Foods That Cause Acne | Foods That Help Acne

Foods That Cause Acne, Foods That Help Acne: woman picking at acne in mirror

Foods That Cause Acne | Foods That Help Acne

By: Julie Mancuso, founder of JM Nutrition: Dietitian and nutritionist service in Canada


In this post: 

  • Foods that cause acne

  • Foods that help acne

Are there foods that cause acne outbreaks? And, are there any foods that help acne?

The answer is not so cut and dried because there is no definite cause and effect.

Genetics, environment, lifestyle and diet all play a role. There are, however, associations between diet and acne. Typically, people who consume certain types of foods tend to have more acne–and this is where we will focus. 


Foods That Cause Acne

1. Sugar

How can sugar contribute to acne?

Without a doubt, sugar is one of the worst foods for acne. Reason being, sugar gets into the bloodstream very quickly, spiking blood sugar and insulin.

Related: Dietitian for insulin resistance & diabetes

According to WebMD, “when your body makes more insulin to bring down blood sugar, it affects other hormones that can boost oil production in your skin.”

Related: How To Balance Hormones Naturally

Acne situation gets worse

When excess oil is combined with bacteria, an acne flare up can occur rather quickly. The situation quickly becomes worse when sweat and the infrequent face washing are thrown into the equation.

Keeping these factors in mind is particularly important for people, such as athletes, who sweat a great deal. In particular, pay heed if you’re a teenage athlete.

Avoid high-sugar foods

Sadly, these days sugar is found virtually everywhere. Many foods contain high amounts of sugar.

The obvious ones are soda, milk chocolate and ice-cream. There are many others, however: bbq sauces, cereals, condiments, jams and many more.

The cumulative effect of even small amounts of sugar can have an enormous impact on our health and this includes acne breakouts.

It is, therefore, vital to eliminate high-sugar foods from the diet. Reading nutrition fact labels can go a long way in helping to lower sugar intake, setting the stage for reduced acne.

In any case, no matter how you look at it, sugar is one of the foods to avoid for acne.


2. Refined Carbohydrates

There is solid evidence that, much like sugar, refined carbohydrates are one of those foods that cause acne, or at least strongly contribute to it.

What are refined carbs?

In a nutshell, refined carbs are carbohydrates that undergo processing during which many essential nutrients are removed, leaving few vitamins and minerals. 

Examples of refined carbs:

  • bread (white)
  • pasta (white)
  • rice (white)
  • most cereals
  • sugary treats
  • and so on


Why are refined carbs believed to cause acne?

Simply put, refined carbs increase blood sugar and insulin levels.

As a refined carb is consumed and digested, glucose (sugar in carbs) is sent to the bloodstream. This action releases insulin, which increases insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). As this happens, skin cells grow more quickly and sebum is boosted. As a result, pores may be blocked, contributing to an acne breakout. This is a common occurrence in bodybuilders who supplement with IGF-1. 

Related: 10 Ways To Cut Carbs


3. Dairy

Why is dairy one of those foods that cause acne?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information “milk-derived amino acids promote insulin secretion and induce hepatic insulin-like growth factor-1 synthesis.” As mentioned previously, growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is a driver of acne.

So does dairy cause acne?

Although studies show an association between dairy and acne, they are not conclusive.

It’s also important to note that the outbreak of acne depends on the type of dairy, the amount and the frequency with which dairy is consumed.

Of course, heavy and frequent consumption of dairy along with refined carbs and sugar, can be a triple whammy, contributing to the outbreak of acne.

Which of these has a greater impact? It’s difficult to know at this time. More research is needed.

Furthermore, dairy contains lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in milk. Those who are sensitive or allergic to lactose may experience acne outbreaks upon the ingestion of dairy.

The way to gauge this is to closely monitor the situation to see if the outbreaks are linked to dairy.

Related: Dietitian and nutritionist for dairy-free diet


4. Omega-6 Fatty Acids

As opposed to the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, the omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation, making them one of those foods that cause acne.

The typical Western diet, particularly the North American diet, contains just too many omega-6 fatty acids.

Because the omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory, they can contribute to acne breakouts.

The same is true with other inflammatory foods such as sugar, saturated fats, trans fats, refined carbs, alcohol et al.

Related: Anti-inflammatory dietitian and nutritionist


5. Foods with a High Glycemic Index

On a number of occasions, the glycemic index of foods has been linked to acne.

Here’s how.

What is the glycemic index?

Measured by a scale of up to 100, the glycemic index of a food indicates the effect a food has on blood sugar level. In other words, it measures how quickly carbs are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. The higher this number, the quicker the absorption.

How does the glycemic index lead to acne?

When you ingest foods high in the glycemic index, the blood sugar level spikes as does insulin. As mentioned before, this affects hormones and oil production in the skin, potentially leading to an acne outbreak.

Glycemic index values

Foods are considered to be high on the glycemic index when they have a value between 70-100, while those deemed to be low have a value of 55 and below. 

Which foods are high on the glycemic index?

According to Harvard Health, here are some examples of foods with a high glycemic load: 

Cornflakes 81

Potato (boiled) 78

White wheat bread: 75

White rice 73

Popcorn 65

Rice noodles 53

Spaghetti 49

Yogurt 41

Milk (full fat) 39

Apple 36

Lentils 32 Whey Protein Powder

View a more complete list of high glycemic foods.


6. Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein is a protein that is isolated from milk. Much like dairy itself, whey increases the production of insulin-like growth factor-1, a hormone. This gives rise to excess sebum, which creates an environment where acne can flourish.

According to Dr. Rajani Katta, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, when whey is ingested, the production of androgens also increases. This overstimulation of oil glands can clog up the pores, leading to acne breakouts.

To add fuel to the already burning fire, many whey protein powders contain high levels of sugar which can exacerbate the acne situation even more.


7. Saturated Fats & Trans Fats

Similarly, saturated and trans fats have high concentrations of insulin growth factor-1. And, as previously described, this action contributes to acne outbreaks.

Unfortunately, the typical North American diet consists of foods that are high in both, saturated and trans fats. Consequently, this contributes to a long list of health problems and conditions, including acne outbreaks.

Read more about the dangers of saturated fats.

Specifically, foods such as sausages, hot dogs, bacon, cheese, desserts, baked goods, pastries, ice-cream and fried foods, typically carry high levels of both. 

Related: Heart disease dietitian

Dietitian for cholesterol management


8. Alcohol, Particularly Certain Alcoholic Drinks

Undoubtedly, alcohol consumption certainly plays a contributing role in acne outbreaks, at least indirectly.

How does alcohol contribute to acne?

1. Alcohol itself is an inflammatory substance. It is known to cause inflammation in the intestines and reduces the body’s ability to fight or regulate the inflammation.

2. In addition, heavy and prolonged alcohol use can “decrease the number of protective cells in the body and even destroy them. According to Healthline, this may make your body more susceptible to infections.”

3. Moreover, alcohol is known to dehydrate the system and this includes skin. When skin is properly hydrated, it balances natural oils and eliminates dead skin cells. When dehydrated, this important process is interrupted.

4. Furthermore, heavy and creamy alcoholic drinks (read: Pina Colada and company) carry a great deal of sugar, which can have a large impact on the skin and acne outbreaks, as outlined earlier.

Combine all these factors and alcohol’s impact on skin, and therefore acne, cannot be glossed over.

Related: Alcohol Selections For Weight Loss


9. Dried Fruit

Does dried fruit have health benefits?


It often carries fibre, antioxidants and nutrients–all important in overall health.

Can dried fruit contribute to acne?

Yes, it can. And there are two reasons for that:

1. Some dried fruit, namely dates and raisins, have a higher glycemic index value. Though lower on the glycemic index scale, figs still carry a considerable glycemic load.

If you really must have dried fruit, try those with a lower glycemic load: dried apples, dried apricots, dried peaches and dried plums. 

2. Dried fruit is high in concentrated sugar–the effects of which have been touched upon before. Some dried fruit even contains added sugar. This spikes blood sugar level, and thus, insulin production.

Because water is removed from fruit in the drying process, the fruit shrinks and becomes smaller, concentrating the sugar.

Dried fruit is also easier to overeat as a result of its small size. This makes it easy to consume a great deal of sugar in one short sitting.


Foods That Help Acne

Eliminating foods that cause acne is a key step for anyone looking for clearer skin. At the same time, it’s important to introduce and regularly consume foods that help acne.

What foods help acne?

To reduce acne outbreaks, the action plan should include the following steps–at the minimum:

1. Consume foods that are lower on the glycemic index scale, while reducing those that carry a heavy glycemic load.

2. Cut back on sugar, or better yet, eliminate it altogether. Doing so, however, takes a concerted effort.

3. Reduce the intake of refined carbohydrates.

4. Pay heed to how your body responds to dairy.

5. Avoid inflammatory foods.

6. Drink plenty of water every day. Related: Cold Hydrating Foods For The Summer


In addition, strongly consider introducing the following foods that help acne:


1. Sweet Potatoes

Rich in the anti-inflammatory Vitamin A (converted Beta-carotene), sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index than regular baked white potatoes.

Retinol, found in numerous skin care creams that help manage a variety of skin conditions, derives from Vitamin A.

In addition, sweet potatoes contain Vitamin C, which is a potent antioxidant. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Vitamin C protects the skin from oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals.

For these reasons, you can safely add sweet potatoes to the list of foods that help acne.


2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Often found in fish, though not exclusively, Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory in nature. As such, they should be consumed by those stricken with any inflammation, including those looking for foods to fight acne.

How do can you introduce more Omega-3 fatty acids to your diet? Consume fish. Specifically, fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies are all great sources of these powerful nutrients.

What’s more, Omega-3 fatty acids have many other skin health benefits. Some studies suggest that they may protect against the skin from sun damage as well as dry and itchy skin.


3. Foods High In Zinc

Unquestionably, Zinc has a number of health benefits, not the least of which is being skin-friendly.

Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, zinc can reduce the severity of various inflammatory skin conditions, perhaps even prevent acne.

According to WebMd, research suggests that people stricken with acne have lower blood and skin levels of zinc.

Zinc supplement: beware

Before considering taking a zinc supplement, it’s important to consult with a qualified health practitioner for the specific type of zinc and dosage.

In addition, there are side effects associated with zinc supplementation, so it’s best to attempt to introduce zinc under the guidance of health professionals.

Foods that contain zinc:

Furthermore, zinc can be obtained from various food sources.

Particularly, foods such as pumpkin seeds, beef, oysters and poultry all contain significant amounts of zinc.

It’s important to consider the consumption of zinc-rich foods on a daily basis because our body doesn’t store excess zinc.


4. Unprocessed Foods and Vegetables

The vast majority of processed foods lack vital nutrients and vitamins needed by our bodies, including our skin.

In addition, they can contain all sorts of additives including the insulin-spiking sugar.

Many of these processed foods are refined carbs that can potentially worsen the acne situation.

What’s more, a small percentage of these may carry a high glycemic load which has been linked to acne outbreaks.

Keeping all these contributing factors in mind, consider drastically reducing processed foods from regular consumption.

Turn to unprocessed foods such as vegetables

In their stead, eat unprocessed foods, particularly vegetables. Vegetables are one of those foods that help acne.

First, vegetables contain a great deal of water that is needed by the skin for proper hydration.

Next, they carry numerous vitamins and nutrients (e.g., Vitamins A and E, more on that later) that help to maintain our skin healthy.

Moreover, non-starchy vegetables do not raise blood sugar level and insulin–contributing factors to acne outbreaks.

They also contain low to no sugar, no saturated fats and generally lower glycemic index values.

For these and many other reasons it’s important to increase the intake of vegetables when plagued by acne in an attempt to reduce the severity.

Related: How To Introduce More Vegetables To Your Diet


5. Anti-inflammatory Foods

According to Harvard Health, inflammation occurs when “the body recognizes anything that is foreign–such as an invading microbe, plant pollen, or chemical.” If this inflammation persists over an extended period of time, it becomes a problem. Many diseases have been linked to chronic inflammation.

So how can you combat chronic inflammation?

Follow an anti-inflammatory diet, one consisting of foods that help acne.

First, reduce or eliminate inflammatory foods.

And second, introduce these anti-inflammatory foods–foods that help prevent acne.

Anti-inflammatory foods:
  • Green, leafy vegetables (spinach, kale)
  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • Turmeric
  • Beans
  • Whole grains

This is by no means an exclusive list. Other inflammatory foods exist. But these staples will take you a long way.

If you need help implementing the anti-inflammatory diet, we’re here to help.


6. Vitamins A and E

According to Healthline, Vitamin A is instrumental in preventing free radicals that can lead to cell damage. Because Vitamin A has anti-oxidative properties, it may also reduce inflammation. Both factors affect skin greatly.

Good food sources of Vitamin A:
  • Cod liver oil
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Squash
  • Mango
  • Papayas
  • Red Peppers
  • Cantaloupe
  • Tomatoes
  • Eggs

Learn more about Vitamin A and acne.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an important fat-soluble antioxidant that finds its way into many cosmetic products. Reason being, it protects skin. 

Foods rich in Vitamin E:
  • spinach
  • nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts)
  • olive oil
  • sunflower oil
  • wheat germ oil
  • sunflower seeds
  • avocados
  • spinach
  • et al.

Discover more about Vitamin E.


The first step in the fight against acne should always start with nutrition. Although the results may or may not be immediate, skin complexion is bound to improve if foods that cause acne are avoided and foods that help acne are eaten regularly. If you require personalized assistance from our skin health dietitian and nutritionist, specifically nutritional counselling for acne, or dietitian for teenagers, contact us or book a free consultation.


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JM Nutrition is a nutritional counselling service by registered dietitians and nutritionists in Canada. Main area of service: Ontario dietitian service, primary office: registered dietitian Toronto. We provide in-person appointments and online nutrition services

Author: Julie Mancuso

Julie Mancuso

Julie Mancuso is a graduate of the University of Toronto, founder and owner of JM Nutrition, a nutritional counselling service by registered dietitians and nutritionists. For 15+ years, JM Nutrition has helped thousands reach their health, wellness and nutrition goals. Julie and her team regularly lend their expertise to a variety of health publications such as Reader's Digest, Livestrong, Business Insider, Food Network, Today's Parent, MyFitnessPal, Toronto Star, Elle Magazine, Best Life, Weight Watchers and many more.