Diet Dos and Donts for Preventing Acne

Scientists still aren't clear on the true link between diet and acne, but they have some theories.

There are so many things you’ve wanted to leave behind from your teen years — and yet you just can’t shake the pimple problem. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), adult acne is on the rise, and 15 percent of women complain about breakouts.

Exactly why is often a mystery for dermatologists to unravel — and it’s more than just finding a good benzoyl peroxide cream at the store like you did when you were 17. Some experts think that what you eat may play into pimple formation, but they don’t agree across the board.

While some foods are suspected as acne-causers, including dairy, sugar, and processed foods like potato chips, crackers, and granola bars, “research is not conclusive on what foods cause acne. However, we do know that our skin reacts to different things from person to person,” says Gretchen Frieling, MD, a board- certified dermatopathologist in Boston. “It’s possible for different foods to have different effects on different people,” she says.

When you want get rid of acne, it’s important to look at your body as a whole — diet, skin-care habits, topical products (namely, making sure they are anti- comedogenic so they won’t clog pores) — to find a clear skin solution that will work for you. “Some factors, such as genetics and skin type that influence acne, [are] beyond your control. However, what you eat can make a big difference in your overall skin health and the production of sebum,” says Frieling.

Here are some foods to have on your radar — and how to build an overall diet that will keep breakouts at bay.

Don’t: Eat Foods High on the Glycemic Index, Such as Refined Carbs

Some of the strongest evidence to date links foods high on the glycemic index (GI) and acne, says Whitney P. Bowe, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and Medical Director of Integrative Dermatology, Aesthetics, and Wellness at Advanced Dermatology in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, foods high on the GI include refined carbohydrates and sugars — including white bread, russet potatoes, boxed macaroni and cheese, and other highly processed foods that tend to rapidly increase blood sugar levels. This spike in blood sugar levels triggers a cascade of effects that increases inflammation and causes the skin to produce more oil and plug the pores, which sets the stage for acne, notes the AAD. "Anything white or refined is something you want to avoid," says Dr. Bowe. Try switching from white bread to whole-grain and from white rice to brown. These foods (100 percent whole-wheat bread and brown rice) are lower on the glycemic index; they’re not only less processed, but they’re also higher in fiber, which slows blood sugar’s rise after a meal, according to Harvard.RELATED: How Do You Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Carbohydrates?

Don’t: Binge on Milk and Other Dairy Products

Several studies have pointed to a link between eating milk and other dairy products and an increased risk for acne, according to the AAD. Two potential reasons: These foods prompt the release of insulin and growth factors in the body, which contribute to breakouts.

"Milk proteins, especially casein and whey, are emerging as things responsible for the acne link," says Bowe. "But there are also hormones in milk that are precursors to testosterone, and those along with protein may be a combination that triggers acne. Initially, we kept seeing a stronger link between skim milk and acne, and we still can't account for why it's more than for whole milk."

One person may be able to handle dairy okay, while for another a dairy-filled diet begets breakouts. “Our bodies’ reaction to these hormones may vary from person to person, but dairy promotes an insulin-like hormone called IGF-1, which can lead to breakouts,” adds Frieling, supporting findings in the aforementioned Nutrients review.

Do: Eat Foods With Probiotics, Such as Yogurt

While more research is needed, the role of probiotics in clear skin looks promising. Probiotics are found in yogurt with live active cultures, sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi, as well as in supplements, notes the Mayo Clinic.

Although more studies are needed to confirm that they're healthy foods for clear skin, Bowe says that probiotics may create a healthier bacterial environment in the gut, and that may help prevent the cascade of events that lead to inflammation and acne.

Frieling also recommends probiotic-rich foods to help get rid of acne. She advises including foods like kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha in your diet.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Warner.

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