Struggling With Acne? You Might Want To Check Your Diet

We’re well aware that nutrition and diet affect overall health, but do they mean much when it comes to one of the most common skin conditions that affects millions of teenagers and adults alike – acne?

By Simone Sydel4 min read
shutterstock Struggling With Acne? You Might Want To Check Your Diet

Acne. Everybody hates it, yet it's so common that many have accepted this condition as "normal" or something they just have to get used to and live with. However, there are many factors that cause acne, which also means that by eliminating or improving the conditions of these factors, you may very well get rid of acne. This brings us to today's topic – acne and diet.

The current status of the relationship between diet and acne is unclear and has been under debate for a long time. On the one hand, the American Academy of Dermatology published recommendations suggesting that caloric restriction has no benefit in treating acne and that there is insufficient evidence to link the consumption of certain “food enemies” to acne. On the other hand, recent studies have suggested a rather close relationship between diet and acne.

But the answer is always somewhere in between when it comes to such an intricate issue that affects the skin on a much deeper level. Therefore, let's start by looking at how acne finds its way onto our skin.

How Does Acne Actually Form?

Mainly, acne is caused by four main factors. These include 1) the overproduction of facial oil known as sebum that begins by blocking the pores, 2) abnormal skin cell shedding that further contributes to these blockages, 3) inflammation, which is the immune system's reaction to the blockages, and 4) microbial imbalance, which is directly caused by the blockage because bacteria feeds on these substances.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Well, it is and it isn't.

The actual issue could be thought of as straightforward, but to figure out what led to these imbalances in the first place we might need to take a deeper look into our diet.

Foods Known To Cause Inflammation and Exacerbate Acne

Components found in various foods we consume daily are often the culprits that trigger acne breakouts through a long and complicated process.

Here are a few components found in pretty much everything we eat and drink that have previously been linked to exacerbating or even causing this inflammatory skin condition in the first place:

Pastuerized Dairy 

As part of the Nurses’ Health Study II, researchers asked 47,355 women what they ate as teenagers and whether they had acne. Based on their responses, it was determined that the more milk they drank, the more likely they were to have acne as a teen.

The more milk they drank, the more likely they were to have acne as a teen.

Studies show that drinking milk causes the liver to create more of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (or IGF-1 for short). As the name suggests, IGF-1 sends cells in the body the message that it’s time to start growth processes. Emerging research shows there are other substances in milk, called microRNAs, which are also designed to encourage cell proliferation.

Milk programs the offspring to grow, and cow’s milk is designed to help a calf double its birth weight in 40 days. It may be that these growth signals are too much for an adult human. When a person no longer needs to grow, the signals start misfiring – instructing skin cells to multiply too quickly and causing sebaceous glands to produce too much oil. Together, these block pores and lead to pimples.


One study found that after 10 weeks of eating a diet that balances blood sugar, patients not only saw improvements in their acne, but their sebum-producing glands also shrunk. Another study found that eating a blood sugar balancing diet changed patients’ sebum composition and reduced their number of pimples.

To understand why this happens, we need to take a quick look at a master hormone: insulin. Every time you eat, your pancreas releases insulin. This helps to get the sugar (glucose) out of your bloodstream and into your cells so that they have the energy to carry out their important functions.

Too much insulin can cause your skin to produce too much oil.

Insulin is essential – but we can run into problems when too much is released too often. This is because excess insulin increases the production of androgens, a group of hormones that includes testosterone. When testosterone from the blood comes over to the skin, it gets converted to a much more potent form, called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT then kicks your sebaceous glands into overdrive and causes them to produce excess oil, which leads to oily skin (the first cause of acne mentioned above). It also triggers the hyperkeratinization process also known as abnormal skin shedding (the second cause of acne mentioned above), which clogs your pores.

As I also mentioned above, clogged pores are the first stage of acne – every acne spot starts with a small clogged pore, no matter what causes the clog.


In a small double-blind, placebo-controlled study from 2014, 14 acne-prone men between 18 and 35 were given capsules filled with unsweetened 100% cocoa, gelatin powder, or a combination of the two to determine if chocolate and the total dose impacted acne. Over a period of four weeks, 13 out of the 14 subjects showed a significant increase in the number and severity of the acne lesions. Therefore, this study concluded that consuming chocolate components such as cocoa and gelatin powder can increase and exacerbate the severity of acne.

Eating chocolate components like cocoa and gelatin powder can exacerbate the severity of acne.

A similar study in a different journal found that after eating 25 grams of 99% dark chocolate every day, which usually contains 50-90% cocoa solids and cocoa butter, 25 acne-prone men had an increased number of acne lesions. After four weeks, these changes were still present and pretty much remained the same with very little difference in severity.

It can be quite difficult to tell why and how cocoa exacerbates acne's severity; however, some have theorized that cocoa triggers the immune system to react more aggressively to the acne-causing bacteria. 

Spicy Food

This is another topic that has been debated for literally years, and the opinions are still very divided. Several studies, including a major one done on both spicy and salty food that consisted of 400 people, said, “There was no correlation detected between the foods and the severity of the condition.”

However, spicy food can cause acne flare-ups for some skins. This may be connected to the biological response known as vasodilation, a temporary enlargement of the capillaries that makes the skin appear redder and more inflamed. 

Spicy food is largely a "case-by-case” irritant.

This makes me think that spicy food is the most "case-by-case” of all the foods mentioned in this article; therefore, it's best to be careful around it if you suspect it may be causing your skin issues.

How To Deal with Diet-Related Acne?

Here are a few easy and simple ways to deal with diet-related acne:

  • Identify and eliminate your triggers. In order to deal with any problem, you need to identify and get rid of whatever is causing that problem in the first place. Therefore, identifying and eliminating your potential food triggers may very well help drastically improve or even completely get rid of acne for good.

  • Consider doing an immunoglobulin blood test. Trying to identify and eliminate your food triggers may not be an easy task for many, which is why you should consider getting an IGg blood test to look for potential food sensitivities, as this will give you a good starting point when changing your diet.

  • Have a balanced diet. Having a balanced diet simply means not too much of anything but a good variety of foods that are nourishing to the body. It's important not to push things to the extreme while on this journey because it can often backfire and cause even more disappointment and health issues. Balanced is the way to go!

  • Maintain healthy skin with good skincare products. It's important to note that while changing your diet may help, improving the damage from long-term inflammation will likely take some time. This is why it's important to tackle the unwanted acne symptoms through a good skincare regimen consisting of products that will meet your skin's needs, improve your concerns, and help maintain healthy and functioning skin.

Closing Thoughts

The relationship between diet and acne is definitely a complicated one; however, figuring it out may very well be the thing you need to banish this long-term inflammatory condition for good!

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