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What’s the best diet to get rid of acne?

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

Chocolate Cherries (Wikimedia)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

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When ‘sugar’ is listed as an ingredient, what sort of ‘sugar’ is it?

…I recently saw a product with both maltose and sugar listed as ingredients. What is the difference? Which is healthier?

Ever since the book Pure, White and Deadly was published in 1972, there has been a public fear of refined sugars. Although author John Yudkin’s findings were largely ignored by medical professionals at the time, there is a widespread consensus that a high intake of ‘refined sugars’ is bad for health. There is still a lot of debate within the scientific community about the real ‘dangers’ of sugar (Wikipedia offers a summary of the conflicting research).
Sugar sugar by dhammza, on Flickr
It’s always good to know what is in your food, and it is in a food manufacturer’s interest to make their product appear as healthy as possible. (A certain fast food restaurant comes to mind which use sports personalities to claim that all athletes eat their sandwiches….which I doubt – Ed.) There are strict regulations on food labelling; however, food producers will still try their best to hide anything that might put you off buying it.

There is a legal requirement that food labels should list all ingredients by their common name:

  • Sugar’ always means table sugar (the chemical name for which is sucrose). This is the stuff that you buy in bags to put in your coffee.
  • Sugars’ can mean something quite different – a combination of any other sugar – syrup, lactose, honey, syrup, maltose, fructose…

Watch out though, because food manufacturers don’t have to use the term ‘sugars’. They are within their rights to also use the full name for any of the sugars:

  • Barley Malt Syrup
  • Beet Sugar
  • Brown Rice Syrup
  • Brown Sugar
  • Cane Crystals (or, even better, “cane juice crystals”)
  • Cane Sugar
  • Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
  • Dehydrated Cane Juice
  • Dextrin
  • Evaporated Cane Juice
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose (this isn’t the same is table sugar)
  • Invert sugar
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltose
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Rice Syrup
  • Saccharose
  • Sorghum or sorghum syrup
  • Treacle

Confused? They hope so. It is perfectly legal for a food ingredient list to say ‘sugar, fruit juice concentrate, sugars and fructose’, for example.

As for which is the ‘healthiest’ sugar – there really isn’t much between them. There is some research that points to high fructose corn syrup being particularly harmful to health (although this is still strongly debated). Eating foods that naturally contain sugar (e.g. fruit) is always a better of getting sweetness – because these foods also contain fibre, vitamins and minerals.

People with diabetes should generally avoid any food that releases sugar into the bloodstream quickly (looking up the ‘glycaemic index’ and ‘glycaemic load’ of foods can give you a reasonable guide). Surprisingly, some ‘natural sugars’ (e.g. honey) release sugar into the blood stream faster than ‘refined sugars’ (there is an excellent comparative list of different foods here – sugars are on page 12).

Armed with knowledge, hopefully we will all become smarter consumers – or maybe just more cynical. Ah, but enough of that: the undisputed winner of sugars is the sweet stuff we get from our significant others. Plus it doesn’t add anything to the hips.

Answer by Dr Stu

Question from Joanne via email

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Bacon or Bagel? Which is best for Breakfast? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Healthy food choices are always a topic of contention. We recently showcased the infographic ‘Cookies vs Bananas‘, which demonstrated that so-called ‘unhealthy’ foods can have some unexpected benefits. This startling infographic from Column Five (developed for Massive Health) compares bacon and eggs to a bagel topped with cream cheese. The bagel may look healthier, but looks can deceive… (click image to enlarge) (more…)