One-half of teenagers have heard that foods can worsen acne, but results of previous medical studies show that there is no strong link between diet and acne. While some studies suggest that there may be a connection, the relationship is not clear and changing one’s diet is not going to "cure" acne.
Acne and Diet, Recent Study Results
The relationship between the foods we eat and the development of acne has been debated for many years. In one survey, nearly half of all acne patient believed that eating certain foods could make acne worse.
The acne-diet connection was generally accepted by physicians and the public until the 1970’s after a few small medical studies failed to show a relationship. Since those studies were published, considerable effort has been spent educating the public about the "acne myth" of diet playing a role in acne.
However, this controversy is heating up again as more recent studies indicate a potential role of diet, contradicting these historical studies.
- One 2002 study, “Acne vulgaris: a disease of Western civilization” was published in the Archives of Dermatology. The researchers studied indigenous tribes of hunter/gatherers, including near Papua New Guinea (Kitavan Islanders) and in the remote jungle of Paraguay (Ache people). Individuals in these groups, including teenagers, showed no signs of acne. It was hypothesized that the lack of acne was related to their low carbohydrate diet. (Since the people there hunt for their food they do not have easy access to carbohydrates and simple sugars as found in fruits, breads, sodas, candies,..etc.) However, it is difficult to determine whether these findings were due to their unique diets or genetics.
- Another 2007 study on high-protein, low glycemic-load diet and the development of acne studied changes in glucose and insulin levels in the blood due to diet and the resulting changes on the skin. One group of teenage boys was given foods with a low glycemic index, such as whole grain breads and pasta, beans (legumes) as well as high protein foods. The second group was fed a more "typical" teenage diet consisting of white bread, potatoes, and sugary drinks and snacks. After 12 weeks, the boys in the high protein-low glycemic index group showed a significant reduction of acne.
- One study announced at the 2009 American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting show that more than 80% of adherents to the South Beach Diet noticed improvement in their complexion within three months of starting the dietary regimen.
The results of these studies suggest a link between diet and acne development.
The low glycemic-load theory suggests that high carbohydrate diet leads to increased levels of insulin in the blood, which results in a series of hormonal changes, including increased levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) and androgens (male hormones). Increased IGF-1 levels can lead to blockage of the pores and the development of comedones, the precursor of acne lesions. Increased androgen levels increase sebum production that results in oily skin and swelling of acne lesions.
Overall, further studies are needed to understand the relationship between acne and diet.
Take Home Message
So, is diet alone going to clear your acne? Probably not.
People with moderate acne or severe acne may still require acne treatment to keep acne under control and prevent acne scars. However, eating a low carbohydrate (low glycemic diet) may reduce the severity and frequency of acne break outs. A diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains (whole wheat bread, wheat pastas, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.) over processed or "junk foods" that are high in sugar, such as pastries, soda, sugary snacks may improve acne.
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Last updated: 3/26/2020