Can some foods make acne worse?

You may have heard conflicting advice from media, support groups and health professionals about the role of diet in managing acne.

Research is showing that a low glycaemic index (GI) diet may help people with acne by controlling blood sugar levels. This in turn controls levels of metabolic hormones – which can interact with sex hormones to make acne worse.

Low GI foods include wholegrain bread, cereals, fruits and vegetables as well as protein-rich foods like fish, beef, lamb, nuts and legumes.

Processed and refined foods including white bread, biscuits and sweets have a high GI, which means they cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. This triggers the production of hormones such as insulin, which we now believe can make acne worse. If you have acne, it’s another reason to limit these foods to occasional treats. 

While carbohydrates get some bad publicity, it’s important to remember that good quality carbohydrates provide many important nutrients and should be part of a balanced diet. 

Choose complex carbohydrates like wholegrain breads and cereals,  barley, brown rice and beans – all of which are high in fibre. The more fibre in a food, the more slowly it's digested and the more slowly your blood sugar levels rise. 

We need more research before making other dietary recommendations for acne, and in the end, diets can only do so much. Medical treatments are still the main way to improve severe acne.

If you notice your acne worsens after you eat certain foods, try to stop eating those foods and note what happens. If you’re still concerned about the foods you’re eating and their impact on acne, talk with your GP or dermatologist.

Exercising for healthy skin

The importance of exercise in helping to maintain healthy skin is much less controversial than diet. 

Most of us are aware of the need to exercise daily as a means to improve or maintain our overall wellbeing, including healthy skin. A good goal to aim for is 30 minutes a day. 

Exercise not only burns up kilojoules to help you lose weight or maintain your ideal weight but it reduces insulin output, which can contribute to acne. Exercise can also help to reduce stress – another cause for acne breakouts. However, sweat from exercise can irritate the skin, so it’s a good idea to wash your face after a workout.

Maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent acne

Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce the risk of developing acne and reduce its severity.

Your weight is affected by how you balance your intake of kilojoules from food with the energy you use in everyday activities. If you eat more than you use, you gain weight. Your body stores kilojoules that you don't need for energy as fat. 

Fat is important for storing energy and insulating your body, among other things. The human body can handle carrying some extra fat, but beyond a certain point, body fat can begin to interfere with your health. 

In women and teenage girls, fat can convert ‘good hormones’ (oestrogens) into ‘bad hormones’ that have testosterone-like actions – a contributing factor to acne. 

The good news is that even a modest weight loss can help your skin. In many cases, you can do this just by eating better and exercising more.

Find out about treatments for acne