Forget the ‘golden days of childhood’, I’ve always thought that being an adult is so much better. For one thing, who would want all the zits, spots, pimples and pustules that afflict adolescence? (I was one of the unlucky ones.) I remember hearing that chocolate and chips cause acne, but it was when I got to medical school that I discovered these were just myths. But, if truth be told, we don’t know all that much about how what we eat affects acne. Sure, there are lots of books and websites offering ‘clear skin’ diets but most isn’t based on any decent science.
Dairy and acne
Of all the foods that could cause acne an outbreak, dairy is the one with the most evidence. Not that everyone’s convinced.
The current theory is that milk may contain hormones, or substances similar to human hormones, that stimulate the skin to produce pimples. Research shows that teenagers who drink more milk tend to have worse acne, but it’s all rather sketchy: no one’s been able to prove that milk is the trigger and not something else in the lifestyle of a dairy-lover.
Sugar and acne
Blaming the ‘carbs’ for everything is still pretty fashionable, and so some have blamed them for skin blemishes. The Glycaemic Index (GI) of a carbohydrate-containing food is a measure of how quickly it releases sugar into the bloodstream after eating. A high GI food (something sweet or made with unrefined wheat, for example) causes the blood sugar to rise quickly.
There is evidence to show that switching to lower GI foods improves acne, although this finding is still hotly debated. People who make the switch to a lower GI diet (e.g. swapping white bread for wholegrain and white rice for brown rice), tend to end up losing weight and eating more nutritious food in general. So when such a person’s complexion improves, it’s difficult to say whether it is the GI of a food, or how much sugar is in it, or just the effect of a generally healthier diet.
Chocolate and acne
Several pieces of research have looked into whether chocolate can make acne worse. Annoyingly, none of the studies have been done particularly well – most researchers didn’t compare chocolate-eaters with non-chocolate-eaters properly. Thankfully though, all the present evidence says no, chocolate does not cause acne.
Fats, fish and acne
It is frequently claimed that eating more ‘healthy’ fats is good for the skin. Omega-3 fats, which are found in oily fish and olive oils, are associated with less inflammation in the body. Therefore, many nutritionists recommend upping the amount of oily fish content in the diet (e.g. by swapping it for a portion of meat) to help reduce acne. However. like the evidence for eating a low GI diet, the research doesn’t yet prove whether or not omega-3 fats specifically help. (Can you see a common theme emerging here?)
So in summary: from what we currently know, there are no specific foods that are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for acne. Lots of cow’s milk might make acne worse, but it may not be the solution and cutting it out from a diet should be done with care: dairy is an important source of vitamin D and calcium.
What is clear is that a good diet and healthy lifestyle are good for keeping the skin healthy.
So alas, there is no miracle cure. But that does mean that it’s ok to eat chocolate…
Answer by Dr Stu
Question received via website
Spencer, E., Ferdowsian, H., & Barnard, N. (2009). Diet and acne: a review of the evidence International Journal of Dermatology, 48 (4), 339-347 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-4632.2009.04002.x
Image source: Wikimedia Creative Commmons