Acne is no longer a teen problem. Today, people of all ages are susceptible to this annoying skin issue. Indeed, dermatologists have long observed an alarming tendency – adult acne is on the rise, and no one really knows why. Simultaneously, much dermatological research of the past decade focused on the link between skin health and diet, a surprising and yet significant finding.
Thanks to media and self-education, many of us will know, for example, that sugar can cause acne. But most people don’t know that it’s not all sugar that does so, and also that sugar is by far not the only culprit behind acne and breakouts. Several other food groups and nutrients have been implicated in their ability to contribute to the development of acne. We discuss the majority of such foods below.
1. Refined Sugar
Acne is the skin’s way of getting rid of the dirt and microbes that pile up in the pores, a process that’s significantly accelerated when the skin is producing more sebum, or oil, as the gloopy oil causes dirt to get stuck in the pores more easily, and many bacteria feed on the sebum, too. Refined sugar – which includes added sugar in sweets and savory foods like pasta sauce, as well as any foods and drinks where sugar isn’t bound by fiber, like fruit juice or smoothies – can alter the composition of the sebum and make the pores produce more of it.
This is all because refined sugars tend to cause insulin spikes, which activate hormones that control skin sebum production. As a result, those who eat a lot of added sugar, sweet drinks, and foods that contain refined sugar, have an overall 30% higher chance to develop acne than those who don’t according to studies. The solution? No need to cut out everything sweet from your diet. Instead, opt for foods that contain sugar naturally, meaning fruit and vegetables. The fiber present in these foods won’t cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar, and so they’re better for your skin, too.
2. Dairy Foods
Another food group that is known to contribute to the development of acne is dairy. Needless to say, those suffering from lactose intolerance or are sensitive to milk and dairy are most susceptible to breakouts related to dairy consumption, but even those who can typically tolerate milk and cheese can experience acne after eating dairy. While most previous studies confirming the link of dairy and acne were on teens, a large recent study conducted on adults in France found that drinking 5 glasses of milk or sugary drinks increased the risk of acne by more than 50%.
Thus, dairy, too, can potentially exacerbate acne or even cause it. This is because dairy foods are naturally high in androgen hormones, which, when consumed by people, can upset our own hormonal balance, causing acne as a result. One of the main hormones implicated in the development of acne is IGF-1, and scientists believe dairy foods may be somehow raising IGF-1 production in the liver. Luckily, there are many plant-based milk and cheese alternatives on the market today, which will surely help you reduce the amount of dairy you eat.
Chocolate deserves a separate mention on this list, as it’s actually one of the first foods to be suspected of causing breakouts, with studies suggesting this unfortunate fact dating back to the 1920s! More recent findings suggest that chocolate can make you break out more, with one study conducted on male acne sufferers concluding that 25 grams of 99% dark chocolate a day significantly raises the number of breakouts in just 2 weeks.
But it isn’t only dark or milk chocolate that’s associated with acne, pure cocoa powder, too (and all foods that contain it) can exacerbate acne, as proven by an experiment where participants were given a cocoa powder supplement that likewise resulted in more breakouts. Researchers believe chocolate may make immune cells more reactive to acne-causing bacteria, but the specific biochemical mechanism is unclear.
4. Not Enough Zinc
Zinc is one of the essential minerals we need to stay healthy. While zinc is most well-known for its role in maintaining a strong immune system, it also has a strong effect on skin and hair health. In fact, zinc supplementation and topical zinc products are among the most popular treatments used by dermatologists to treat mild to severe acne in all ages.
If you’re not getting enough zinc in your diet, you may be more susceptible to acne, as the mineral plays an important role in maintaining skin health. Getting enough zinc in your diet is easy: just one 1-ounce serving of pumpkin seeds contains about 14% of your daily value of zinc. Other foods that have plenty of zinc include seafood, legumes, and poultry.
5. Refined Foods
Not only refined sugars are bad for your skin. Scientists have found that any ultra-processed or refined foods can increase your risk of acne. These include the processed grains present in your favorite white bread and cookies, instant ramen, and fast food, to name a few. There are several studies looking at the impact of processed meat, such as burgers and sausages, on acne, and that of fast food in general on skin health, and all these studies found at least a 25% increased risk.
Like sugary foods and dairy, highly-processed foods, too, were suggested to upset the hormonal balance and alter the makeup of sebum. Thus, reducing the number of fast foods and processed foods in your diet isn’t just bad for your long-term heart health and longevity, it will make your skin clearer, too, as a pleasant bonus.
6. Whey Protein
Whey protein powder is one of the most common fitness supplements, recommended and widespread among athletes, fitness buffs, and anyone who is trying to lose weight these days. It turns out, however, that the same thing that may help you lose weight and build muscle may also be making your acne worse or potentially even cause it. This is because whey protein powder is based on two dairy proteins – casein and whey – concentrated in a powder form.
Case studies and larger experiments reveal that whey protein powder is a common culprit behind acne in athletes, as the powder is capable of raising insulin levels and causing an increase in the androgen hormones that control sebum production and skin health. Add this to hours of sweating at the gym every week, and you are in dangerous territory when it comes to skin issues both on your face and body.
7. Excessive Fat Consumption
Don’t be mistaken, not just trans-fats and saturated fats can cause acne. All types of fat, even healthy ones can increase your risk of acne. That’s right, it turns out you can eat too many avocados, after all. Some researchers suggest that this is because mixing different oils – omega-6, omega-3, and others – raises the level of inflammation in the body, including the skin.
The same French study we mentioned previously also found that eating french fries raised people’s risk of acne by 54%. Keep in mind that you don’t have to exclude oils and foods that contain them from your diet completely. Instead, simply decrease how much food you eat, especially fried foods.