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Does Sugar Cause Acne?

By The Nava Team

June 14, 2021

If you’ve ever watched a TV sitcom, you know that one of the most well-worn tropes is somebody getting a big zit before the even bigger school dance (or first date or picture day or Bayside High homecoming rally or — well, 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.

Sugar and Acne Go Hand in Hand

Whether it’s in a chocolate bar or not, sugar does increase your chance of breaking out, although it’s important to note that no single food or drink alone spurs acne. Your complexion is affected by your diet as well as other lifestyle choices. For example, smoking, alcohol consumption and the absence of regular, restorative sleep can all cause acne. Genetics play a role, too.

It's little wonder then that roughly 80% of people experience breakouts between age 11 and age 30. While acne tends to decrease for many people as they roll through their 30s, for others, pimples persist well into their 40s and even their 50s.

Sugar is behind some of these breakouts. It works its way into your bloodstream faster than you can say “Large Coke, no ice.” This causes your blood sugar to spike, which in turn prompts your body to produce more insulin to bring blood sugar levels back down. All of this up-and-down wreaks havoc on your hormones, including those that affect your skin’s oil production. In short, send your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride, and your odds of breaking out soar.

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.

What’s the Glycemic Index Got To Do With It?

Carbs 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 hive.) There are several reasons behind this whole-grain supremacy, but when it comes to your complexion, the main reason involves glycemic index rankings.

The GI in a Nutshell

The glycemic index is a system of ranking foods according to how likely they are to cause your blood sugar to skyrocket and then crash back to earth in a cloud of angry hormones and higher blood glucose levels. It was developed by the Glycemic Index Foundation, and there are three tiers. The foods that rank the highest (i.e., are the worst for you) are those that are quickly digested, which causes your blood sugar to spike. The foods that rank the lowest are those that your body digests slowly, which is much easier on essentially all your body’s processes. (If you’ve heard of the slow-carb diet, these low-GI foods are what that's all about.)

High-GI Foods To Avoid

If you want to lower your chances of a breakout — as well as do your waistline a favor and reduce your risk of diabetes — avoid the following high-GI foods:

  • White bread
  • Breakfast cereal (including cereal bars)
  • Potatoes, including fries and chips
  • White rice and rice crackers
  • Sweetened dairy products, such as flavored yogurt
  • Fast food
  • Dried fruits, including raisins, dates and cranberries
  • Cookies, cake and most sweet desserts

Avoid These 3 Other Types of Food, Too

Refined carbs, sugar and acne may go together like Harry, Ron and Hermione, but they're not the only way to sabotage your skin. Here are three other foods to limit in your diet if you’re concerned about your complexion:

Foods That Cause Inflammation

Research strongly suggests that inflammation causes acne or, at a minimum, makes it more severe. Cutting foods that your body can’t handle, and that therefore cause inflammation, lowers your risk of acne.

When you eat foods to which you’re either allergic or particularly sensitive, your body gets confused and thinks it’s being attacked by that soft cheese or foamy beer. To defend your digestive system’s honor, it launches a counterattack via your immune system, causing inflammation to occur. This is commonly referred to as a delayed hypersensitivity reaction, as it takes at least 12 hours for the offending food to nudge inflammatory molecules into motion throughout your body. (That's why a gluten-intolerant person doesn't suddenly sprout a blackhead the moment he or she gets down on some endless breadsticks.)

There are a variety of foods that cause intolerance and inflammation, but some of the most common malefactors include the following:

  • Gluten
  • Lactose
  • Casein
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Fish and shellfish
  • MSG and other additives
  • Nuts
  • Sulfites (compounds found in beer and wine, as well as added to other foods)

If you suspect that you have a food sensitivity, talk with your doctor. Depending on your symptoms, he or she might suggest an elimination diet or a food test. This information is also useful for your Nava MD clinician in planning your custom skin care regimen, so don't forget to mention it.


Research shows that milk, particularly skim milk, causes acne, but here’s the kicker: Scientists don’t know why. One prominent theory is that amino acids are to blame — the cows’, not yours. When you drink milk, these amino acids tell your liver to produce more IGF-1 (a.k.a. insulin-like growth factor 1), a protein that naturally occurs in your body and has been linked to breakouts.

Whey Protein Powder

If you’re using whey protein powder to make gains in the gym, you may also be bulking up your chances of a blemish. Like milk, whey protein contains amino acids that boost your body’s insulin production, which can lead to acne.

Now That Sugar’s Out, Eat These Foods for Better Skin

If cutting out sugar, refined carbs and other acne-starters leaves a void in your diet, here’s what you should fill it with for healthier skin.


If you’re like most people, you’re not ambivalent about oysters: Either they’re extremely delicious or they’re slimy and disgusting. If you fall into the latter camp, here are two reasons to break out the champagne vinaigrette and reconsider your stance: The zinc in oysters not only zaps the bacteria that causes zits, but oysters also prevent the production of chemicals that increase inflammation.


Like oysters, salmon takes a two-pronged approach to fighting acne. Remember that blemish-boosting protein IGF-1 we mentioned earlier? Salmon lowers it. It also reduces inflammation thanks to its abundance of omega-3 fatty acids.

Foods That Are High in Fiber

Hate fish? Control your acne by opting for fiber-rich foods such as the following:

  • Oatmeal
  • Spinach
  • Carrots
  • Lentils
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Walnuts
  • Popcorn

Scientists have yet to pinpoint exactly why a diet full of fiber lowers the risk of breakouts, but the fact that it keeps your blood sugar levels in check is great for your complexion.

When you eliminate sugar and processed carbs from your diet, the benefits are written all over your face — almost literally. 

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.

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Disclaimer : This article is not intended as medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider with any questions. Dial 911 in case of a medical emergency.