Every few years, people get convinced that the foods they eat and enjoy every day cause their acne. Now seems to be one of those times. So I figured I’d take advantage of the heavy search volume for “foods that cause acne” and write a post detailing how that isn’t exactly true. Let’s hope the SEO gods bless me and you actually see this post.
I’ve written before about diet and acne. While it is true that some foods can be inflammatory, it is important to note that everything is fine in moderation. There are only few foods that cause acne, kinda. And even then, the food usually isn’t a direct cause but more of a trigger to an existing issue. We’ll explore this more in just a bit.
The Truth About Foods That Cause Acne
When you read things online that discuss diet and acne, the information is usually oversimplified. You’ll see things that simply suggest you avoid dairy, limit certain seafoods, or stop eating fried foods. But these oversimplified statements disguised as “helpful tips” end up not being helpful or meaningful in the long run. An important thing to note is that the food itself is not the issue, it is how your body decides to process and breakdown those foods. And everyone may process foods differently. This also doesn’t take into consideration how often you may indulge in that food. If you have seafood rarely or fried foods only one day per week, those foods won’t cause you to breakout.
As mentioned in the beginning of this post, our diets can trigger existing issues that may lead to us having more breakouts. Research shows that certain diets and foods can trigger insulin production, insulin resistance, hormonal imbalances, and thyroid issues. You’ve heard the saying “you are what you eat” and that’s never been more true when it comes to considering how the foods you eat may be contributing to your skin health. It also provides insight into why your skin may not respond positively to certain topical treatments.
Acne, Insulin, and You
It’s not exactly foods that cause acne, but our diets may trigger an insulin response that exacerbates acne. This insulin response will either cause us to produce too much insulin or create an insulin resistance. Insulin production and insulin resistance begins by consuming foods with a high glycemic load. Insulin spikes are also directly linked to androgens within the body which we know can create more breakouts.
Since dairy is often the culprit when discussing food and acne, let’s use it as an example. In general, most humans do not tolerate milk very well. The reason for this is because we naturally lose the enzyme that allows our bodies to properly digest milk proteins once we reach puberty. So for the overwhelming majority of the world population, consuming milk-based products will almost always result in inflammation within the body. This will not only cause gastrointestinal issues but may cause skin-specific issues as well. When we consume milk-based products in excess, we start venturing into insulin response territory.
With milk in particular, researchers found that consuming a diet rich in milk-based products increases the levels of an enzyme called mTORC1. This enzyme regulates how our bodies handle insulin and the milk protein leucine. It can create more fat in the sebaceous glands while also increasing androgen production. So with a condition that already suffers from clogged pores and retention hyperkeratosis, mTORC1 exacerbates that.
Milk also contains IGF-1, a growth factor that directly impacts the pilosebaceous unit, androgen production, sebum production and keratinocyte production. IGF-1 stimulates 5-alpha reductase, the enzyme that converts testosterone into DHT (dihydrotestosterone). DHT is the cause of many acne responses within the skin.
Basically, milk-based products are just not a good look for anyone but especially those who are acne-prone. Many of the natural ingredients within milk cause insulin spikes that can lead to hormonal imbalances which can result in breakouts. Too much dairy in the diet can lead to insulin resistance. This is what happens when your cells don’t respond well to insulin and inhibits the bodies naturally ability to use glucose from the blood as an energy source.
Hormonal Acne and Your Diet
We’ll save “hormonal acne” as a topic for another blog post but, as you can see from our milk example, your diet affects your hormones. Those hormones can affect your appearance. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is another hormonal acne culprit that affects the majority of women with adult acne. In most cases of PCOS, more androgens are produced within the body and some studies have even linked insulin resistance to PCOS.
But you could be eating too many androgens, too. Peanuts/peanut butter, corn oil, wheat germ, liver, tuna, whey protein, and beef are some examples of foods that can cause androgen spikes within the body.
On the flip side, your hormones can also be thrown out of whack if you have an underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism. While the research isn’t exactly conclusive on hypothyroidism causing acne there is some evidence to suggest that it can be a trigger.
Foods that are especially triggering for those with hypothyroidism include soy, gluten, sugars, caffeine, alcohol, and excess fibers. To be clear, again, it’s not the foods that cause acne but if you have a thyroid issue and overindulge in any of these foods, it may trigger breakouts.
So What Should You Eat???
I firmly believe that everything is fine in moderation. One slice of cheese isn’t going to make your face erupt in a breakout but gorging on an entire block of cheese in 24 hours might. You could be acne-prone and be just fine with eating peanut butter everyday while another person won’t. Everyone will be different.
It’s important to make dieting choices that are healthy for you. The best way to do this is by seeking out a nutrition professional and trying lots of different foods (to discover what taste good to you!). And when it comes to your skin, make sure you’re working with an esthetician who is aware of these triggers and can coach you around them (like me!).
Quite a long read, huh? Didn’t think your food’s relationship to your skin could be so complicated, did you?