is loaded with foods with a high glycemic index there is a link to worsened acne or a higher likelihood of acne.

The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly that food will cause a rise in blood sugar. Foods in the high range will release sugar rapidly, which causes high blood glucose – this can lead to several serious health issues. Foods low on the index will release sugars slowly and steadily. When combined with the amount of carbohydrate in the food, we get the glycemic load, which tells us how it will impact blood sugar levels. Why is this important? High blood sugar levels trigger the release of insulin, which raises androgen activation levels and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). This in turn increases skin cell growth and production of sebum.

Food high in refined carbohydrates include:

  • Sugar and sweeteners, including what are perceived as healthier options such as cane sugar, honey, maple syrup or agave.
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • White rice or rice noodles
  • Any pasta produced with white flour
  • Common white flour products such as biscuits, desserts, bread, cereals or cookies.


Dairy Products

Whilst there is no definitive link to dairy making acne worse, there seems to be a weak correlation to the use of Skim Milk and it is postulated that it may be related to hormones cows naturally produce, or to the probability of it triggering the release of insulin in the absence of organic acids in a mixed meal. One study linked consumption of milk and ice-cream to acne, but it was combined with a high glycemic load, which was most likely the culprit.


Fast Food

Acne is far more prevalent in societies where a Western style diet high in fast food items is consumed and increased the risk by at least 17%. Research has however not highlighted exactly how fast food affect acne – we do know it is mostly foods rich in processed carbohydrates, fats and sugars, and often fried in saturated fats. Some researchers postulate that there is a genetic link that involves hormone secretion when consuming high caloric foods such as fast food.


Omega-6 rich fats

The imbalance between healthy Omega-3 and Omega-6 rich fats in the Western diet plays a big role in increased inflammation and thus the formation of acne, but more studies are needed to determine why this is happening. Western diets are high in omega-6 fatty acids due to the high consumption of corn, canola and soybean oils, and this may account for the link to fast food effects as well, as it is normally fried in these oils. A lot of processed, prepacked food is prepared using these oils as well as highly refined carbohydrates.


A few small studies have highlighted a correlation between pimples and eating chocolate, but it does not seem to be related to the cocoa – so dark chocolate that typically contains less fat and sugar sounds like a good and healthy alternative. However, some studies have still shown that cacao may have a role. It may be linked to the immune system’s reactivity to the bacteria involved in acne, however there is no clear scientific evidence here and more research is needed. This is quite interesting as links were suspected as far back as the 1920’s. The bottom line on chocolate though is to opt for high quality dark options and mind your intake. It may be beneficial to maintain a food diary and see if chocolate may be causing more breakouts for you as it can be highly individual.


Whey Protein Powder

The Whey fraction of the milk proteins seems to trigger the increased release of insulin. It is also rich in the leucine and glutamine amino acids, which are known to encourage skin cell growth and division.

Male athletes, that consume the popular Whey Protein Powder supplement, have reported higher incidences of acne outbreaks, however, a lot more research is required to see if there is in fact a causal link.


Foods that you are sensitive to

Acne vulgaris seems to be an inflammatory type of condition, thus it is quite feasible to surmise that the body’s inflammatory response to foods that you are sensitive to will increase the likelihood of acne. It does respond positively to anti-inflammatory treatments such as corticosteroids (cortisone) and some studies have found higher levels of pro-inflammatory molecules in subjects with acne.

As inflammation is often a delayed response to a particular trigger, the best way to figure out which foods or food groups cause sensitivities is to follow an elimination diet, where you remove most common trigger foods and slowly add back items while watching for symptoms of inflammation during each phase. A food and mood diary that you can download below can help you keep progress during your elimination diet. You may also try Mediator Release Testing (MRT) to kick-start your elimination diet.


What foods will help improve Acne?


  • Heart-healthy diet – high in Omega-3 Fatty Acids – load up on fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy sources of protein, as it reduces inflammation.
  • Complex carbohydrates with a low glycemic index – will also help you maintain a healthy weight.
  • Zinc – whilst there is no causal relationship, it seems many people with acne are low on zinc – this is naturally found in oysters and shellfish, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Green Tea – polyphenols in green tea may help to reduce inflammation and can lower sebum production.
  • Turmeric – curcumin contains an anti-inflammatory polyphenol that helps to regulate bloos sugar and possibly reduce the incidence of acne.
  • Probiotics and fermented foods – kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, and kimchi.
  • Vitamins A, D and E – abundant in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and leafy greens, and of course you need exposure to the sun to make Vitamin D (or take a supplement).
  • Antioxidants – limited evidence, but if combined with a high fiber diet may help reduce acne.

You can also find a list of the top anti-inflammatory foods here.

Be very mindful though that the link between diet and acne development is still tenuous and what foods cause acne may vary from one person to the next. Therefore, it is best to stick to a healthy overall diet, and to avoid obsessing about certain foods and food groups, as the stress of that fear and obsession may do more harm than good in the long run. If acne affects your self-esteem, it is understandable to search for solutions but keep in mind that getting enough sleep, exercising, fresh air, hydrating, reducing stress and sticking to luscious, healthy whole foods, supplements if needed, as well as enjoying yourself in the process will likely give you the biggest results.

Marianna Draws

Professional writer by choice and health savvy by habit. Contributor at Smartpillwiki. A strong believer in the power of positive thinking, regularly develop internal wellness campaigns with effective mental health techniques.


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