What Foods Cause Acne? 4 Sneaky Foods That Cause Pimples

Move over skincare...diet may be your best acne solution. Learn the four sneaky foods that cause pimples, based on the latest research.

What Foods Cause Acne? 4 Sneaky Foods That Cause Pimples

Move over skincare...diet may be your best acne solution. Learn the four sneaky foods that cause pimples, based on the latest research.

If you struggle with acne, you likely have plenty of experience trying to tackle breakouts with topical solutions. However, despite acne being a multifactorial condition, we often aren’t encouraged to look at other factors that may be impacting our complexion, such as our diet.

There are a number of foods that cause pimples – some of which might surprise you! Here is our deep dive into what foods cause acne, as well as some alternatives and solutions for keeping up with a clear skin diet. 

What Foods Cause Acne: 4 Foods That Cause Pimples

One very important note before we dive in: we aren’t trying to scare you away from indulging in your favorite foods! That said, if you eat one (or more) of these foods on a regular basis and break out regularly, it may be worth trying an elimination diet for 2-4 weeks and seeing how your skin reacts. While you could attempt this on your own, if you need more support, seek out a Nutritionist to help guide you.

If a certain food is a clear culprit, find an alternative to enjoy on a more regular basis. You can still reach for the foods that cause pimples every so often. After all, moderation is key to a balanced, healthy lifestyle that is sustainable in the long-run!

Now, here are some of the top foods known for causing breakouts. 

Refined Carbs and Acne

If you have acne-prone skin, you’ll want to be cautious about indulging in refined carbohydrates. These carbs fall into two categories: refined grains and refined sugars. You’ll find refined grains in anything made with flour, such as white bread, tortillas, bagels, and cereal. White rice is also considered a refined carb, as the outer hull is removed. Refined sugars sources include anything made with sugar, such as cakes, cookies, and other sweet baked goods, as well as sodas, specialty coffee drinks, many bottled fruit juices, and candy. Sugar can also sneakily be hidden in savory foods like tomato sauce, BBQ sauce, and ketchup. 

The issue with refined carbs is that they are quickly digested by the body, which leads to a rapid rise in glucose levels, which then triggers the pancreas to produce insulin to help move those sugars out of the blood stream. Once in a while, this is no big deal. But if our diet is made up heavily of refined carb foods, and our blood sugar goes up and down frequently, this can lead to insulin resistance. This is a big problem for acne patients, given that insulin resistance has been linked to breakouts. In fact, the majority of acne patients - particularly those with moderate to severe acne - have been found to have insulin resistance

Additionally, elevated insulin leads to the elevated production of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (AKA IGF-1). This hormone can trigger oil production and raise inflammation levels. Both of which contribute to breakouts. 

Refined carbs are a hot topic in the research looking into what food causes acne. One study looking at teenagers with acne found that frequent consumption of foods high in refined grains and sugars (including pastries, cakes, fast food, and other sugary foods) was associated with an increased risk of acne breakouts

Similarly, another study revealed that participants prone to more severe breakouts ate a high glycemic diet (AKA a diet high in refined carbohydrates). 

On the flip side, other research has revealed that simply reducing refined carbohydrates in favor of a low glycemic diet can improve acne.

Dairy and Acne

Dairy (especially milk) is also at the top of the list of acne causing foods. Multiple studies, comprising tens of thousands of people, have found a link between dairy consumption and acne.

There may be multiple reasons why. At the top of the list: Higher dairy intake is associated with insulin resistance, which we know from above, is linked to acne. 

Additionally, dairy intake increases IGF-1 levels, just like high glycemic, refined carbs. As we talked about above, this hormone can be linked to excessive oil production, inflammation, and ultimately, breakouts.  

Regardless of the underlying mechanism, multiple large scale studies linking dairy to acne can’t be ignored. For example, in one large study including 47,355 female participants, researchers found that consumption of milk and dairy products was linked to teenage acne. Interestingly, skim milk consumption seemed to be the biggest trigger, likely due to the fact that skim milk has a higher carbohydrate content relative to fat, which may result in a faster increase in blood sugar and insulin levels than whole milk.

Another large scale meta-analysis including 78,529 people between the ages of 7-30, concluded “Any dairy, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese was associated with an increased odds ratio for acne in individuals aged 7–30 years.”

If you’re thinking of cutting dairy out of your diet to see how it affects your skin, you’ll want to keep an eye out for dairy-based ingredients hidden in other foods, such as packaged snacks and pre-made meals. Be sure to pass on milk chocolate as well, which contains both dairy and refined sugars. 

Whey Protein and Acne

Speaking of, there’s one more dairy product that can be especially problematic for acne-prone skin: whey protein. Similarly to other dairy products, whey protein has been found to increase insulin and IGF-1. In fact, although whey protein does not raise glucose, whey has been found to spike insulin more than white bread

In a case report, a NYC Dermatologist recounted how 5 different teenage male patients experienced the onset of acne after whey protein supplementation. Their acne did not respond to common acne treatments, including antibiotics, topical retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide. But, the lesions completely cleared in 4 of the 5 patients after discontinuation of whey protein

If you use a whey-based protein powder and experience body acne, there is also a good chance the whey is to blame. In another small study, researchers discovered that patients with truncal acne (which refers to acne on the chest, back, and shoulders) saw an improvement in breakouts after they stopped using whey

Need to change your protein powder? We loved hemp seeds! The plant-based alternative is loaded with anti-inflammatory, breakout-banishing omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for maintaining healthy, happy skin! We’re also fans of grass-fed collagen. 

Fast Food and Acne

Okay, we already know that pizza, hamburgers, french fries, and our other favorite fast food indulgences aren’t exactly good for our health. But here’s one more reason to steer clear: they may be contributing to breakouts. 

Many of these foods are rich in refined carbs, refined sugar, dairy, or all three! Additionally, they tend to contain large amounts of omega-6 rich vegetable oils, which may push the body into an inflammatory state and exacerbate acne

While indulging in a late night burger every once in a while isn’t a big deal, for the sake of your skin (and your overall health!), aim to limit your intake of fast food. 

What Foods Help Clear Acne?

Okay, we’ve talked about what foods cause acne breakouts. But what foods help clear acne? Here are a few tips on foods to include in your diet that help promote clear, healthy skin: 

  • Foods Rich in Zinc: Researchers have found that low levels of zinc may be linked to severe acne. Zinc-packed foods (such as pumpkin seeds, cashews, chickpeas, lentils, meat, and shellfish) may help you maintain a blemish-free complexion. 
  • Probiotics: Patients with acne have been shown to have less diversity in their gut microbiome compared to those without breakouts. Working probiotics into your diet can help improve gut balance to promote a clearer complexion. Probiotics can be found in food sources, as well as supplements like Glow Biome – an advanced acne probiotic specifically made to help clear breakouts from within. 
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acid-Rich Food: Research suggests that supplementation with omega-3s can help reduce breakouts. Try working more food packed with omega-3s into your diet, such as salmon, anchovies, mackerel, chia seeds, and walnuts.
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