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If you’ve watched a TV sitcom, you know that one of the most well-worn tropes is someone getting a big zit before the even bigger school dance (or first date or picture day or Bayside High homecoming rally or — you get it.) Often, chocolate is to blame for these small-screen breakouts, but is that legit science or lazy screenwriting? Ultimately, it’s a little bit of both.
Acne affects around 80% of Americans at some point in their lives, and multiple factors contribute to breakouts.
One of the most noteworthy factors––yet often overlooked––is diet and how much sugar we consume.
Many people know that sugar isn’t great for the skin, but dermatologists have only recently begun to understand why.
Below we outline everything you need to know about how a diet high in sugar can contribute to and aggravate acne.
We also go into detail about how you can treat and prevent future sugar-related breakouts with the right skincare products and diet.
Before we take a closer look at how sugar affects breakouts, it’s important to understand how acne develops.
When the skin produces excess sebum (your skin’s natural oil), your pores can become clogged. This causes blemishes like whiteheads and blackheads to form.
If these plugged pores become infected with bacteria, the blemishes can become inflamed and painful, turning into acne pustules or papules.
Factors like genetics, hormonal imbalances, and certain skincare products can all contribute to acne formation and cause the skin to produce more oil than necessary.
Not only can a poor diet contribute to existing acne breakouts, but it can also make an active breakout worse. Certain foods stimulate an inflammatory response in the body—and one of those foods is sugar.
The body absorbs and deploys sugar (glucose) quickly because sugar has a high glycemic index (GI). Eating sugar and other foods with a high glycemic index causes blood sugar levels to spike, and our bodies must release insulin to rebalance it.
Insulin can contribute to a hormonal imbalance in the body because it stimulates the release of androgen hormones, a group of sex hormones that can in turn cause excess sebum production. A rise in androgen hormones during puberty are one reason that acne is often exacerbated during our teenage years.
Sugar isn’t the only offender when it comes to an increased risk of acne, though. Other foods that sit next to sugar atop the glycemic index are, too.
Carbohydrates may be crucial to a healthy, well-balanced diet, but some are considerably "better" for you than others.
For example, you likely know that a slice of rustic whole-grain bread is better for you than a squishy slice of white bread. (Sorry, Wonder Bread.) There are several reasons behind this whole-grain supremacy, but when it comes to your complexion, the main reason involves glycemic index (GI) rankings.
The glycemic index is a system of ranking foods according to how likely they are to cause your blood sugar to spike. It was developed by the Glycemic Index Foundation, and there are three tiers: low, medium, and high.
High glycemic foods that rank at the top of the GI are those that wreak the most havoc on your skin. These foods are quickly digested and increase your blood sugar levels rapidly. A spike in blood sugar can contribute to inflammation, leading to swelling and redness on the skin.
Sugar-rich diets also make it more likely for you to develop insulin resistance.
This is when your body no longer produces this important sugar-processing hormone well when needs to regulate blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance causes sugar to build up in your blood cells and can eventually ead to type 2 diabetes.
Some foods with a high GI aren’t necessarily filled with sugar, however.
Our bodies convert many foods into glucose—this is another term for the sugar found in the blood—which still causes blood sugar levels to spike.
The foods that rank the lowest on the Glycemic Index are those that you digest slowly, which is much easier on all of your body’s processes.
Foods with a high GI have an index score of 70 and above. These are typically processed or refined foods and simple carbohydrates.
Because the body can process these foods in a short time, they are quickly converted into glucose and cause blood sugar to spike.
Remember that the body releases insulin to try and balance blood sugar levels. This contribute to the excess oil production that causes breakouts.
If you want to lower your chances of developing acne, avoiding or cutting back on the following high-GI foods may help––it will be good for your metabolic health too.
Foods with a high GI aren’t the only items that can contribute to acne developing on the skin. Here are three other foods to limit in your diet if you’re concerned about your complexion.
Research suggests that inflammation can contribute to the formation of acne and make it more severe. Inflammation is the way that our body tries to protect itself when it thinks something is trying to attack it.
For example, if harmful organisms start to grow on the skin, or if processed food affects and changes bacteria in the gut.
An inflammatory response helps the body to direct white blood cells—which help heal wounds and remove harmful organisms—to any affected or damaged areas.
While this sounds like a good thing, prolonged inflammation can damage the skin’s sebaceous glands and cause sebum to oxidize. This process removes oxygen molecules from the skin. Since acne-causing bacteria thrive in low-oxygen environments, this gives them more opportunity to grow.
To avoid this, there are several foods that you might consider cutting back on to reduce your sugar intake. These foods include:
When you eat foods that you’re either allergic or particularly sensitive to, your body gets confused and thinks it’s being attacked. To protect your digestive system, the body launches a counterattack via your immune system, causing inflammation.
It can take up to 12 hours for the food to nudge inflammatory molecules into motion throughout your body, causing a delayed hypersensitivity reaction.
Although milk can contribute to acne, scientists aren’t exactly sure why.
One prominent theory is that the animal’s hormones—like IGF-1 and DHT—are to blame. IGF-1 and DHT often find their way into the milk we drink, contributing to hormonal imbalances in our own bodies.
They also prompt the liver to produce more insulin, which can trigger other hormones that increase oil production.
If you’re using whey protein powder to enhance your athletic performance, you may also increase the chance of developing blemishes.
Like milk, whey protein contains amino acids that boost your body’s insulin levels.
You really may be able to achieve more clear and radiant skin by making healthier dietary choices.
Not only will a healthy diet strengthen your skin from the inside out, but it can also reduce the frequency of breakouts to help you maintain a clear complexion.
The best way to swap a sugar-heavy diet for something healthier is to supplement refined foods with low-glycemic options, like whole grain breads and pastas, more protein, and more vegetables.
Other interesting skin superfoods include:
If you’re like most people, you’re not on the fence about how you feel about oysters—they’re either delicious or disgusting.
If you fall into the latter camp, here are two reasons to break out the champagne vinaigrette and reconsider your stance:
Like oysters, salmon takes a two-step approach to fighting acne:
If you aren’t a fan of fish, choosing foods that are high in fiber is also a great option for creating a healthier diet.
The following foods are some of the best high-fiber options on the market:
Scientists have yet to pinpoint exactly why a fiber-rich diet lowers the risk of breakouts. However, the simple fact that high-fiber foods keep your blood sugar levels in check is great news for your complexion.
Remember, high blood sugar levels prompt the release of insulin which can contribute to inflammation and the amount of oil on the skin.
When these levels are stable, the skin can regulate itself better and reduce pore blockage and the formation of pustules.
Get started with a Nava MD clinician today to learn how personalized acne care – and a smart diet – can work in tandem to give you the healthy complexion you’ve always wanted. Your online consultation is simple, and the right prescription skincare solutions are delivered to your door, if approved.
While a good diet can support a clear complexion, a well-rounded approach to fighting acne and maintaining healthy skin is ideal.
That includes a little attention daily and using high-quality skincare products.
At Nava MD, our treatments are designed to help you achieve your best skin. Our range of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) products are formulated with acne-fighting ingredients like:
These are clinically proven to fight common symptoms of acne—like pain, swelling, and redness—to promote healthy and radiant skin.
Get started with a personalized treatment plan and custom prescription formula (shipped to your door, if approved) by completing our easy online consultation.
It's like a dermatology visit from the comfort of home.