We scrutinize our diets with just as much suspicion as we do our faces when a seemingly innocuous bump begins to appear. Surrounded by diets that encourage us to eat more of one thing and less of another, and all promising to deliver amazing results, it’s hard to piece out what’s real and what’s hype. One idea floating around out there is that carbs are not only bad for you in general, but they can also lead to acne flare-ups. It seems so easy to blame one food group, but it might not be that simple. We’re going to look at foods that cause acne, how to eat for healthier skin (a sort of “acne diet”, if you will), and whether or not carbs make the cut.
Acne’s three main culprits
To understand how carbs could contribute to acne, we need to know what causes acne in the first place. The three main causes are buildup of dead skin cells, sebum, and p.acnes.
Dead skin cells
Your body is constantly shedding skin cells. In fact, the commonly quoted rate is 500 million skin cells every. Single. Day. Most of those cells are floating around your home, landing on surfaces, and sticking in your clothes, but some accumulate on your skin. These ones can block hair follicles (pores) on your face and body, and blocked pores produce acne in the form of whiteheads and blackheads (non-inflammatory acne).
Sebum is the oil that your body produces to keep your skin and hair moisturized. Too much sebum can stick to dead skin cells as well as bacteria, forming a plug that blocks hair follicles. Your body then sends in the cavalry in the form of an inflammatory response to fight infection, which is what leads to red, swollen acne known as inflammatory acne.
P. acnes are a type of bacteria that live in hair follicles on your skin and usually don’t cause any problems. However, P. acnes feed on sebum, so when your body begins to produce too much, the P. acnes can start multiplying like rabbits, causing inflammation.
This is just a basic overview of the main causes. If you want more information, here’s a related in-depth article.
So what do carbs have to do with it?
You probably noticed that none of those causes of acne mentioned anything about carbohydrates. That’s because the role that carbs play in acne production begins way below skin-deep. It all ties into glycemic index, which is a number that describes how fast your body converts carbohydrates to glucose (sugar). This helps us separate “good” carbs from “bad” carbs. Good carbs have a low glycemic index and are converted slowly, and as a result will not cause blood sugar spikes.
Low glycemic index diets have been studied in relation to acne, and the results are pretty interesting. In one study, 87% of a 2,258 patient group reported less acne after switching to a low glycemic diet. A few other studies compared those who ate their usual diet to those who switched to low glycemic foods, and in all three cases the ones who switched saw a significant improvement in the health of their skin. It has also been observed that a high glycemic diet can increase the severity of acne, according to a study conducted in Malaysia.
But why? It’s those nasty blood sugar spikes caused by fast-converted carbs that set everything in motion.
Blood sugar spikes can cause inflammation in the body, and inflammation is what drives those angry red pimples we all despise. It can also potentially trigger the production of more sebum. More sebum combined with more inflammation equates to more severe acne.
Is healthier skin just a bite away?
When we talk about low glycemic foods, what do we mean? What foods cause acne, and which ones can lead to healthier skin?
First and foremost, refined carbs are out. These are essentially carbohydrates that are missing everything that makes carbs good for you. They have no nutrients and way more sugar than is necessary. Refined carbohydrates include white bread, pastries, breakfast cereals, and pizza dough.
The good news is, there are plenty of ways to get the carbs your body needs without leading to flare-ups. The key is to choose foods with a glycemic index under 55. Some examples include specialty grain bread, spaghetti, apples, carrots, and best of all...chocolate. Of course, there are many more, and you can find tons of resources on the web that will give you a chart of the glycemic index of a wide variety of foods so you can pick the ones that fit with your lifestyle. A good place to start is with this list from Harvard Medical School.
Like everything in the realm of science and skincare, more research is needed to determine a direct link between the glycemic index of foods and acne. But if you’re up for giving it a try, you just might end up with healthier skin than you’ve ever had.