How Diet Can Affect Acne

John Yost
August 23, 2021

Newer research has produced good data to show the top triggering factor for acne is whey protein, an ingredient in milk

The question of diet and acne has been one of longstanding controversy. You may remember the idea that chocolate or greasy food would give you pimples. For a while starting the 1970s, those associations were seen as a matter of fact. But over time new studies have debunked these myths.  

Newer research has produced good data to show the top triggering factor for acne is whey protein, an ingredient in milk. This means that products that contain whey may trigger acne or make existing acne worse. Other foods that have been found to make acne worse are those with a high glycemic index, particularly refined carbohydrates without any or much fiber, including sugar.

Which foods make acne worse?

Whey protein is in highest concentrations in high-protein, low-fat dairy products such as low-fat cow’s milk, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese. That is thee more protein there is in a serving of a dairy product, the more likely it is to cause acne. High-fat dairy products like cream and butter are not as problematic.  

Refined carbohydrates include popular foods like bagels, crackers, cookies, and candy. These and other products made with white flour and sugar are problematic for acne sufferers. They make acne lesions worse, though they don’t necessarily trigger acne.

How to eat to help acne?

Elimination diets usually aren’t sustainable, so in my opinion the most effective course is choosing the best options within the problematic food groups. That’s why I recommend that patients don’t cut out these foods entirely, but that they become choosier about them. To avoid food-related acne triggers, opt for high-fat dairy and whole-grain starches instead of low-fat dairy and refined carbohydrates.

Look for dairy products with higher cream content, such as whole milk instead of low-fat milk, French-style yogurt instead of Greek yogurt, and creamy cheese like brie instead of low-fat mozzarella. Stay away from whey-based protein bars, shakes, and supplements, as these are also highly likely to contribute to acne. Also, sheep’s milk or goat’s milk seem to be less of a trigger than cow’s milk.  

I also tell patients to restrict intake of refined carbs to just a few servings per week. If you’re going to eat starch, it should have some fiber in it, such as whole grain bread, wild rice, or brown rice.

For those looking for a particular “diet” to follow to help with acne, a Mediterranean diet is a good option. It doesn’t include a lot of dairy or carbs since it’s focused on fish, lean meat, vegetables, and nuts.

What about hormonal acne?

Research shows that food isn’t the only influence that triggers acne or makes it worse. People of all genders may get acne that’s triggered by hormones, and those with ovaries are more likely than those without to suffer from it.  

There is some evidence that herbal spearmint tea can help in blocking the triggering effect of hormones on the skin. I recommend that those with hormonal acne try drinking two cups of spearmint tea a day.  

Additionally, taking a zinc supplement has been shown to help inflammatory acne in people of all genders.  

While it may not be possible to eradicate all your acne, especially if your hormones play a big role in your condition, refining your diet can certainly help. You may be able to significantly cut down on incidence and severity of acne by being careful about what you eat.  

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