Acne and Diet – Is there a link?

What Is Acne?

Acne, medically known as , is a skin problem that can cause several types of bumps to form on the surface of the skin. Acne can form anywhere on the body but are most common on the:

  • Face
  • Neck
  • Back
  • Shoulders

Acne is often triggered by hormonal changes in the body, so it’s most common in older children and teenagers going through puberty and also pregnant women.

Serious cases of acne are rarely harmful, but can cause emotional distress and can leave scars. Depending on its severity, you may choose no treatment, over-the-counter treatment, or prescription acne medications to deal with your acne.

What Causes Acne?

The skin’s surface skin has lots of pores (tiny holes) which connect to oil glands, or sebaceous glands, beneath the skin. Small channels, follicles, connect the glands to the pores.

These glands produce an oily liquid called sebum. The sebum carries dead skin cells to the surface of the skin through the follicles. A small hair grows through the follicle out of the skin.  When these follicles get blocked Pimples grow, resulting in an accumulation of oil under the skin.

The sebum transports dead skin cells up through the follicle to the skins surface to get rid of them. Hair also grows through the follicle. Acne occurs when the skin’s pores clog up with dead skin cells, excess oil, and occasionally bacteria.

The change in hormones during puberty often cause glands to produce excess sebum, which increases the likelihood of developing acne.

Common Types of Acne

  • Whiteheads – Whiteheads are simply clogged pores that are not inflamed. They are clogged below the surface of the skin, so they remain closed and flesh colored, but create a little bump on the skin.
  • Blackheads – A blackhead is a pore that gets clogged but stays open and exposed to the air. The air oxidizes the sebum and keratin and it turns black. Blackheads appear as tiny dark spots on the skin’s surface.
  • Papules – Papules, a type of inflamed acne, are tender red bumps usually fairly small, up to a cm in diameter, and somewhat raised. The defining factor is that they are not filled with pus, although they may go on to fill with pus later on and become a pustule.
  • Pustules – Pustules are hard, inflamed, and full of pus that has the defining white or yellow center.

How Does Diet Affect the Skin?

Some foods raise your blood sugar more than others. When your blood sugar rises quickly a hormone called insulin is released. This extra insulin in your blood can cause your glands to produce more sebum, increasing the risk of developing acne.

Some foods that can cause spikes in insulin include:

  • Pasta
  • White rice
  • Soda
  • Sugar

Foods that produce a sharp increase of insulin levels are considered “high-glycemic” carbohydrates. That means they’re made of simple sugars.  You can read more about food that raises blood sugar levels here: 10 Foods to Avoid If You Have Diabetes

What Foods Are Believed to Help Your Skin?

Foods containing zinc, vitamins A and E and antioxidants are also thought to be beneficial for the skin because they reduce inflammation.

Some food choices that can be beneficial for your skin include:

Brazil Nuts

Brazil Nuts

photo credit: shutterstock

Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, a powerful antioxidant that appears to help improve acne. Selenium helps to protect cells from inflammatory damage and preserve the skin’s elasticity.

Selenium works particularly well when it’s accompanied by vitamins E and A, so eat your Brazil nuts with some almonds and perhaps some red bell peppers.

One Brazil nut delivers a full day’s supply. Other foods rich in selenium are meats, fish, poultry, onions, garlic and whole grains.

Oysters, beans, poultry, fish (and other foods rich in zinc)


photo credit: shutterstock

Getting enough zinc appears to help reduce breakouts. Zinc also helps the body absorb vitamin A, another important nutrient for healthy skin.

The recommended amount of zinc for men is 11 milligrams; for women, it’s 8 milligrams. Ninety grams (3 ounces) of oysters has 30 milligrams of zinc, while the same amount of dark turkey meat has 4 milligrams.

Salmon, flaxseed (and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids)


photo credit: shutterstock

Some dermatologists think that omega-3 fatty acids, which help keep inflammation at bay, may help keep acne under control. Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel all boast omega-3 fatty acids, as do flax-seed and walnuts.

At least two servings of fatty fish per week is ideal. You can also add flax-seed to salads, dressing them with flax-seed oil, use ground flax-seed in baking and smoothies, and add toasted walnuts to casseroles and hot and cold cereals.

Sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, bell peppers (and other foods rich in beta-carotene)

sweet potato

photo credit: shutterstock

Beta-carotene (found in many orange-, yellow-, and red-hued fruits and vegetables) converts in the body to vitamin A, another of the nutrients that helps to enhance selenium’s benefits to skin.

At least 1/2 cup (125 mL) of red- or yellow-hued vegetables is needed each day.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and Vegetables

photo credit: shutterstock

Scientists looked at the diets of teens in the Kitavan Islands of New Guinea and the Ache region of Paraguay, where not one case of acne was found.

They found their diets were rich in fruits and vegetables like yams and greens and low in refined foods like white sugar and white flour, which can cause hormones to spike. When people from a similar gene pool started to eat refined foods, they began to experience acne.

You should aim for at least eight servings a day. A serving generally means one medium piece of fruit, 1 cup (250 mL) of raw produce, or 1/2 cup (125 mL) of cooked produce.

It can be helpful to experiment with your diet to see what works best for you. Always take into account any food allergies or sensitivities you may have when altering your diet.

Do Any Studies Show That These Foods Help Your Skin?

Low-Glycemic Diets

Several recent studies suggest that following a low-glycemic diet, or one that is low in simple sugars, can prevent and improve acne. Researchers in one study of Korean patients found that following a low-glycemic load for 10 weeks can lead to significant improvements in acne. In another study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers found that following a low-glycemic, high-protein diet for 12 weeks improved acne in men, and also led to weight loss.


Studies also suggest that eating foods rich in zinc may be useful in preventing and treating acne. Foods that are rich in zinc include:

  • pumpkin seeds
  • cashews
  • beef
  • turkey
  • quinoa
  • lentils
  • seafood such as oysters and crab

In one study published in the BioMed Research International Journal, researchers looked at the relationship between the levels of zinc in the blood and acne severity. Zinc is a dietary mineral important in skin development as well as regulating metabolism and hormone levels. The researchers found that low levels of zinc were linked to more severe cases of acne. They suggest increasing the amount of zinc in the diet to 40 mg of zinc per day to treat people with severe cases of acne. Studies suggest that same amount of zinc even for people without acne.

Vitamins A and E

In a study published in the Journal of Cutaneous and Ocular Toxicology, researchers found that low levels of vitamins A and E also seem to be linked to severe cases of acne. They suggest that people with acne may be able to lessen the severity of their acne by increasing their intake of foods containing these vitamins. Talk to your doctor before taking vitamin A supplements. Vitamin A toxicity can cause permanent damage to your major organs.

Antioxidants and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s are a type of fat found in certain plants and animal-protein sources, such as fish and eggs. Antioxidants are chemicals that neutralize damaging toxins in the body. Together, omega-3s and antioxidants are thought to reduce inflammation.

Studies largely support the connection between an increase in consumption of omega-3s and antioxidants and a decrease in acne. A study published in the Lipids in Health and Disease found that people who took a daily omega-3 and antioxidant supplement were able to both reduce their acne and improve their mental . Since acne often causes emotional distress, omega-3 and antioxidant consumption may be very beneficial for people with the condition.

In Conclusion

Some studies suggest certain foods can help get rid of acne and improve skin health, but there is no definitive food “cure.” Before modifying your diet, it’s important to talk to your doctor to make sure any changes you make won’t harm your health. The best diet advice in dealing with acne appears to be eating a wholesome, balanced diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy protein sources, and whole grains.


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