Don’t eat fatty food, chocolate, cheese, dairy, carbohydrate or drink alcohol. This is the advice often given to those with breakouts in search of clearer skin. But for years, dermatologists disagreed that a link between our diet and acne existed; the available evidence was weak and flawed. Skip forwards a decade, and through robust research and larger studies, much has been done to unravel the myths surrounding the impact of what we eat on acne.
And the good news? Chocolate and wine are not completely off the menu (phew!).
Acne is driven by hormones, and it is now accepted that levels can be influenced by the foods we consume. If you suffer from breakouts, now is the time to start paying attention to the glycaemic index (GI) of the foods you eat. Every food has a number and the higher the number, the faster your body breaks the food down and converts the carbohydrates within into sugars. Foods with lots of sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as sweets, white bread and fizzy drinks, have a high GI, which causes a spike in blood sugar. This leads to a rise in a hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which turns up oil production in the skin and leads to the formation of spots. This is likely to explain why some people experience breakouts if they eat lots of chocolate or overindulge on sugary foods, so remember, a treat every now and then is ok, but everything in moderation!
Another hormone that strongly influences the production of oil from the grease glands in the skin is testosterone. A common misconception is that only men have testosterone, but this naturally occurring sex hormone is needed by both men and women to maintain muscle mass and healthy bones (and also keep our sex drive in full flow!). In acne, the glands are usually more sensitive to the effects of testosterone, which like IGF-1, can ramp up oil production.
Exposure to extra testosterone in our diet can also make matters worse – three large studies have shown a risk of more severe acne in people drinking more than 2-3 servings of cow’s milk daily. Cow’s milk contains naturally occurring animal hormones including testosterone, and to make matters worse, milk can also stimulate insulin production (causing a rise in IGF-
1). Together, these can send the grease glands into an oil overdrive. Taking this into account, a dairy-free diet therefore seems appealing for those in search of clear skin, but it is worth noting that some dairy-free alternatives may cause more problems.
Dairy alternatives such as soy, almond and coconut milk can be sweetened with refined sugar, so always look for unsweetened products, or stick with just 1-2 servings of cow’s milk daily. And if you’re a gym bunny, consider skipping regular whey-based protein supplements, which often also contain bovine (cow) hormones.
If you are someone who likes to add a supplement to their diet, you can’t go far wrong with omega-3 fatty acids. Unlike omega-6 fatty acids (found in fatty food), which promote skin inflammation, omega-3s can decrease IGF-1 levels and reduce inflammation within the grease glands, which may decrease the risk and severity of acne. Western diets typically have a low ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, which may be why we have a greater problem with acne in the UK than our counterparts in the Mediterranean who eat a lower fat, higher fiber diet.
So if you have breakouts and want clearer skin, there is no need for drastic measures and strict dietary restrictions. Aim for a low-fat balanced diet, with lots of fruit, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and limit your cow’s milk intake. And if you are partial to chocolate, try to choose the dark variety - your skin will thank you for the inflammation-busting zinc!