Diet, perhaps more than any other natural healing topic, confuses acne patients. Forums and blogs are flooded with misleading and nonsensical information and ‘helpful’ lists of top 10 acne curing foods.
The mindset is not that different from a pre-scientific alchemist, who in their laboratories tried to create a universal solvent that turns lesser metals into gold (i.e. perfection). Many people with acne similarly believe that if they could just find the right combination of foods they could magically transform their skin – and finally banish acne.
The problem with this mindset is that it’s wrong and not rooted in how the human body works.
There are no foods that cure acne
To get out of this unhelpful mindset you have to first realize that there are no foods that cure acne. Let me say that again. There are no foods that cure acne.
The web is full of lists of foods you must eat if you want to get over acne (ironically, some of the foods in the must eat list cause acne for me). These lists are based on the idea that certain foods contain nutrients thought to be helpful in acne, like zinc.
Two problems with that. First, there are very few nutrients that, when taken alone, actually reduce acne; zinc is one of the very few. And second, the foods almost never contain enough of the nutrient to make a difference. For example, you would need to eat 6 ounces of oysters a day to get enough zinc to effectively treat acne. Every day. And this is one of the rare examples where it’s even remotely possible.
I can guarantee you that were someone to do a study where one group was given these ‘must eat’ foods and another group other healthy foods, there would be no difference in acne in the two groups.
Such articles are pure junk ‘journalism’. The writers and publications churn out this junk to get page views and ad revenue.
That being said, some foods can indirectly help with acne. For example, drinking green tea has been shown to somewhat protect the skin against UV-induced damage. Similarly, omega-3 fats in seafood can reduce systemic inflammation.
Both of these can indirectly reduce acne, but it’s fallacious to say those foods cure acne, or that you need to eat them to get over acne. There are plenty of other foods that can do the same. It’s never a good idea to box yourself into a corner thinking you have to eat certain foods.
How to think about food and acne
Let me show you a better way to think about diet and acne. In general, the following is true:
- 70% of your results (that can be achieved with diet) come from eliminating harmful foods (like dairy) and dietary patterns (such as eating too much sugar and carbohydrates, or foods that cause excessive fermentation in the gut).
- The remaining 30% comes from a healthy diet that reduces inflammation and doesn’t derail hormone levels.
What this means is that, when it comes to diet, most people only need to:
- Avoid negatives, specifics of which vary between acne types
- Have a generally healthy diet, but nothing too extreme
That’s all. The rest are insignificant details.
The negatives vary between acne types, and to some degree between individuals. In the sections for each acne type, I cover the negatives specific to that type.
Generally healthy diet
Most of you probably know what a healthy diet looks like. With a few exceptions, the same advice doctors and health organizations have been giving for several decades now. Such as:
- Eat 5 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Avoid processed and packaged foods.
- Focus on fresh, whole foods.
- As much as possible, cook your meals at home. That way you know you are using high-quality ingredients and know what goes into your food.
- Most of the time, use gentle, water-based cooking methods (like steaming and boiling). BBQ, frying and other high heat cooking methods generate advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which cause inflammation and hormonal disturbances.
- Make sure you get some long-chain omega-3 fats (the kinds found in fish and seafood). If you don’t want to eat fish, omega-3 enriched eggs are a good alternative. Supplementation can also work.
- Related to the above, there are no good reasons to go out of your way to avoid omega-6 fats, or obsess over your omega-3:6 ratio. On the page about omega-3 and -6 fats, I’ll explain why.
- Eat somewhat fewer carbohydrates than is normal, and fill your plate with high-quality fatty foods and protein. This is not super important, as we’ll cover in the macronutrient ratio page, but it’s usually a good idea to somewhat moderate carbohydrates.
- Regarding fats, there’s good evidence to show plant-based fats are healthier than animal fats (except fish). It’s a good idea to include a variety of nuts, seeds, avocados, and other such foods into your diet. That being said, it’s not like high-quality animal foods are inherently unhealthy. Plant-based fats are just healthier, but it doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to avoid meat and animal foods. Just make sure you have a variety of fat sources in your diet.
- While grains aren’t inherently harmful, they can be irritating for some people, and that’s why I prefer starchy vegetables (potato, yams, sweet potatoes, corn) over traditional grains (oats, wheat, etc.). Grains tend to be more problematic for people with gut issues or who struggle with inflammatory-type acne. The same goes for legumes.
- Beans and legumes can be very healthy for people who don’t have gut issues. Just be sure to soak and cook them properly to get rid of most of the lectins.
- I like simplicity in meals. In the evenings, I often just eat a salad with lettuce and oranges (balsamic vinegar as dressing) and some eggs and home-made yogurt on the side.
- Eat most of your calories early in the day and avoid heavy dinners. Your body processed food better at the beginning of the day. For example, insulin resistance is much higher in the morning than evening. There’s truth to the old saying “Eat Breakfast Like a King, Dinner Like a Pauper”. For more, please see the page about meal timings.
I don’t know what else to say here. There’s no need to overcomplicate this.