Can Changing Your Diet Really Fix Your Skin?

Are there hard and fast dietary rules when it comes to our best (or worst) skin ever? It may not be all black and white, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Can Changing Your Diet Really Fix Your Skin?

Are there hard and fast dietary rules when it comes to our best (or worst) skin ever? It may not be all black and white, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

While some people are blessed with seemingly poreless, smooth, perfect skin no matter what they consume, the majority of us will display our bodies’ misalignment with certain foods via big ol’ breakouts. That means that in many cases, yes, changing your diet can really fix your skin. 

Of course, there is not a one-size-fits-all clear skin diet solution. However, for those of us with acne-prone skin, becoming more observant of how our body reacts to certain foods and thinking about the input that we can control can make a world of difference in how frequently and badly we break out. This is true even for hormonal acne (we’ll explain why in just a moment!)

Note, though, that we are fans of balance, enjoying life, and consuming “naughty” foods (in quotes because we are against the criminalization of having fun!) in moderation sans guilt. That’s because we know that our health and skin is a reflection of what we do most of the time, not once in a while. Knowledge is power, people! 

Can Changing Your Diet Really Fix Your Skin?

Here is what the science shows: 

Refined Carbs and Refined Sugar

Sugar Acne Connection

Not everything sweet is going to ruin your complexion. Remember fruit? Fruit contains antioxidants and fiber that are great for our gut and skin, so we’re not talking about fruit, or other whole foods that happen to be naturally sweet, like sweet potatoes, for that matter.  

When we say sugar, we’re talking about refined sugar and refined carbohydrates. Think: candy, cake, cookies, white bread, pasta, cereal, flour, or any baked goods made from flour. Consuming these foods once in a while as part of an overall healthy diet is no cause for concern, but studies show again and again (and again, for those in the back!) that consuming them regularly (what researchers call a “high glycemic load diet”) indeed increases the risk of acne. 

Now, why is that?

The Blood Sugar Acne Domino Affect

When we consume refined carbohydrates, they are digested quickly, which causes the blood sugar to spike and sets off a domino chain of (hormonal) events that ultimately lead to breakouts: 

Eating refined carbohydrates increases blood sugar → 

Higher blood sugar causes your body to produce insulin →

Higher insulin leads to increased production of the hormone Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1) and may lead to higher androgens in women with insulin resistance or PCOS→

Higher IGF-1 increases inflammation and causes the skin oil glands to increase sebum production as does excess androgens → 

This ultimately leads to breakouts. 

 Whew. All that drama from a box of cookies! 

A simple solution? Do the opposite, folks. Have the cookie, not the whole box, and at the end of a nutritious meal, not in place of it. A low-glycemic load diet  - one that keeps your blood sugar more stable - has been shown to reduce acne. Don’t you love when it’s that simple? A low-glycemic diet can reduce the amount of products needed in your skincare lineup, including prescriptions. In one study, with 2,995 participants, 91% of them needed less oral and/or topical acne meds after just 3 months on a low glycemic load diet. How is that for food affecting your skin?!

Whole foods like vegetables, our beloved fruit, beans, high quality animal protein, and healthy fats are all staples of a low glycemic diet— smooth digestion is a major perk. It’s all connected.

So yes, some of us may be genetically more breakout-prone. It’s not a fate we must accept blindly. Eliminating processed sugars and refined carbs for the most part (you can still live a little) is going to have a visible impact on your skin’s clarity. The buck starts here, but certainly doesn’t stop.


Dairy and Acne

Sigh. It’s true. Even if we aren’t viscerally ravaged with digestive duress after consuming dairy— shoutout to our lactose-intolerant people— it can still have a negative effect on our skin. In fact, right after sugar, dairy is at the top of our list of foods to avoid for acne-prone skin. Hear us out.

We’ve been hearing this for years, like, since the ‘40s, but unlike the old wive’s tale that chocolate causes acne (cacao is great for skin health) the dairy problem isn’t going anywhere. 

And, it’s still being studied. Name-dropping for all the skeptics: fast-forward nearly 60 years, and Harvard researchers found a major link between dairy consumption and teenage acne after examining food diaries of over 47,000 nurses. And it’s not just the full fat stuff— those who consumed skimmed milk had even more severe acne, so there really is no cheating the system. 

And, of course, it’s not just affecting teens— adults of all ages can experience breakouts from dairy. A meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrients (which included nearly 80,000 subjects) concluded: “Any dairy, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese was associated with an increased odds ratio for acne in individuals aged 7–30 years.” 

So why does dairy trigger acne? 

Well, just like with sugar, dairy increases our insulin and that sinister little hormone IGF-1. The more dairy we consume, the more IGF-1 the body produces, and that unfortunate domino effect of inflammation, excess sebum, and breakouts ensues. Sadly, no expensive serum can mitigate this, it’s an inside job.

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone— we are all preciously diverse snowflakes with our own unique biochemistry. But for the acne-prone dairy-consumers, eliminating dairy for two weeks or up to a month is a worthy experiment to see how it’s affecting you, your hormones, and ultimately your skin. Working with a Nutritionist can help. 

Vegetable Oils

Vegetable oils

Nothing makes us more happy than the honest conversations being had around cooking oils lately. Gone are the days of throwing highly processed vegetable oils like canola, corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, grapeseed, or cottonseed oils in the pan without thinking about how significant their role is in our entire meal. Now, people are questioning how they’re made (with chemical extraction and high heat) and what they’re doing to our bodies. 

Especially since the typical American consumes 3 or more tablespoons of vegetable oil a day, through a mix of packaged foods, takeout, dining out, and home cooked meals. 

So what's the problem with vegetable oils?

Vegetable oils contain poly-unsaturated fats (PUFAs for short). You’ve probably heard of them by their more common names, omega-3 and omega-6. While PUFAs are a necessary part of the diet, consuming too many of them falls into the too much of a good thing category (particularly when it comes to omega-6). 

Researchers believe a healthy ratio of omega-6:omega-3 is about 1:1, however, even up to 4:1 may still be protective against various chronic illnesses. However, scathing studies indicate that the sad, sad, SAD (Standard American Diet) provides a ratio of about 15:1. Not okay.

Consuming too many omega-6s in relation to omega-3s is thought to promote inflammation and contribute to chronic inflammatory diseases. Acne, in case you weren’t aware, is a chronic inflammatory condition.  

And vegetable oils tend to be RICH in omega-6s and low in omega-3. 

Plus, PUFAs are delicate! They are easily oxidized (read: go rancid) due to exposure to oxygen, light, and heat…which, unfortunately, is inevitable during the vegetable oil refining process.

For example, research at the University of Florida at Gainesville found trans-fat levels as high as 4.6 percent in commercially available soy and canola oils - a result of the delicate PUFAs oxidizing into dangerous trans-fats during processing. 

Consuming rancid oils causes inflammation, and inflammation is behind not only breakouts, by premature aging (of the skin AND brain), and various chronic illnesses. 

Instead, using mechanically-extracted, cold-pressed oils, like extra virgin olive oil, and even animal fats like grass-fed tallow and butter are making a resurgence, with good reason. Mechanical extraction of oils using a cold press protects the delicate PUFAs from oxidizing, while animal fats are naturally low in omega-6 and are more stable making it harder for them to go rancid. 

In addition to your cooking oils, be mindful of your packaged goods. When you can, choose foods made with oils lower in omega-6. For example, olives soaked in olive oil instead of sunflower oil, or tortilla chips baked with avocado oil instead of fried in corn, grapeseed, or soy oil. There is no need to be a saint and eschew all vegetable oils all the time, simply do the best you can, when you can. And be sure to eat your omega-3’s people! Wild salmon, anchovies, sardines, flax, and chia are all rich in omega-3, and act as a counterbalance to omega-6. 

Sadly, this is going to change how we see most packaged goods. But knowledge is power, clarity, and the precursor to thriving. Make reading your labels a habit, and your complexion will thank you.



The gluten-free “trend” is much more than a trend, turns out. For all those scoffing at friends who avoid gluten sans the celiac disease… time to rethink those scoffs! While the link between gluten and acne is far less defined, even those without celiac disease can have a mild sensitivity that reflects on their skin.

To reiterate our sugar conversation, most gluten-containing foods will be high on the glycemic index. Hello again, refined carbs. Processed foods like baked and packaged goods, like bread, cereal, pasta, muffins, cookies, crackers, pancakes, pretzels… you get it— are all highly processed, and contain those quick-digesting carbs that launch us out onto the blood sugar rollercoaster. We’re looking for a smooth glucose ride, ladies and gents.

Plus, gluten intake is associated with gut issues and increased inflammation both of which can play a role in breakouts

This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to cut out our beloved sourdough, that piece of birthday cake, or a Saturday croissant. But consuming refined carbs via gluten products for breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, and dessert may rear its ugly head… on our faces. If that makes sense.

If you’re uncertain which foods are the culprit for you, work with a nutritionist who can help guide you through a food elimination and reintroduction. This worthy experiment may provide some serious clarity, both literally and figuratively!

Two women with Glow Biome

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