Diet and Acne: Should You Blame the Chocolate?

Many of us have grown up hearing that chocolate gives you pimples, or perhaps French fries, or maybe donuts… Lots of people swear that their acne got better once they eliminated one food or another, but is there any scientific basis to such claims?

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Pimples 101

If you have read our earlier articles on acne , you may remember that several factors lie at its root. For some reason (hormones, stress, etc.), the skin starts to produce too much oil, or sebum, which clogs the oil gland. Bacteria start to multiply, the area becomes inflamed, and there you go – you have a pimple (or a blackhead, if the area is not actively inflamed, just clogged – and not by dirt but by sebum). What role does diet play in all this? Can it affect our hormones or promote inflammation?

The usual suspects

Whenever you read that diet causes acne, the same foods are cited as culprits, and you can find lots of anecdotic evidence on the Internet “proving” that cutting out these foods is enough to get rid of pimples. However, the results of most studies are inconclusive.

  1. Dairy – milk and yogurt are blamed for containing growth hormones, and indeed it is known that hormonal imbalances play a role in acne outbreaks. However, hormone concentrations in milk are tiny, and researchers only found correlation with skimmed milk, which seems strange. You can try eliminating dairy for 2-3 months, but make sure to get enough protein and especially calcium from other foods! And be careful with soy, rice, and almond milk – they often contain a lot of sugar.
  2. Chocolate – no matter what your mother told you, there is no evidence that chocolate or any other fatty foods cause acne.
  3. Overeating – a high caloric intake raises the level of male hormone androgen, which can increase the production of oil in the skin. Research shows that starving people have no acne – and while we certainly do not advise lengthy fasting, you may want to count the calories in your food.
  4. Refined carbs – this seems to be the main reason. Processed foods containing lots of sugar (cookies, donuts, etc.), white bread, and pasta all have a high glycemic index, meaning that your body turns these carbs into sugar very fast, causing an insulin spike in your blood, which can stimulate sebum production (see this study, for example). But while some studies show that low glycemic index diet reduces acne, the effect can be due to weight loss.

Can diet help?

If diet can cause acne, perhaps it can heal it, too. Here are some expert tips:

  1. Follow the Mediterranean diet. People in the Mediterranean (even teenagers) rarely suffer from acne! Eat more fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, fish, and olive oil, and avoid processed foods (the Med diet is great for your heart, too – see this study).
  2. Fatty fish – Omega-3 fatty acids present in salmon, sardines, and mackerel reduce inflammation and help fight the bacteria
  3. Zinc has a moderate acne-curbing effect; it is found in meat and especially oysters, so vegetarians will need to take supplements (more on the link between zinc and acne).
  4. Low GI diet – even if you do not suffer from acne, reducing the amount of bread and sweets you eat is a good idea: studies show that sugar

While diet may certainly play a role in acne, remember that there are other factors, too, such as hormonal imbalances, heredity (acne seems to run in the family), and stress. Do not focus too much on finding foods that cause you trouble – treat your acne as a complex issue and definitely see a doctor.

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