They say ‘we are what we eat’—because it’s 100 percent true. The foods we consume have a significant effect on all of our organs, none more obvious than that on our skin. Here’s what experts have to say about the nutrition-skin connection and how our diet can cause (or help fight) breakouts.
How Food Affects Your Skin
“The nutrition from food travels through the bloodstream to every part of the body, including our skin,” says Maral Skelsey, M.D., Director of Dermatologic Surgery at Georgetown University. Eat the right things (think antioxidants, vitamin E, and vitamin A), and that food can help reduce damage in your skin and even ward off wrinkles.
The flipside is also true, however. Eat the wrong ingredients and you can set your skin up for blemishes, breakouts, and acne. “When we eat foods that contain a combination of increased inflammatory markers and antibody complexes, those antibodies can get trapped in the skin and trigger these reactions,” says Jason Way, N.D., a naturopathic doctor with NexGen Natural Medicine.
If you’re dealing with persistent, otherwise inexplicable skin issues, the foods on your plate could be to blame. Below are six of the most common culprits.
The internet likes the blame dairy for, well, pretty much everything, but numerous studies do show a strong correlation between dairy consumption and acne outbreaks, says Way. “Dairy contains compounds that stimulate the release of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), he explains. “This leads to higher testosterone levels and inhibits cell turnover in sebaceous glands, which secrete oil into the skin.”
These factors create an environment prime for acne, explains Vivian Bucay, M.D., founder and president at Bucay Center for Dermatology and Aesthetics and member of the Women’s Dermatologic Society. Higher levels of androgens (male sex hormones) like testosterone are linked to excess oil production in the skin. When bacteria in the skin break down that oil, they release free fatty acids. These compounds increase inflammation that contributes to breakouts.
2. Refined Carbs
Refined carbs (like white bread, white flour, and white rice) have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients. They cause your body to produce a lot of insulin, another hormone that can overly-activate the sebaceous glands on the surface of skin and contribute to acne.
Plus, “refined carbs also disrupt the healthy bacteria in your intestines that keep the bad things out of the bloodstream,” says Way. Over time, this gut damage can allow partially-undigested foods and other compounds to be absorbed into the blood stream. This triggers an immune reaction (a.k.a. inflammation) that can impact you on a body-wide level—including your skin.
3. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Unlike anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and flaxseed, omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to increased incidence of acne, says Skelsey. Omega-6s are found in meat, eggs, and (most notably) vegetable oils.
“Evidence suggests that acne is less common in diets high in omega-3 fats than diets high in omega-6 and saturated fats,” she says. The inflammatory nature of omega-6 fats can make skin cells less stable, allowing for more breakouts and blemishes.
The culprits behind soy’s potential impact on our complexions: phytoestrogens. These compounds behave very similarly to the hormone estrogen we produce naturally in the body.
“Phytoestrogens affect the level of estrogen in our bodies and replace our own estrogen at cell receptors,” explains Bucay. “This disrupts the body’s hormonal balance.” The result: decreased estrogen production and increased male sex hormone production. As you now know, increased testosterone production triggers oil production, which can then spur acne.
Plus, increased consumption of phytoestrogens can overwork the liver, which bears the responsibility of metabolizing hormones like estrogen. Should excess estrogen-like compounds tax the liver beyond its abilities, the hormones begin to build up in our blood stream and can contribute to clogged skin and breakouts.
5. Sugary Foods And Drinks
No surprise here: Like refined carbs, sugary foods and drinks cause major spikes in blood sugar. “High sugar intake stimulates insulin production, triggering the release of a series of hormones that can cause excess oil production in skin glands,” says Skelsey. Also like refined carbs, sugary foods mess with your gut microbiome.
The inflammation caused by sugar can lead to “redness and flushing, damage the collagen that keeps skin firm, and contribute to dehydration, all of which result in dry, lackluster skin,” says Bucay.
The sweet stuff (especially fructose) is also very disruptive to your liver and can affect its ability to break down excess hormones, a function with big implications for your complexion, says Way.
While alcohol itself doesn’t directly cause acne, its effect on many organ systems (like, you guessed it, the liver), can contribute to chemical or hormonal imbalances associated with acne, says Skelsey.
Wine, beer, and cocktails wreak the havoc of both alcohol and sugar on your body and are especially unfriendly to your face.
Reclaim Your Skin From Breakouts
If you suspect your blemishes, breakouts, and acne are diet-derived, try limiting the above potential offenders. Way recommends an elimination diet, in which you completely pull out all common skin-sabotaging foods until your complexion clears up. Then, you’ll reintroduce the foods one by one to see what you can tolerate.
In addition to cutting out the bad guys, make sure your daily diet also incorporates foods that boast skin benefits. “Foods containing vitamins A and E, zinc, and antioxidants (like vitamin C) seem to promote healthy skin,” says Skelsey. For vitamin A, try sweet potatoes and kale. For vitamin E, try nuts and seeds. And for zinc, turn to beans and whole grains. Finally, for antioxidants, load up on vitamin C-rich fruits like citrus, papaya, and tomatoes.
Fatty fish (like salmon and mackerel), which are full of omega-3s, and cruciferous veggies (like broccoli), which help break down and balance excess hormones, also support a clear complexion, says Way.
If problems persist despite your skin-friendly diet, make an appointment with your derm. Your skin issues may run deeper than your diet.