Acne and Diet - Part One

By: Amy Pongrass

It's a genuine myth that chocolate causes pimples, but eating too much of the wrong foods over an extended period of time will certainly play a role in skin breakouts. Excess sugar, trans fats, salty, fried and processed foods cause a buildup of toxins in the body. These waste products are taken up by the lymphatic system and excreted through the skin in order for the body to get rid of them. The result is pimples, blackheads and pustules that erupt through the skin's surface, otherwise known as acne.

Acne develops when the skin's hair follicle gets plugged by overproduction of sebum and dead cells, which become infected by bacteria, leading to inflammation and redness. Approximately three out of four teenagers will suffer with some form of acne during their lives, and while 95 per cent of sufferers are in their teens, the other 5 per cent will develop adult onset acne later in life.

We are what we eat

What we put into our body shows on the outside, so if the body is continually filled with low quality food that offers little or no nutrients it will attempt to eliminate it through the skin. Certain foods have been shown to impact upon the severity of acne symptoms:

Sugar and refined carbohydrates

After a sugary or simple carbohydrate food (such as white bread, cakes, biscuits etc) is eaten a rush of insulin production occurs, which in turn stimulates male hormones known as androgens. Androgens are responsible for increasing oil production and hence pimple formation. A recent Australian study followed two groups of teenage boys for 12 weeks, one group consuming a low GI, high protein diet and the other eating a more typical adolescent diet. The low GI group experienced a 50% improvement in their acne symptoms, while the control group (who used anti-acne skin creams) didn't see such results. The low glycaemic load diet was also associated with weight loss as well as a reduction in androgens when compared with the high glycaemic load diet, as was reported in the August issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Senior author Neil Mann said that "a diet high in processed foods pushes glucose and insulin levels higher, exacerbating the problem, but low glycaemic foods do the opposite. The mechanism and the results are as clear as day," he said. The research could also explain why acne is more prevalent in industrialised nations and is relatively uncommon in the developing world.

Trans fats

Trans fats are made by chemically altering other forms of fat, and raise levels of harmful cholesterol in the body by accumulating in the blood vessels. The composition of sebum is primarily made up of fatty acids, so the fats you put into your body will influence the type of sebum produced. By consuming harmful trans fats the sebum becomes thicker and "stickier", resulting in clogged pores. Trans fats are found in fried and processed foods as well as commercial baked products.

A diet rich in healthy unsaturated and Omega 3 fats will encourage slippery sebum production and hence unclogged pores. This includes deep sea fish such as tuna, mackerel, salmon, herring and sardines, and plant oils such as flaxseed and olive oil.


Dairy is often high in butterfat and milk sugars, both of which are thought to aggravate acne. High amounts of hormones are produced by cows, especially pregnant cows, and these are carried through into their milk. When these hormones are broken down they turn into dihydrotestestosterone (DHT), a molecule that switches on oil-making cells. US researcher Dr Jerome Fisher conducted a clinical study of over 1000 acne-prone teenagers over 10 years, and noticed their acne symptoms reduced when their milk consumption did.

What else plays a role?


Without water, the body's cells become dehydrated and are unable to function effectively. When the cells are unable to remove waste and toxic material properly, pores become blocked and pimples develop. Without adequate water to perform its many functions, the body also attempts to conserve water. This fluid retention puts pressure on the skin cells, also causing further blockages. Adequate water intake will allow vital nutrients to be transported to the skin's cells where they are needed for nourishment and repair.

Lack of fibre

A poor diet that includes high GI refined carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods will also be low in fibre, which can lead to a buildup in toxins. Waste material residing in the body for too long results in a sluggish lymphatic system, the mechanism responsible for expelling waste by-products. When this system doesn't function effectively, pores become clogged further and acne worsens. High fibre foods move accumulated waste through the body where they can be excreted.


It's an experience many can relate to - when under pressure from work, study, family or financial issues, your skin feels the stress first and breaks out. Researchers have long been trying to prove that stress aggravates acne, and they have finally found a link. German scientists discovered that a stress hormone called corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) is released in the sebaceous gland, producing oily skin. Dermatologist Dr. Jerome Litt firmly believes that stress and acne are linked, adding that in stressful situations there is also an increase in testosterone and androgens (male hormones), which accounts for increased oil production.

Stress also affects metabolism, appetite and the motivation to exercise and eat healthily, which may further exacerbate acne symptoms.


Moving the body circulates the blood and boosts the lymphatic system, encouraging the removal of toxins through perspiration and providing oxygen to the skin cells. Metabolism is also increased, hormones become balanced and negative stress is reduced. It doesn't always have to be vigorous exercise - yoga and tai chi help balance the mind and cleanse internal organs.


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