You’ve probably doubted whether it’s true already; if you’re like other acne patients then you will have eaten a certain food, noticed an explosion of spots later, and wondered why on earth it happened if diet was nothing to do with.
Well here’s the truth: you were correct all along and your dermatologist wasn’t. Not only is diet related to acne, it is actually the single biggest controllable factor that affects it.
Diet is such a big cause of acne that the claim that it’s not is one of the most ludicrous in mainstream science.
How the myth got started
Firstly, take a look at this quote from the website of the British NHS (National Health Service):
- “There isn’t any evidence that acne is caused by what you eat. However, eating a balanced diet is good for your general health, so aim to have a healthy diet.”
This quote tells us the two main reasons why doctors recommend what they do:
They believe that there isn’t enough evidence – the quote says that there’s no proof that specific foods cause acne, and they’re right. There is evidence that specific foods cause acne, like chocolate for instance, but the studies are very conflicting and may be downright false.
What is beyond doubt and what health bodies don’t seem to realise, is that there is tons of evidence that certain foods lead to the factors behind acne. We may not have evidence that sugar causes acne directly (aside from countless anecdotal reports) but we do have evidence that it leads to inflammation and it’s an accepted fact that too much leads to insulin resistance.
Both of those conditions lead to acne, so therefore we know that sugar can cause acne. You don’t need a specific study pointing it out, you just need to use your brain. Doctors say there’s no evidence of greasy foods causing acne, but we know that eating the wrong kinds of oils can lead to a ramped up immune system and thus bigger and redder spots.
The mistake health organisations make is they look for studies directly connecting foods to acne; they never consider the evidence showing that food has a strong indirect association with it.
Doctors are worried about your health! – The truth is that many doctors know that acne is caused by certain foods, but they won’t admit it because they have a sworn oath to keep you as healthy as possible. The Hippocratic Oath states that a doctor should first and foremost, do no harm to his patient.
To them, acne is not important to your health, so they don’t want you to go home, try a crazy diet, and jeopardise the rest of your health in the process.
While there is even any doubt about diet causing acne, they will always advise that you use treatments with far less health implications; for example, a face wash. Really they are just trying to keep you safe, but the good news is that their fears are unfounded anyway. The healthiest diet for acne is actually one that is extremely healthy for your body anyway.
You are encouraged to get more antioxidants, get insulin resistance under control, reduce inflammation – all great things to do that will help your general health and not just your skin.
Real world evidence that diet causes acne
Kitava is a small tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. Its residents live a lifestyle that is the opposite of that in the West; they primarily support themselves through fishing, they get tons of exercise, and most importantly their diet is completely different.
This is completely unlike the average Western diet, which is full of junk food, sugar, and endless amounts of refined bread and pasta. Their diet is very healthy and it shows up on their skin too; on the island of Kitava, not only is acne far less common than in the West, but it is almost completely unheard of.
In 2001, Dr Loren Cordain and his team of researchers visited the island to do a health check on the residents. The first thing they discovered was that their rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other common diseases were extraordinarily low, but they also noticed that they hardly seemed to have any acne.
They then proceeded to analyse the skin of every single resident on the island and the results were shocking: they could not find a single pimple, whitehead, cyst, or other form of acne you can think of.
The island was completely free of acne.
When you consider their vastly different diet, it makes one wonder if diet really does cause acne after all, and that was the conclusion of Dr Cordain’s team.
The science behind diet and acne
Anyone who genuinely believes that diet doesn’t cause acne is simply confused about the causes of acne; they might believe that acne is caused by genetics and thus diet has no part to play, or they might believe that hormones are the only factor.
As you’ll know if you’ve read this article, and this article, there are two specific causes behind a pimple’s formation, but there are numerous other factors that lead to those two causes, and diet can affect just about all of them.
Diet affects your antioxidant intake. This is possibly the most obvious one. A human being has to get most of his or her antioxidants from the diet. The human body does manufacture some of its own antioxidants, such as superoxide dismutase, but these are woefully inadequate on their own and we HAVE to get more through food.
The types of food you eat will affect your antioxidant intake dramatically; if you eat plenty of garlic, onions and avocado, then you will be getting tons of antioxidants, whereas if you replace those foods with burgers and sandwiches you will be getting far less.
Getting enough antioxidants is vital for your skin because they are needed to protect squalene from oxidising. When squalene oxidises it kicks off a chain of events that allows your pores to get blocked, and that is the key requirement for acne to form.
A healthy diet = more antioxidants. More antioxidants = less blocked pores. Less blocked pores = less acne. Conclusion: diet affects your acne.
Diet affects your nutrient intakes – some nutrients such as zinc and vitamin A are vital for the prevention of acne. Zinc is needed to keep your immune system in check and vitamin A is an excellent way to keep sebum production down.
Diet is your main source of both these vitamins and hence the foods you eat are very important for your skin. Another example: if you attempt to get your zinc from whole grains, like bread and pasta, then your body will become highly zinc deficient (because the zinc in grains is not absorbed), whereas if you try to get it from seafood like oysters, you will have plenty of it in your body and your acne will be reduced.
What is strange is that doctors admit that nutrients are important for acne; they commonly prescribe you with Accutane, the main ingredient of which is vitamin A! Yet they cannot make the connection between diet and acne. Your diet also affects countless other vitamins which help your skin like vitamin C, vitamin D, and the all-important vitamin E.
Your diet affects your nutrient intake > your nutrient intake affects your skin > diet affects your acne.
Diet affects your insulin status – this is the most straightforward way in which diet causes acne; if you eat too many carbohydrates, more than you can use up through exercise, then you will become insulin resistant. Your energy stores will be full and they begin to resist insulin, because its job is to transfer energy into those stores.
However this leaves an excess of glucose (energy) in your bloodstream, which is very unhealthy, so your body has to do something about it. Your body responds by pumping out greater amounts of insulin, to make up for its reduced effectiveness, with the result that your overall levels of insulin are higher.
The problem for your skin is that insulin is one of the biggest culprits in high sebum production. It directly causes your sebaceous glands to secrete more oil and it also enhances the ability of DHT to do the same. Higher sebum production then leads to blocked pores and acne; therefore it is pretty clear that by getting too many carbohydrates in your diet you are putting yourself at risk of bad skin.
Not only are carbs important, but the foods you eat can affect your insulin levels regardless of carbohydrate intake. For example, dark chocolate has been shown to improve the sensitivity of your cells to insulin, therefore reducing the need for greater amounts of insulin in the first place. Plenty of other foods have demonstrated the same ability, including garlic and onions, and we also know that certain unhealthy foods may increase insulin resistance (like trans-fats).
A poor diet = insulin resistance. Insulin resistance = oily skin. Oily skin = acne. Conclusion: diet affects your acne.
Diet can cause chronic inflammation – chronic inflammation begins whenever you ingest too many unhealthy substances and it can easily start by eating unhealthy food. One classic example is sugar. Sugar is notorious for causing a big increase in chronic inflammation; this study found that when patients were fed extra sugar their c-reactive protein (a common indicator of inflammation) jumped by 107%.
This means that the body is more inflamed and that means that your acne will be bigger, redder and more painful. Other dietary choices can influence your inflammation levels too; getting the wrong kinds of dietary fat can cause your immune system to go into overdrive.
Finally, there are also chemicals and other substances in food, such as pesticides, herbicides, additives, and BPA, many of which are known to add to inflammation.
A bad diet = increased inflammation. Increased inflammation = more active acne. Conclusion: diet causes acne.
Much, much more – certain foods like coffee can also lead to elevated cortisol levels, which is another way to become insulin resistant. Then you have foods which are high in free radicals, which deplete your antioxidants and leave less to help your skin.
Finally you have almost unlimited amounts of foods that can affect your skin in indirect ways. The point about acne is that it results from a problem inside the body. Every aspect of your health is connected, and something that may seem completely unrelated to your skin could come back to help it in some way.
That is another reason why claiming that diet doesn’t cause acne is ludicrous as well. Doctors will tell you to fix your diet for all sorts of problems, like heart disease, blood pressure, cancer, and numerous minor conditions. Yet they claim that acne, which starts within the body, cannot be affected by your diet at all.
The truth is that acne is a problem that starts inside the body (mostly) and you have to treat it as such, which makes diet massively important.
Conclusion – does diet cause acne?
The answer is yes, it definitely does. Anyone who claims that diet doesn’t cause acne has no idea what they are talking about.
In fact fixing your diet is by the most important step you can take to fix your skin. If someone tells you that diet doesn’t cause acne, then what they might mean is that specific foods do not cause acne, and that is partly true. You won’t get acne just by eating a single pizza if the rest of your diet is in order.
The real problem is when there are systematic problems in your regular diet; for example too much sugar, not enough antioxidants, too many carbohydrates, too many unhealthy foods on a daily basis.
One unhealthy food will not break you out, and one healthy food will not clear you, but your overall diet makes a massive difference and should be the main focus of your efforts.
Remember, the link between diet is not “controversial”, it is very obvious if you understand the science. If you think that a certain food breaks you out then in all likelihood you are correct.
Thanks for reading!