It happens every time. You’ve picked out the perfect outfit. You’re ready for your big event on Saturday night and you’ve never looked or felt better. You wake up that morning, stumble into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and there it is staring back at you. A huge pimple right in the middle of your face. It is as if all of your deepest insecurities rose to the surface of your skin for all the world to see. Your confidence plummets.
Acne. We think of it as an inevitable part of adolescence because at least 85 percent of American teens struggle with it (and it persists into adulthood about 50 percent of the time). We are told that acne is a hormonally-driven bacterial condition that needs to be treated with expensive skin regimens, birth control pills, antibiotics, and risky drugs like Accutane.
As you’ll see, acne is a hormonal condition, but it is not normal. Here’s what the cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to understand: You can prevent acne simply by changing your diet.
Let’s think about acne from the standpoint of evolution. Why would Mother Nature curse emerging adults entering their reproductive years with unsightly blemishes that may be unattractive to potential mates? Acne not only serves no useful purpose; it actively interferes with the natural order of things. We are not supposed to develop acne, and if we eat properly, we don’t.
Did Our Ancestors Have Acne?
Researchers have reported low to zero rates of acne in a variety of non-Westernized peoples around the world. These included such genetically and culturally diverse populations as pre-war Okinawans, rural Brazilians, Inuit Eskimos, and the South African Bantu.
When Professor Loren Cordain and colleagues went looking for acne in a sample of 1,200 people living on the remote South Pacific island of Kitava and in all 115 members of a hunter-gatherer society in Paraguay, they came up empty-handed, stating: "Not a single papule, pustule, or open comedo [blackhead] was observed."
The Kitavan diet consisted primarily of fish, fruit, coconut, and root vegetables. On the Paraguayan menu were cassava, peanuts, corn, rice, and wild game. What do these two very different diets have in common that hold the secret to acne prevention?
The answer will become clear soon enough…
How to Make a Pimple in Three Easy Steps
Step 1: Set the stage for inflammation in your body.
The types of fats and carbohydrates we eat play a major role in regulating the healthy balance between inflammation and healing. In people with acne, the immune system is unbalanced—leaning too far in the direction of inflammation and away from healing.
Step 2: Plug your pores with skin cells.
Certain foods turn on hormones that shift skin cell production into overdrive. Those extra cells build up around pores, stick together, and clog pore openings, trapping otherwise harmless bacteria inside.
Step 3: Crank up sebum production.
Sebum is the oily/waxy substance that healthy pores produce to soften and waterproof the skin. People with acne make too much sebum, causing the skin to become oily. Sebum that accumulates inside clogged pores becomes food for bacteria imprisoned underneath the skin, helping them to multiply.
The typical American diet is loaded with foods that fuel all three of these steps.
How to Prevent Pimples in Three Easy Steps
Step 1: Avoid refined carbohydrates.
Sugar, flour, fruit juice, cereal, and other refined carbohydrates are prime suspects in the development of many common “diseases of civilization," including acne. (For clear definitions and a more complete list of foods to avoid, click here.) These “fast carbs” trigger blood sugar and insulin spikes in the bloodstream, increasing risk of acne because they:
- Promote inflammation.
- Drive overproduction of skin cells. Insulin is a growth hormone, so one of its most important jobs is to stimulate cell growth and division.
- Raise androgen levels. Androgens are the so-called “male hormones," such as DHEA (dehydroepiandosterone) and testosterone. Androgens are naturally present in males and females (but normally at much lower levels in women than in men). Androgens stimulate sebum production, so high androgen levels can lead to excessively oily skin.
In this 2012 study, simply following a “low-glycemic index” diet (which replaces most refined carbohydrates with whole food sources of carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and beans), significantly reduced the number and severity of blemishes in just ten weeks.
Step 2: Ditch the dairy.
Milk and most other dairy products contain two kinds of protein—casein and whey—specially formulated to grow a baby cow. Unfortunately, they also overstimulate human growth hormone systems:
- Milk raises insulin levels just as much as white bread does. It is the whey protein in the milk, not the lactose (milk sugar), that is responsible.
- Whey proteins contain a powerful growth factor called betacellulin. Betacellulin binds to special receptors on human skin cells called Epidermal Growth Factor Receptors (EGFRs), which tell skin follicles to multiply and to make more sebum. This 2012 paper shows that bodybuilders developed acne after starting a whey protein regimen.
- Casein proteins raise human IGF-1 levels. IGF-1 stands for “Insulin-like Growth Factor.” It is a growth hormone similar to insulin that stimulates excess sebum, skin cell, and androgen production.
Step 3: Balance your fats.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids form essential components of the immune system. Omega-6s (pro-inflammatory) mount initial inflammatory responses to infections and injury, and omega-3s (anti-inflammatory) take over when it’s time for healing to begin. If you eat too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, the scales tip too far in the direction of inflammation. Seed oils such as canola, soybean, and corn oil, are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Wild-caught fish and fats and organ meats from grass-fed animals are the best sources of omega-3s.
Most people have a hard time increasing omega-3 intake through diet alone, so if you don’t eat fish or pastured animal foods regularly, taking an omega-3 supplement in the form of fish oil is a good idea. Vegan diets, in particular, are extremely low in omega-3s, so people choosing a vegan diet must take a supplement (veg-friendly supplements derived from algae are available).
In this study, acne improved significantly after 10 weeks of taking a daily omega-3 supplement (containing 1000 mg EPA + 1000 mg DHA).
Note that it is usually not enough to simply up your omega-3 intake; you must also lower your omega-6 intake to restore a healthy balance. For more information, including food lists and supplement recommendations, click here.
Breaking the Breakout Cycle: The All-Natural Acne Diet Prescription
No co-pays, no side effects, and numerous health benefits!
Eat real whole foods. Base your diet on meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. This diet naturally softens insulin spikes and improves your omega-3/6 balance because it is free of industrially-produced seed oils, processed carbohydrates, and dairy products. Both the Kitavan and the Paraguayan diets followed these simple rules (the Paraguayans did have limited access to foods made with flour or sugar, but these processed foods made up less than 10 percent of their diet).
Be patient. Researchers find it can take up to three months on a new diet to see significant improvement in acne because it takes time for skin to remodel itself.
Acne and Insulin Resistance
If you have insulin resistance, you may need to be careful with all carbohydrates, not just the refined ones, in order to achieve the most beautiful results. For more information, click here.
Acne and Food Sensitivities
If a whole-foods diet free of industrial seed oils, processed carbohydrates, and dairy foods doesn’t clear your acne in three months, you may have an unrecognized food sensitivity.
The most common culprits are grains (gluten and corn in particular), legumes (especially soy), nuts, and eggs. For fastest results, eliminate all of these from the start, wait three months, and if you’re free and clear of blemishes, you can try adding back one food at a time.
The bottom line is this: Stop throwing your money away on expensive and risky treatments that don’t get at the root of the problem and just make other people rich. If you lean more towards an “uncivilized” diet, free of dairy, refined carbohydrates, and seed oils, your skin just might thank you by clearing up and looking healthy again. That’s a reason to smile!