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The Anti-Acne Diet

When it comes to acne, your skincare regime is of utmost importance, but the way you eat is crucial too.

There are two key principles in treating and preventing acne from within:

  1. Eat a low-glycemic diet
  2. Get enough zinc, vitamins, and antioxidants to support healthy skin.

What is a low-glycemic diet? A low-glycemic diet contains unprocessed carbohydrates from vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and berries. It is best to avoid processed foods, like white bread, sweetened or refined cereals, pasta, juices, sweetened drinks, cakes, cookies, crackers, pretzels, skim milk, white rice, candy, and french fries because they contain quickly digested sugars that enter the bloodstream rapidly, causing a spike in insulin, the hormone that helps your body convert sugar in the blood into fat in the body. While insulin is a vital hormone for survival, overproduction of insulin due to a high-glycemic diet causes inflammation, and inflammation is the trigger for acne breakouts.

Eating well for healthy skin means avoiding processed foods and drinks, eating 5 or more servings of produce daily, plus eating lots of good sources of zinc like shellfish, nuts, and beans. Follow as many of the suggestions below as you can, as often as you can to make your skin clear and healthy.

Nutrition fix #1

Never drink your calories. Nothing causes a more rapid spike in insulin than drinking carbs. Avoiding insulin spikes is key in preventing acne. Avoid milk, milk substitutes, juice, soda, or any beverages that contain calories

Nobody is shocked that I recommend avoiding soda and sweet drinks, but some of my patients are surprised when I ask them not to drink milk or milk substitutes. Milk, especially skim milk, can spike insulin just like a soda can. Milk also contains whey protein which is inflammatory to acne. While it is important to get enough calcium in your diet, milk and milk substitutes are not the only or even the best way to get it (Milk is still a good beverage for people under the age of 3. See this article about getting enough calcium without milk). Cheese doesn’t spike your blood sugar as much as milk or sweetened yogurt does, so it’s a better choice for those with acne. However, to avoid inflammatory whey protein, people with acne often need to get their calcium from a calcium supplement that contains vitamin D and avoid eating all dairy foods.

 Smoothies can still be a part of an anti-acne diet, just make sure it’s made of only fruit, vegetables, nuts, or seeds and has no added sugar (honey, syrup, or juice), milk, milk substitute, or protein powders that contain whey. Try enjoying your smoothie with a spoon to slow down your eating so you don’t get as large a spike of insulin as quickly slurping it down with a straw would cause. Savoring your smoothie with a spoon increases your enjoyment of the smoothie so you don’t overeat.

I’m fully aware that transitioning to eating rather than drinking your calories can be a real challenge if you drink sweet beverages on a regular basis. Try substituting water or sparkling water with a squeeze of fruit juice for sweet beverages. Unsweetened plain tea or black coffee is fine in moderation. If you can’t stand to drink your coffee without creamer, try using a frother or emersion blender to make black coffee into a creamy, frothy treat. That worked for me. 

If you feel you need to wean yourself off drinks rather than quit cold turkey, start by cutting sweeteners and creamers in half right away, then by half again in a week or two. You can dilute cold beverages like fruit juice with sparkling mineral water. Every little decrease helps!

You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much money you save by not buying drinks and you’ll benefit the environment by using fewer single-use containers.

Tip: Don’t snack–eat meals. Planning what you eat improves the quality of what you eat and helps you avoid processed foods. 

Nutrition fix # 2

Add fruit or vegetables to every meal. The more produce you eat, the healthier you’ll be. Ideally, you would eat a large dark green leafy salad,  at least one cruciferous vegetable(broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.), some colorful berries, and bright orange fruit or vegetables (like oranges, orange bell peppers, carrots, sweet potato), daily. These fruits and vegetables are particularly good for the skin. Aim for at least 5 servings. More is better. Click here for a tasty produce-filled meal plan.

Tip: Add veggies and fruit to smoothie bowls at breakfast, Add shredded veggies to pasta dishes. Keep cut veggies in the front of your refrigerator so they’re easier for you to grab than less healthy food. Pack a salad for lunch the night before so it’s easy to eat lots of veggies for lunch.

Nutrition fix #3 

Eat several foods high in zinc every day. Zinc plays a vital role in skin healing. 

If you eat a serving of shellfish a couple of times a week or eat fish, eggs, or meat daily, you will probably get enough zinc.

If you don’t eat meat or seafood, eat at least 2 servings of nuts and seeds a day, as well as plenty of legumes like peanuts, beans, and lentils, and check out this article to make sure you get enough zinc in your diet.

If your diet doesn’t contain much zinc, ask your doctor if you need to take a supplement.

Tip: Substitute low-glycemic high-zinc foods like peanuts, almonds, and whole-grain pita chips with hummus for processed snack foods like chips, pretzels, crackers, candy, or cookies.

In summary: While no one food causes acne, eating lots of colorful veggies and plenty of fruit, nuts, seeds, and whole grains while avoiding high glycemic foods will improve your skin.

The ZIT List: High-glycemic foods to avoid

  • French fries
  • Milk
  • Milk substitutes
  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • Chips
  • candy
  • Pretzels
  • Refined or sweetened cereals
  • Doughnuts
  • Muffins, pancakes, waffles, and pastries made with white flour
  • Sweet drinks
  • Sports drinks
  • Energy drinks
  • Coffee drinks
  • Ice cream
  • Pudding
  • Cakes, cookies, and sweets
  • Juice
  • White potatoes eaten without the skin
  • Sugar, honey, syrup, and sweeteners
  • Low-fiber granola and nutrition bars

Tip: Bread, nutrition bars, and cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber for every 100 calories have a lower glycemic index than more processed ones.

Supplements that worsen acne:

  • Megadoses of Biotin (Vitamin B7)*
  • Megadoses of Vitamin B12*
  • Whey protein
  • Rancid, improperly stored, or out-of-date Fish oil or Omega 3’s
  • Excess Iodine* (Kelp supplements)
  • Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids

*Excessive amounts of these supplements are often found in multivitamins. Avoid taking more than the RDI of a vitamin or mineral unless specifically instructed by a Doctor.

This advice is intended for people 13 and older. Consult your doctor to see if this advice is appropriate for you.

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