9 Foods That Are Making You Break Out (and What to Eat Instead)
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If you are dealing with breakouts and have tried every product and natural remedy to treat acne without success, you should consider looking at your diet. This introspection is crucial because the foods you consume directly affect your gut health, hormones, and inflammation levels, all of which play a role in the appearance of acne on the skin. So it is no wonder that minding what you eat is one of the recommended ways to combat acne.
One significant factor that connects your diet to your skin is blood sugar. You'll want to ensure that no matter what you are eating, you are working to minimize glucose spikes at mealtime. "When blood sugar spikes, it can lead to inflammation and increased oil production, which plays a major role in acne," explains Kayleigh Christina, holistic nutritionist and co-founder of ClearStem Skincare. "Foods that have a high glycemic index (GI) are quickly broken down by the body and cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. When you eat high-glycemic foods, it can also quickly increase hormones and trigger an enzyme process involving 5-alpha reductase—this, in turn, gives us thick acne that forms deep under the skin in our hair follicles (mainly near the chin, mouth, and lower jaw)."
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It's worth adding that if you consume high-glycemic foods, acne won't be the only thing your body experiences. You increase the chance of fatigue, bloating, mood swings, and more. But how quickly can acne, and other symptoms, start to go away once those foods get eliminated from your plate? "Most of my clients notice a change in their skin within two weeks of cleaning up their diet and drinking more water," states Vanessa Fitzgerald, co-founder of Paya Health and nutritional response testing practitioner.
A suggestion that Rescue Spa New York's lead aesthetician, Diana Yerkes, makes to her clients is to do everything in moderation. "Too much of even the healthiest ingredient can cause intolerance or a reaction. My belief is that everything in moderation is the key," she explains when speaking about one well-known acne-causing food. Her advice is profound, especially for anyone trying to rebuild a healthy relationship with food.
Interested in which foods to avoid and which to eat for clear, breakout-free skin? The experts break it down below.
Many people start their day with a cup of coffee, but Fitzgerald asks you to question this ritual if you struggle with acne. "Sometimes, the acidity can be hard on the kidneys and your overall system," she tells us.
So if you still need the morning ritual of making a cup of something warm, opt for matcha. Research shows that this vibrant green drink contains polyphenols like rutin and phenolic acid, along with antioxidant-rich compounds such as vitamin C and chlorophyll. When combined, these nutrients can support healthy, glowing skin.
Seems obvious, right? We've been told dairy can cause breakouts for years, but Christina clarifies, "Dairy products contain insulin-like growth factors, or IGFs, which stimulate more oil in the sebaceous glands and trigger more inflammation." Those IGFs spike insulin levels, which we know is a catalyst for breakouts. She continues to say, "Both the IGFs and progesterone found in dairy milk influence sebum production in the deep hair follicles that line your jaw and chin, hence the painful, underground, even cystic acne that arrives the day after dairy." Yes, the day after consuming dairy.
There are plenty of alternatives on the market to get your dairy fix, with many of them using nuts as a base. Nuts and seeds contain good fats and fiber, which are standouts for skin health.
3. Fried Foods
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French fries and other greasy foods taste delicious, but Fitzgerald explains, "Bad-quality, oxidized, or putrefied fats can cause an overproduction of oil and inflammation of the lymphatic system, leading to clogged pores and breakouts." Our editors fully support eating what you love, but next time you crave salty, crunchy foods, try to use an air fryer to create a skin-friendly alternative to your favorite snacks. You can also swap out things like chips that use refined oils for items that use good-for-you oils like avocado oil.
4. Milk Chocolate
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"[Milk chocolate] contains refined sugar, dairy, and usually trans fat, which are the trifecta of acne triggers," says Christina. She suggests that, when presented with a choice between a traditional chocolate bar and one that is 70% or higher, choose dark chocolate. You'll crush your cravings and lower your risk for blemishes.
5. Non-Organic Meats
Fitzgerald suggests that foods like grass-fed meat are great to include in an anti-breakout diet. Her counterparts agree, with Christina stating that non-organic meats "can contain high levels of antibiotics and inflammatory omega-6. Continuous exposure to antibiotics can disrupt the good bacteria in your body." Once again, this reinforces that minding your gut health is crucial for blemish-free skin.
6. Refined Sugar
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Fruit sugar is very different from the refined sugars known to trigger breakouts. You should continue to consume antioxidant-rich berries in moderation, but start to pay attention to added sugars in your diet. "Foods high in processed sugar have a greater chance of causing skin congestion due to its effect on increasing inflammation," says Yerkes. She adds that when clients remove inflammatory foods like refined sugar from their diets, she can observe a change in their skin by the time of their next treatment.
Soy has been controversial for years in the health-and-wellness space. It is an excellent complete protein for vegans, but processed soy products like tofu and soy milk can lead to estrogen imbalances. Christina lets us know, "When we eat soy frequently (meaning more than once per week), the phytoestrogens hijack our bodies' natural estrogen receptors, blocking them from doing their job. In excess, this can lead to estrogen dominance and hormonal acne." Fitzgerald echoes this but explains that an ingredient like soy lecithin is different. "Soy lecithin is a commonly used ingredient and can actually help to minimize histamine responses," like clogged sinuses, migraines, and fatigue. However, the overall consensus is to avoid soy for clear skin.
8. Trans Fats
If you're looking to avoid breakouts, decrease your consumption of fast food, doughnuts, vegetable oils, and anything in the center aisle of the grocery store. Why? Well, these foods are high in omega-6 oils, otherwise known as trans fats. "Trans fat also causes blockages in the tiny blood vessels in the skin, which triggers inflammation and increases acne flares," says Christina. Consume these in moderation, and try to add foods with healthy omega-3 fats. These include organic walnuts, fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, and organic eggs.
Last but not least, there is whey protein. Yes, this protein can increase metabolism thanks to the complete amino-acid profile, but similar to dairy, it can be a catalyst for inflammation. If a protein shake is an essential part of your day, look for vegan blends that combine to make a complete protein to support lean-muscle growth and recovery.
What to Eat Instead
The ultimate goal is to have a diet that lowers inflammation in the body while keeping blood sugar and hormone levels in check. "The best advice I can give is to keep your diet balanced and colorful," exclaims Yerkes when speaking of the advice she gives to her clients. "I follow the Ayurvedic concept of eating what's in season and raiding the local farmers markets searching for seasonal, fresh produce." This means you should minimize the consumption of processed foods and sweets, and opt for whole food sources whenever possible.
You'll also want to work on keeping your water intake up. When you're hydrated, your body won't need to work as hard to detox things like your lymphatic system. Christina recommends three to four liters per day and even suggests eating your water. Foods like cucumbers, apples, celery, berries, and greens will help you achieve this goal. Plus, these fruits and veggies are packed full of vitamins and nutrients that will support clear, glowing skin.
Fitzgerald emphasizes the notion of nutrient-dense foods and strongly encourages clients to consume high-quality produce and meats. Some of her favorites are bitter greens such as arugula, protein-packed grass-fed beef, and anti-inflammatory turmeric. You'll also find her plate full of wild-caught salmon, olives, avocados, nuts, seeds, and the same delicious fruits and vegetables loved by Christina and Yerkes.
Just remember that this lifestyle switch does not have to be rigid. There is still room to enjoy your favorite treats and live your life. The key is moderation and to adopt the 80/20 approach for your best skin yet.
Next, Here's How to Stop Acne in Its Tracks Without the Expensive Treatments