Diet and Acne

Some foods do seem to make acne worse. But they’re probably not the ones you think of.

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
4-minute read
Episode #36

Lots of you have e-mailed and phoned with questions about diet and acne so today, we’ll talk about whether what you eat can make a difference in your complexion.

There are a lot of old wives’ tales about certain foods causing acne, such as chocolate, potato chips, or pizza. Conventional dermatologists, on the other hand, are more likely to tell you that there is no link between diet and acne.

I think the truth may be somewhere in between. There is some new evidence that certain foods may be linked to acne, but it looks like we’ve been focusing on the wrong foods. It turns out that chocolate and oily foods don’t seem to affect acne. But refined carbohydrates and dairy products just might.

The evidence against dairy is chiefly based on epidemiological studies. That means that when we look at big groups of people and what they eat, there seems to be a correlation between dairy and acne. Specifically, we see that people who eat less dairy seem to have less trouble with acne.

A Smoking Gun

In nutrition, this is the equivalent of a smoking gun. It doesn’t definitively prove anything but it gives you an idea where to look for the bullet. The next step would be a controlled trial. For example, we could take a big group of people that have acne and have them stop eating dairy but keep everything else exactly the same. Then, we’d see if it made a big enough difference in their symptoms that we could be sure it was not due to chance or placebo effect.

You don’t have to wait for the researchers to get this organized, though. If you’re frustrated with acne, you can do an experiment of one: If cutting back on dairy improves your acne, you’ve got your answer! If avoiding dairy does make a difference, it doesn’t mean that you can never eat dairy again, by the way. It’s possible that after several weeks or months, you can gradually reintroduce dairy to your diet without triggering break-outs.

Instead of or in addition to cutting back on dairy, there’s something else you can try.

Do Refined Foods Cause Acne?

Dr. Loren Cordain, among others, argues that a diet high in refined foods is the main culprit in acne. This theory has been tested in a couple of small trials, where the people avoided sweets, highly-processed foods and refined carbohydrates like bread, baked goods, and other things made with white flour. Instead, they ate a whole-foods diet including lots of fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fats. And it worked! Their acne improved and they also lost weight.