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  • Rajani Katta MD

Foods to avoid when you're dealing with acne: sugar and refined carbohydrates top the list

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

What kind of foods do you think about when you think about foods that are bad for your skin? With acne, many people focus on fried, greasy foods. It sort of makes sense: wouldn't fried, greasy foods increase your skin's oil production?

It turns out it's more complex than that. In fact, two of the biggest culprits are sugars and refined carbohydrates. That's not what we thought 20 years ago, but research in the last decade has really changed our thinking on this topic. Patients ask me all the time about the link between acne and the foods that they eat. When I was in training 20 years ago, I had a ready answer for them. "Research has not been able to confirm a link between diet and acne." I was wrong 20 years ago, because the research was wrong. In the 1960s, several research groups tried to confirm a link between diet and acne. One of the largest studies involved 65 patients. Over a 4-week period, patients were given either a chocolate bar or a placebo bar. At the end of 4 weeks, the two groups had the same degree of acne. Based on studies such as this one, patients for decades were told that diet did not impact acne. This information even made it into our medical textbooks. But they were wrong. What did they get wrong? First of all, the placebo bar was high in sugar and saturated fats. The researchers were comparing two high-sugar bars. Also, they only observed these patients for 4 weeks, which isn't long enough when you're dealing with acne. Researchers in more recent years have approached this question from a different angle. In one well-done study, patients were asked to follow either a low-glycemic-load diet or a high-glycemic-load diet for 12 weeks. The patients who followed the low-glycemic diet, in which they ate food that limited a rise in blood sugar levels, had significant improvement in their acne severity. These results have now been replicated by a number of researchers. It turns out it wasn't the chocolate in the chocolate bars – it was the sugar in the chocolate bars. And any other food that would elevate blood sugar levels is equally suspect, such as sodas, cookies, and even white bread, white pasta, and white rice. This message hasn't yet reached the general public, though. We performed a small study at the Baylor College of Medicine to see what foods patients believed were dietary triggers of acne. 71% of our patients believed acne was caused by fried or greasy foods, and 53% believed it was caused by chocolate. Only 16% named sugar as a food item that might aggravate acne. For information on more foods that might potentially act as triggers for acne, link here. In future posts, I'll be reviewing some of the studies that have suggested that certain foods may actually help with acne. While the evidence for this is preliminary, foods with high levels of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids have other health benefits, and are worth adding to your diet for general health and wellness.

When it comes to diet and the skin, we're only recently starting to realize how much of a deep and wide connection there really is. There's been significant research on this topic in the last decade or so, and it's overturning some of our long-held beliefs. In my next post, I'll talk about another surprising link between diet and the skin. Can too many sugared sodas contribute to sagging of the skin? Yes, and that's just one more link among many between our diet and our skin.

Dr. Rajani Katta is the author of Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. To receive future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.

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