“Our skin is our largest organ, and it’s usually the first to signal that something may be off in our bodies,” Cara Clark, owner and primary certified nutritionist of Cara Clark Nutrition, told us. “Think acne, blemishes, eczema, bumpy rashes, and more. I always encourage my clients to take their skin message seriously.” There are so many factors that can play into acne—like stress, hormones, and allergies. But the foods we eat (and don’t eat) can help our skin regardless of the root cause.
Below, what to eat and what to avoid to help prevent acne.
Yes, it’s pretty well known that dairy can cause breakouts, and no one is under the assumption that a big ol’ slice of cheesy pizza is doing their skin any favors. Most experts agree that steering (heh) clear of cow products can be helpful in preventing breakouts. “The reason dairy causes acne is because cows are now milked five times more than before. Because of the stress (and because they milk cows even when they’re pregnant), the progesterone levels in milk are several folds higher,” Macrene Alexiades, MD, PhD, FAAD, explained to us. “Milk today—and I mean even if the milk is organic—has higher levels of these stress hormones, including cortisol. These stress hormones cause acne.”
Switching to plant-based “mylk” products is the obvious solution—but it’s not the only one. Goat cheese and feta cheese may not cause the same reaction.
Avoid: foods with a high glycemic index
“Sugar and dairy have a direct correlation to acne breakouts,” Eric Lovato, PA-C, told us. “We recommend limiting or completely eliminating foods with a high glycemic index—specifically, cereal and milk, pasta, and other processed foods.” They cause insulin levels to spike, which raises androgen levels and makes our sebaceous glands go haywire.
This category is especially important to avoid if you find that stressful situations cause you to break out. Likely, the cause is high cortisol and dysregulated insulin, Vitti told us, adding: “Focus on balancing blood sugar and limiting high-sugar foods.”
Carb-y foods with a high glycemic index break down quickly after you eat them (versus carbs with a low glycemic index, like chickpeas, that take longer for our body to process). “We found out that carbohydrates cause you to make more fat, and that includes the oil glands on the face,” Dr. Alexiades told us. “So carbs do induce more sebaceous activity, and carb reduction can help to some extent with acne.”
Avoid: histamine-releasing foods
Acne-rosacea is a cousin of acne, and it happens in people with sensitive skin who flush easily, Dr. Alexiades told us. Foods that trigger these types of breakouts are histamine-releasing foods.
“Examples include bananas, avocados, eggplant, soy sauce, and for some people citrus fruit. For others, it’s sour cream, deep-sea fish, and even chocolate. Foods that either have histamine precursors or high levels of histamines can cause the patient with acne-rosacea to develop hive-like bumps that get a little whitehead on the tip. These bumps concentrate around follicles, and that’s why it is sometimes confusing, and someone will think they have classic acne when they actually have acne-rosacea. It’s important to be aware that this class of foods will affect adult acne.”
Eat: anti-inflammatory foods
We’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: there are so many benefits to eating inflammation-fighting foods. “If you break out all the time, the cause is inflammation, so incorporate inflammation-fighting foods into your diet like cruciferous vegetables and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and egg yolks,” Alisa Vitti, functional nutritionist, women’s hormone expert, best-selling author, and founder of Flo Living, told us.
However, if you tend to break out before your period, you actually want to avoid those cruciferous veggies, according to Vitti. (She also said to skip the pumpkin seeds.) “If you break out before your period, the cause is low progesterone, and you can use food and lifestyle to support boosting progesterone.”
TL;DR—here’s a quick list of what to eat and what to avoid.
Refined carbs or sugars (including white rice and white bread)
Inflammation-fighting foods like berries and leafy greens
Goat cheese and feta cheese
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, and miso
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