Diet and nutrition effects pretty much everything when it comes to our overall health. In this blog I’m going to focus on skin health. Numerous studies over the years have linked diet to skin health, and it has been found that the type of diet can either negatively or positively affect your skin health (Katta and Desai, 2014). But diet isn’t the only thing that can affect our skin. Dietary intolerances and allergies, medical conditions, certain medications, and hormones can also have an effect.
Skin conditions like acne, and psoriasis can be affected by diet. Also there has been some evidence that shows a link between diet and protection against skin cancer and ageing of the skin (Katta and Desai, 2014). A diet high in fruit and vegetables is thought to act as protection against the development of certain cancers, including skin cancer. This is most likely duet to the high Antioxidant content of fruit and veg and other plant-based foods. As for ageing skin, also known as Rhytides where the skin begins to sag due to loss of elasticity, it happens to everyone eventually. It has been shown that a diet high in sugar can accelerated this process (Katta and Desai, 2014). People who suffer from Psoriasis are at higher risk of developing Cardiovascular disease so they should try to follow a heart healthy diet (Katta and Desai, 2014). The Mediterranean diet is a great way to base your diet if you want a healthy heart, or just to be healthier in general! It mainly plant based with only a small amount of lean meat and fish. It’s full of healthy fats & oils, fruits & vegetables, and wholegrains. It’s also full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods which have been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of many skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne, and skin ageing.
Obviously as I mentioned above, diet and nutrition does play a role in skin health, but it’s not the only element. Now I’m going to focus on acne which is the most common skin condition worldwide (Skroza et al., 2018) and has affected over 80% of the population at least one point in their life (Sharp, 2021). Acne is also more common among females than males (American Academy of Dermatology, 2007). Acne occurs when the pores on our skin get blocked by dead skin cells, bacteria and an oil released from our Sebaceous gland called sebum. This causes spots to form mainly on the face, the neck, shoulders and back. For a long time the link between acne and diet has been denied, but recently strong evidence has been provided to show that there is a link between acne severity and outbreaks (Katta and Desai, 2014). The severity and triggers vary from one person to another, but there are some other common triggers. These include.
Not washing off make-up properly or not cleaning make-up brushes between use.
Sunlight exposer without using proper sun protection
Hormonal acne triggers are usually related to puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and sometimes if you’ve been taking the contraceptive pill and you stop it can take a while for your hormones to settle (Sharp, 2021). One thing to remember is that acne is not straight forwards, it’s very complex and treatments that work for one person might do nothing for another person.
In relation to diet and skin health although, like I mentioned above, there is strong evidence that both are closely linked and of course my motto is “A healthy inside starts from the outside!” and that goes both ways. If you’re healthy on the inside it shows outwardly.
Aside from diet, stress and immune disorders which lead to inflammation can lead to skin problems, but diet can also be a major cause of inflammation. Numerous studies have shown that certain elements of a typical Western diet are more closely linked to acne prevalence when compared to diets in other parts of the world (Sharp, 2021). In fact, some studies have shown that acne is nearly non-existent in many non-western countries like Papua New Guinea where the traditional diet is being followed (Katta and Desai, 2014).
The two main elements of the Western diet that are possibly linked to acne and other skin condition flare ups are high Glycaemic Index foods (high GI) and dairy.
First, we’ll look at ‘high GI’ foods…what are they? The Glycaemic index tells us how foods containing carbohydrates effect our blood sugar levels. Foods are ranked from 0-100, with 100 being pure glucose. Carbohydrate foods that are broken down rapidly and release energy fast are usually low in fat, protein and fibre, these foods are high GI foods and cause our blood sugars to spike then fall. High GI foods that are best to avoid are.
Sugar and sugary foods like biscuits, sweets, cakes ect. Sugary drinks – (fruit juices from concentrate that contain no fibre, soft drinks, energy drinks), white bread, white potatoes, white rice
Below is a list of some common low, medium, and high GI foods.
Notice how not all low GI foods are what you’d call ‘healthy’ though! For example, watermelon and parsnips are high GI, whereas chocolate is low GI. The way you cook a food can change it’s GI also. Potatoes are high GI but when they’re fried and made into crisps due to the fat (saturated fat) added they become low GI. This can be a bit confusing, but don’t worry! Just cut back on foods that contain a lot of sugar and not much else, so sugary drinks, sugar and sugary foods like biscuits, sweets, cakes. Swap white bread and white rice for for a wholemeal version when you can. Also, you can combine a high GI food (such as white rice) with a low GI food (like a nice homemade curry full of fibre). Remember adding more protein, fibre or fat to a meal will lower the GI and prevent blood sugar spikes.
So how does a diet containing a lot of high GI foods effect our skin, specifically acne? Well when you eat a high GI food it causes a blood sugar spike, which also causes an increase in insulin (the hormone that controls blood sugar levels) production. This then stimulates the secretion of androgen and a hormone called Insulin-Like-Growth-Factor -1 (IGF-1), which leads to increased sebum production. This will then cause blocked pores leading to an outbreak (Harvey, 2017; Sharp, 2021). So, to make it easier.
High sugar food = increased insulin production = Increased IGF-1 = Increased sebum=acne!
To compare the effects of a low GI diet has on Acne vs a high GI diet a study looked at the prevalence of acne among indigenous groups around the world and concluded that acne prevalence was lowest in places where a low GI diet was consumed, so high in fibre, fats and protein (Sharp, 2021).
A lot of females crave chocolate (among other foods) when they’re on their period. So, does satisfying that chocolate craving at a time when acne is more likely to flare up due to hormones a good idea? The truth is chocolate has been studied as a possible contributor to acne since 1969! It does contain both added sugar AND dairy, two possible trigger foods, but there is no solid proof that it chocolate as a food leads to breakout (Ferreira, 2018). However, like I said above, different people have different triggers so maybe if you feel chocolate may be triggering your acne cut it out for a week or two and see if you find any improvements. If you do it doesn’t mean you can never eat it again. It just might be a good idea to eat a bit less, especially if you’re suffering from a bad breakout.
Now for dairy. Dairy can be a trigger for a lot of people. It is a great source of protein and vitamins and minerals such as calcium. It’s also a low GI food because of the protein and fat it contains so it doesn’t cause a blood sugar spike or increased insulin production. There is thought to be an indirect influence due to the hormones produced by cows during pregnancy that could influence sebum production (Katta and Desai, 2014). A lot more research is needed to confirm this possible link. Like chocolate, if you feel dairy causes an acne flare up then try cutting it out for a while and see if there’s an improvement. Be sure to replace it though! If dairy is your main source of calcium, especially if you’re a teenager and growing, you need to replace dairy with non-dairy calcium sources such as calcium set tofu, leafy greens and fortified foods like certain cereals and flour.
Now for some foods that will help make you’re skin healthier!
Obviously cutting out high GI foods doesn’t mean cutting out all carbohydrates! Read my blog here on why Carbohydrates are so important. Replace high GI carbs with medium to low GI carbs when possible. These include.
Wholegrains (quinoa, barley, bulger, rye etc).
Oats and oat bran.
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils,
Nuts & seeds,
and contrary to the beliefs that dairy may cause acne outbreaks in some people, dairy and dairy alternatives are also low GI carbs.
Also like I mentioned above, pairing high GI foods with low GI foods can lower the overall GI load of the meal, thus keeping blood sugars stable and preventing an increase in insulin production.
Healthy omega 3 unsaturated fats have also been shown to improve skin health. You get this from
Oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout)
Fish oil supplements or algae oil
Nuts & seeds
Antioxidants are also very important and will help fight off oxidative stress and reduce inflammation. Vitamin A, E, C and the mineral Selenium are Antioxidants. So, foods that contain these nutrients will help with skin health as well as lowering the risk of developing numerous other diseases. For more on Antioxidants read my blog on vitamin C. Sources of antioxidants include.
Wine and dark chocolate should be consumed in moderation though!
Some research has suggested that having adequate vitamin D serum levels could improve acne symptoms. More research is needed on this topic to be sure, but it has been proven that vitamin D has an anti-inflammatory effect, so there could be some truth to this theory. Sources of vitamin D include.
Mushrooms exposed to UV light
The bottom line is that many things can affect your skin, and everybody is different. Following a healthy balanced diet is the best way to go. If you feel a certain food causes problems and you want to cut it out be sure to research what foods could replace the nutrients you would have previously gotten from that food (e.g. cutting out dairy would remove a lot of calcium so you need to replace it with dairy free alternatives). You could also contact a Nutritionist or Dietician if you needed help.
American Academy of Dermatology (2007) Women More Likely Than Men To Be Affected By Acne As Adults Available from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071019155627.htm [accessed 10 March 2021].
Ferreira, M. (2018) Does Chocolate Cause Acne: What the Science Says Available from https://www.healthline.com/health/does-chocolate-cause-acne [accessed 10 March 2021].
Harvey, G. (2017) Foods that help improve skin problems Available from https://patient.info/news-and-features/foods-that-help-improve-skin-problems [accessed 10 March 2021].
Katta, R. and Desai, S.P. (2014) Diet and Dermatology. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 7(7) 46–51. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106357/ [accessed 10 March 2021].
Sharp, A. (2021) The Hormonal Acne Diet – The Best Foods for Healthy Clear Skin Available from https://www.abbeyskitchen.com/the-hormonal-acne-diet-the-best-foods-for-healthy-clear-skin/ [accessed 10 March 2021].
Skroza, N., Tolino, E., Mambrin, A., Zuber, S., Balduzzi, V., Marchesiello, A., Bernardini, N., Proietti, I. and Potenza, C. (2018) Adult Acne Versus Adolescent Acne. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 11(1) 21–25. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788264/ [accessed 10 March 2021].