There are a lot of things about high school we want to forget. Frosted tips. A head full of butterfly clips. Tearaway pants. Oh yeah, and that greasy red face full of pimples staring back at us in our yearbook photo.
We may be well past puberty, but acne is still an annoying reality for a lot of adults: Research suggests that 50 million Americans suffer from the skin condition. The good news is, relief may be as simple as making the right choices in the kitchen. Which is why we’ve compiled a list of the best and worst foods for acne-prone skin.
Worst Foods for Acne
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how much a carbohydrate-containing food raises your blood sugar and triggers an insulin response—the higher the count, the bigger the impact. One 2014 cross-sectional study found that compared with their clear-skinned counterparts, participants with acne consumed greater amounts of high GI foods, added sugar, and total sugar in their diets.
Research says that sugary snacks likely stimulate inflammation and production of hormones that secrete excess oil from the glands. Want to clear out the pores? Skip the white bread, chips, pastries and desserts.
Ah yes, chocolate has become an iconic part of the zit-faced teenage archetype, and in this case, there might be some truth involved. Since high GI foods are a no-no, it should be assumed that chocolate is on that list, but there’s actually been a lot of specific research on everyone’s favorite comfort treat.
Some studies have found an increase in acne lesions, particularly in acne-prone adults, likely as a result of it simply being a high-sugar, high-fat treat. But even the so-called healthy dark stuff doesn’t seem to be immune to the effect. One small study found that acne-prone male adults who consumed 25 grams of 99-percent dark chocolate had more acne lesions after just two weeks.
But the research isn’t all bad news for chocolate lovers. Some studies haven’t been able to identify a difference in outcomes between chocolate eaters and abstainers, so we definitely need some more high-quality trials to make concrete recommendations before we cut it all out.
Dairy has been pegged as the alleged culprit of adult skin woes, but the research isn’t necessarily so cut and dry. One large retrospective study on more than 47,000 women found that acne was positively associated with dairy consumption—most notably, with skim milk.
Another two studies, one on teen girls and the other on boys, echoed these findings, potentially speaking to the role of hormones and growth factors present in the milk. Unfortunately, these studies have been criticized for their flawed designs and weak association, so more research is definitely needed before we say goodbye to yogurt, cheese, and milk.
Processed Vegetable Oils
With a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, processed vegetable oils like corn, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed are often accused of contributing to our problematic skin. While research looking specifically at the intake of omega 6-rich fats and acne is lacking, we do know that when we consume too many omega-6 fats and not enough anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, our body is sent into a state of inflammation. Since acne is essentially inflammation of the skin, it wouldn’t be surprising if these unique fat ratios played a problematic role.
Whey Protein Powder
Gym rats and fitness gurus, listen up—your protein shake may be feeding your muscles but hurting your skin. While most of the research in this area is based on small sample sizes, studies have shown an increase in acne flare-ups in male athletes consuming whey-based protein supplements.
One potential explanation is that the amino acids in whey protein powder may stimulate the body to increase its natural insulin levels, which promotes the onset of adult acne. We still need many more clinical trials to confirm the association, but if you’re a regular user, maybe switch to a plant-based protein powder and see if it makes a difference in your skin.
Best Foods for Acne
100-Percent Whole Grains
While high-GI foods like refined white breads and pastries are on the no list, eating a diet rich in low-GI foods like fiber-rich whole grains may be the key to clear skin. One study found that participants following a low-GI diet saw a significant decline in facial acne after just 12 weeks. Another study had similar results in just a month! Gone gluten-free? No problem. Fruit, veggies, quinoa, oatmeal, and pulses are all great low-GI carbs.
Kale is rich in the powerful antioxidant (and anti-inflammatory) duo vitamin A and vitamin E. Research has found higher rates of acne when these vitamins are insufficient in one's diet. One study even found that supplementing with vitamin A helped reduce the severity of acne in acne-prone patients. Other sources of vitamin A include carrots, sweet potato, squash, bell peppers and melon, while vitamin E can be found in abundance in seeds, chard, mustard greens, and spinach.
Pumpkin seeds are not only rich in vitamin E and good fats, but they’re also one of the best sources of dietary zinc. While we don’t yet have the research to prove cause and effect, one study found a link between low levels of zinc in the blood and acne severity. Another study found that after four weeks of supplementing with zinc, participants’ acne lesions decreased! If pumpkin seeds aren’t your thing, other great sources of zinc include cashews, beef, turkey, quinoa, lentils, and seafood.
We already touched on this, but we’ll say it again: Most Americans are failing to reach an optimal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, largely because we’re overeating refined processed foods and skimping out on those heart-healthy fishy fats. The good news is that research has found that those who upped their omega-3 fats were able to significantly reduce their acne symptoms.
Another study found a significant improvement after just 10 weeks of supplementing. Some research has also suggested that omega-3s may help improve mental health, and since acne and depression may go hand in hand, upping your fish intake may be a helpful solution. Not into fish? Try reaching for flax, walnuts, chia seeds, soybeans, and fortified products.
As with seemingly everything, the health of our skin is strongly connected to the health of our gut. One recent study comparing individuals with and without acne found that the bacterial makeup of our skin follicles plays a significant role. For that reason, consuming foods rich in probiotics, like kimchi, may be an easy way to help cultivate a microbial environment that favors clear skin.
While the research in this area is still very new, we know that probiotic-rich foods offer many benefits for gut health and beyond, so go ahead and indulge in your favorites. If you’re not into kimchi (we know it can be a little funky), try tempeh, sauerkraut, miso, or pickles.
It’s not surprising that foods rich in antioxidants that fight inflammation may help clear things up. Green tea is packed with powerful polyphenol antioxidants, which early research has linked to the prevention of acne in topical preparations. While we still don’t know the impact of drinking it (so how many cups do we need for #flawless skin?), it is a low-GI calorie-free drink that will help with hydration.