Got zits? Whether you had major acne or just an occasional pimple as a teenager, up to 50% of adults have recurring flare-ups. Ugh! How does this happen? Genetic, hormonal and lifestyle factors can make adult skin susceptible to acne breakouts on the face, chest, and/or back. Of course we could talk about the value of a good cleansing and exfoliation routine, but that is not why you are reading a nutrition blog, is it? There has been a long-standing debate over whether one’s diet influences the frequency and severity of acne. Historically, chocolate and dairy products have been blamed most often for causing pimples. (The “Got Milk?” campaign should have been called “Got Zits?” then, eh??) But simply avoiding chocolate and/or milk does not seem to be the answer. In recent years, a growing body of evidence suggests that certain physiologic responses to the food we eat can aggravate skin’s natural oil (sebum) production, leading to clogged pores. I will share the latest dietary wisdom with you here, trying my best not to get too technical.
The latest scientific research suggests that a high level of circulating insulin is a culprit in acne flare-ups. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Foods with a high glycemic index, such as sugars and refined flours, rapidly raise blood sugar, which in turn, trigger the body to release a higher volume of insulin into the bloodstream. Excess insulin has been found to prompt the release of a variety of growth factors and other hormones, such as androgens, known to initiate inflammation and oil production in the skin. (Androgens are male sex hormones that run especially rampant in teenage boys.)
Therefore, the dietary recommendations for controlling acne are based on reducing circulating insulin levels as well as curbing inflammation. Keep in mind that there is no one dietary “super food” or “cure all” when it comes to completely stopping acne in its tracks. (If it could only be that easy??) The goal is to cut down on foods that aggravate and add more of the foods that are helpful to the situation:
1. Cut down on sugar, period. This applies to added sugars, like desserts, sweets, soda, and chocolate, as well as beverages containing natural sugar, like fruit juices and milk. Yes, this is probably one of the main reasons why chocolate and milk have both been accused of causing acne over the years. However, it is also speculated that the hormones given to cows to increase milk production may also be to blame, so look for milk from cows not treated with hormones. Along this same vein, it is probably wise to eat meat from animals raised without hormones as well, even if meat does not raise insulin levels as much as sugars do.
2. Cut down on refined carbs. White flours and other processed grains, such as white rice and white pasta, are guilty of raising insulin levels too. When selecting carbohydrate-containing foods, choose 100% whole grains and limit portion size to 1 cup in order to control the body’s insulin response.
3. Eat more low-carbohydrate foods such as hormone-free lean protein (such as chicken and fish), non-starchy vegetables, and healthy oils, like olive oil and avocado.
4. Eat more anti-inflammatory foods such as fatty fish (Alaskan salmon and sardines) and nuts/seeds (walnuts, almonds and flaxseeds especially) and deeply-colored fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, kale, and broccoli. The vitamin A in orange and green vegetables are wonderful for skin too.
5. Drink more water, as it is essential for skin metabolism and regeneration. You don’t have to overdo it, but aim for the “gold standard” of eight, 8 oz. glasses a day– more if you live in a dry climate (hello Arizona and Nevada friends!), during hot weather or if you exercise regularly.
Making the above-mentioned dietary changes will get you well on your way to improving your complexion. Plus, not only are these diet habits good for your skin, but for your overall health as well. Of course, cutting down on stress, getting enough sleep, keeping your hands away from your face, and taking a shower after exercise are also helpful behaviors towards keeping unsightly breakouts at bay.
Pimples be gone! Enjoy your day