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Pro tip: While you may feel like you’re the only adult plagued by acne, you’re in good company. A lot of company. More than 50 million people (that’s more than 10% of the population) in the United States battle those frustrating bumps, and acne is one of the most common conditions that dermatologists deal with day in and day out.
Acne has many potential causes, and it can start at any time of life. Women are more prone to acne, and they can even get it for the first time later in life due to changing hormones (thank you, pregnancy and menopause).
Stress is one of the most common causes of acne in adults too, but (perhaps not surprisingly) your diet may also lead to pimples on your face or exacerbate an existing acne condition. Foods that increase inflammation are generally the culprits. If you have a food sensitivity, that inflammatory response can be the reason you see those angry outbreaks.
Here are the nine top foods that cause acne.
Milk is touted for its protein and calcium content, but several studies found a positive correlation between milk consumption and acne prevalence. Full-fat, low-fat, and skim milk were all implicated. It isn’t entirely clear why milk wreaks havoc on the skin, but it could be due to an increase in insulin production, leading to the production of insulin-like growth factor 1. Higher levels of IGF-1 are linked to higher levels of acne, particularly in women. If you’re lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy, it can also lead to inflammation that causes acne.
Instead of drinking dairy, you may want to switch to alternative milk made from nuts or oat. These are sometimes fortified with calcium to provide you with this ever-important nutrient, though there are other foods — seeds and spinach, for instance — that naturally contain calcium too.
Who doesn’t love fresh, warm, and super-soft bread loaded with butter? Bagels? Pasta?
We all dig ‘em, but your skin sure doesn’t. Eating refined grains of any sort isn’t doing your skin any favors. As with milk, consuming pasta, bread, pastries and crackers sends your blood sugar skyward fast, leading to a surge in insulin. The more refined carbs you eat, the more likely you are to see an epic peak rise from the smooth surface of your face, back, or chest.
Glucose from whole grains doesn’t get absorbed into the bloodstream as quickly as refined grains, so you don’t see the rapid spike in insulin. Whole grain goodies are better choices if you can’t quite give up the bread.
Coming in third for top foods that cause acne, processed and fast foods have very little nutritional value but are high in sugar, salt and fat. These three ingredients have an addictive quality, particularly when combined. When you order the largest fries on the menu and a burger you can barely fit in your mouth, you get a heaping helping of refined carbs and plain ol’ sugar in every bite. These foods lead to an insulin spike as they raise your blood sugar, causing systemic inflammation that can also show up as pimples on your skin.
Shop the outside aisles of the grocery store as much as possible. Experiment in the kitchen with new recipes. Meals cooked with whole foods are richer in nutrients, more satisfying and flavorful. You may even find the cooking process calming and therapeutic, which is something else that can give your skin a boost and reduce the pimple population setting up camp across your face.
You’re trying to do the right thing by your body and choosing a healthier oil for your cooking, but it may be causing you acne. Many vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids. If you’ve heard that omega-6 is good for you, you’re right, but you don’t need much of it. Most people consume more than they need to, and this knocks the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 out of balance. The imbalance can lead to inflammatory disease and — you guessed it — acne. While corn and soybean oils are the worst offenders, canola, sunflower and safflower oils also have a good dose of omega-6.
Try swapping out the vegetable oil for coconut oil or avocado oil at least some of the time. Olive oil is lower in omega-6 than many other oils, though it isn’t great for cooking in high heat. Eat fatty fish a few times a week to raise your omega-3 levels. If fish isn’t your thing, take a DHA supplement and incorporate flax and chia seeds into your diet.
Yes, these are processed foods, but they deserve their own special category. Processed meats contain chemicals that are detrimental to your whole body, and they won’t leave you with a clear, glowing complexion either. These substances often contain high levels of:
Each of these ingredients alone is sufficient to cause an inflammatory response, but consuming foods that contain this cocktail can lead to obesity and inflammatory diseases. Eating too much red meat provides similar results, so if you want a clearer complexion it’s a good idea to stick to natural, preservative-free lean meats from animals that are not given antibiotics or artificial growth hormones.
That tasty, rich daily cuppa specialty joe you drink may give you a boost of energy and the feeling that all is good with the world, but it may not be doing your complexion any favors. Additionally, the caffeine in your mocha could also raise your cortisol levels. Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. Since stress is the number-one cause of acne in adults, you can imagine what consistently high-stress hormones do to your skin. Add to that the refined sugars you get with your specialty coffee, and you’ll also find a rise in pimples on your skin.
Keep the specialty coffees to a minimum and make them a special treat rather than a regular part of your diet. Try lowering your caffeine intake as well. Switching to green tea gives you a little bit of a caffeine boost, but it also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that lowers anxiety and reduces stress.
Pizza is a comfort food favorite, but you might need some extra comfort if you eat too much of it.
Pizza tastes great for the precise reasons it’s not great, nutritionally. It’s a concoction of refined carbohydrates, dairy, and sugar (in the sauce), all of which cause your insulin to shoot through the roof, possibly resulting in an inflammatory response and aggravating acne.
Make your own pizza at home from scratch using whole wheat flour and your own sauce. You can also use cheese that doesn’t contain artificial growth hormones — or try leaving the cheese off entirely!
Any foods that have a high glycemic rating should be avoided as much as possible. This includes fruit juices, many desserts, candy and soda. Foods that rank high on the glycemic index absorb more quickly into your bloodstream, rapidly raising your blood sugar and insulin levels. Added sugar is everywhere, with companies adding it to a wide range of products. Americans each consume nearly 152 pounds of sugar annually on average, which is the equivalent of six cups of sugar every week! It’s no wonder half of America is diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Cut down on your dessert and sweets consumption and drink water or green tea instead of soda. Read food labels carefully for added sugar, which is hidden under a variety of names. You won’t just clear up your skin, you’ll also have an overall healthier system and reduce your risk of several health issues.
Rounding out the list of top foods that cause acne is any food that you have a sensitivity or are allergic to. Food allergies can be serious and life-threatening, but even those allergies that don’t cause a severe reaction can lead to increased acne. The relationship between food allergies and acne is due to how your body responds to allergens. When you’re exposed to something you’re allergic or have a sensitivity to, your body’s immune system jumps into action, releasing chemicals such as cytokines. This response causes inflammation, which can result in an acne flare-up.
Incidents of adult acne are on the rise, particularly in women. Though stress is a common cause, your diet may be a culprit as well. If you’re prone to adult acne, you may want to consider a change in diet, along with dermatological treatment.
The experienced clinicians at Nava MD are here for just that. We help men and women access clinicians from home, for personalized treatment and medications designed just for you. They’re shipped to your door if approved, and your professional is only a click away.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency