I Break Out Every Day? Why My Diet Isn’t Working?

Every now and then I see a question where some acne patient laments their lack of success despite following healthy diet. Understandably the person is confused. They’ve been told how diet causes acne and they follow the diet that should get them clear to the tee. And yet results are wanting.

I wanted to address this topic because I see it often and it can be very harmful to the person. The diet itself often causes some stress, and the lack of results may you feel like a failure (i.e. why don’t I get results when others are so successful? What’s wrong with me?).

I think there are 3 reasons for this: just plain bad advice, ignoring other important acne causes, and possibly the diet itself. In this post I’ll talk about these in more detail and hopefully restore some sanity to the situation.

Propagation of bad information

The Internet revolutionized communication. Now anyone can voice their opinions for the entire world to see. Unfortunately this revolution comes with a downside. Now everybody and their uncle has a blog where they voice their dietary ‘truths’ and secrets they don’t want you to know about.

Making sense of all the conflicting claims is not easy, especially since many of them seemingly make sense. It takes a decent understanding of how the human body works before you can separate truth from fiction. You also have to be able to willing to dive into the scientific medical literature for answers.

So we end up with this mess where thousands of well-meaning bloggers spread highly dubious ‘truths’ about acne. Anything from Candida to congested liver to lack of urine on the face are touted as causes. The solutions vary but often include very strict diets and various cleanses.

These websites fall into the 50% good advice, 50% bad advice and 100% horrible reasoning category. They have enough good advice that some people get results. These are then touted as success stories and proof. But because of bad reasoning and not really understanding the pathophysiology of acne they 1) overpromise what diet can deliver, 2) ignore major causes of acne, and 3) recommend diets that are unnecessarily strict and impractical, which often causes a lot of stress to people.

Diet is not a be-all-end-all solution to acne

Diet is just part of the puzzle. Yes, diet can affect acne and studies show that certain dietary changes reduce acne. But none of these studies actually shows really great results. If my memory serves me correct most studies show 30 to 40% reduction in acne. Not bad, but still long way from completely clear skin.

These studies really focus only on glycemic index and insulin as factors in acne. If we would tweak them a bit more we would probably get better results. But it still wouldn’t be enough to get majority of people clear.

So for best results we also need to address the other possible causes of acne, such as:

Most natural and so-called holistic health websites ignore the role genetics play in acne. They prefer to ignore or dismiss the findings of science and cling to highly implausible (and many causes disproven) claims that acne is just a sign and that you have to cleanse and fix your body to get clear. And this leads people to desperate wild goose chases after causes that never existed.

Diet itself causes problems

In some cases it’s the proposed solution to acne that’s aggravating acne. This is especially true with the more extreme versions of both low-fat and low-carb diets. Getting most of your calories from fat (as is the case with low-carb diets) causes insulin resistance and glucose tolerance. This is why low-carb forums have so many people complaining of acne breakouts after eating carbohydrates.

Similarly high carbohydrate intake in low-fat diets may overwhelm your glucose metabolism and lead to blood sugar problems. This happened to when while I was on my low-fat, high-fruit, raw food diet. Despite the claims that this diet is good for blood sugar levels it almost made me a diabetic.

The diet may also contain something your body just doesn’t tolerate that well. Or it can be deficient in some important nutrients, as often happens with more restrictive vegan diets.

Finally diets may also have indirect negative effects. For example very restrictive diets that are impractical and hard to follow in real life causes a lot of stress. They create this enormous conflict for people. On the other hand you really want to get clear and do anything you can do achieve it. On the other hand you feel like failure for not being able to stick to the diet and do what it takes.

So in this article we explored some reasons why people don’t see results with various anti-acne diets. Often the failure is rooted in just plain bad advice. Diet can help, but what it can do is vastly oversold. Diet alone usually isn’t enough to get rid of acne. Furthermore the diet itself may also cause acne, either because of the negative effects of the diet or stress caused by trying to stick to it.

Don’t know how to get over acne? Let me help.

Feel like you’ve tried everything but acne still won’t budge? Read this page to understand why you get acne and what you can do to get over it.

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About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.

References

16 thoughts on “I Break Out Every Day? Why My Diet Isn’t Working?

  1. Hey Seppo, thanks so much for writing this blog. I really like the fact that you look to scientific studies to find out where all these myths and truths come from. You’re very right about people overlooking the role genetics can play, it was very much a “Eureka!” moment for me when I started reading this and then everything else started making more sense to me about why I am prone to acne. It sucks of course, but I feel like I understand so much more now.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Laura, thanks for the kind words. And glad to hear I’ve been able to help you a bit. Acne indeed is a bit of a mystery and I think understanding the science behind all of this helps us to deal with it better.

  2. Great post Seppo! I feel like I have been in this position before, actually for a long time. I was eating healthy for years but my skin was so bad. Such a frustrating place to be in. But it turns out, I needed to heal my gut. Healthy foods alone sometimes won’t do the trick if you an imbalance.
    You really have to be a sort of acne detective!!

    • Kendra, glad to see you here 🙂 Acne indeed is a bit of a mystery. With so many possible causes you need to do some detective work to get to the bottom of it. But working together we should be able to beat this monster.

  3. Such a shame i found this website when i had gone through the different diet phads. I was so convinced that diet was pretty much the sole cause… and i went through so much unnecessary hardship for nothing. Fortunately though, i stumbled over the gut link a while back and i think things are looking up. (It’s scary to think that i could of missed it so easily) Although, i’ve been in this situation many times before, thinking i was at end just to be hit with another flaming hurdle.
    Nice website btw

    • Dan, I’ve been there also. I remember how frustrating and depressing it was to be perfect with your diet and still wake up with new pimples. Natural healing ways have a lot to offer, but you have to be skeptical with the information. There’s just too much bad information floating around the web.

  4. Hi Seppo!
    I just wanted to let you know what a fantastic and informative website you’ve created, and what a huge help it’s been to me since I discovered it a few days ago.
    I suffered from moderate acne throughout my teens and early 20’s. Whilst pregnant (age 24), and for 3yrs after having my son, my skin completely cleared and I was only experiencing a few spots at a time.
    I thought I’d finally ‘grown out’ of it. This year I have been suffering from recurrent bouts of cystitis, something I’ve always been prone to, although never so frequently, and had to take repeated courses of antibiotics to treat it (2mths ago having to take a three day course, three times in that month). Over the course of the last month or so, my skin has irrupted into severe cystic acne, all over my cheeks and jawline.
    In my distress, I turned to the internet looking for a link with acne and antibiotics, or anything that would explain and ultimately offer a cure for my skin. As you have described, I eventually stumbled upon the massive amount of (pretty sketchy and loosely backed up) ‘evidence’ claiming that the cause of my acne was candida. It seemed to fit in exactly with my story – long term use of the contraceptive pill/then having a copper IUD fitted (there’s loads of buzz about this being responsible for an overproduction of yeast in the body) /repeated courses of antibiotics. I was all ready to embark on the candida diet, spend loads of cash I don’t have on candida recipe books and probiotics, in an attempt to ‘starve’ the bad bacteria from my body. Thing is, I knew this information was sketchy. I could tell it was unscientific and backed up with no real medical evidence. Only, the links to antibiotics/contraceptives made sense to me, and if it’s not down to these factors causing an over production of yeast in the body, then why are there so many others like me with the same symptoms and concerns? (Plus, I love alternative health approach bandwagon, ha).
    Your website has brought me the balance I really needed, and served as a wake-up call and reminder of the things I already suspected, but was too desperate to consider properly. Thank you.
    But, where do I go from here? With the help of your well researched and sensible approach to the info out there, I’ve decided to follow a healthy, low GI diet, cutting down on any processed foods, sugars and refined cabs. I’m going to give the green tea a serous go too. I’m also getting the copper IUD out. Then, just hope for the best, I suppose.
    I wanted to know what your thoughts are on probiotic supplements please? Do you think it would be beneficial to take them, or a waste of money? My health food store has a Biocare Bio-Acidophilus Forte, that you take for 7 days, recommended after using antibiotics. I’m just not sure.

    Apologies for the lengthy and drawn-out post. I also realise you’re not a Dr. or someone who has the cure. I’m just feeling quite desperate and also extremely low with the the situation with my skin at the moment. I just need some level headed advice.
    Thank you.

    • Sorry about my late reply Lesley. Was travelling with my wife over the weekend and then got sick for a few days.

      You described the problem with alt-med and natural health sites very well. Their theories make superficial sense (when you don’t have in-depth info on the topic) and they usually contain a grain of truth. The problem is knowing where the facts end and fiction begins.

      In this case, what they describe about Candida is true. And medical literature supports it. I’m not against local Candida infections causing acne (as I talked in the Candida post). I do object to making Candida a systemic issue when there’s little to no evidence supporting their crazy theories (and endless supplements).

      I wrote about probiotics in the gut healing guide post. Please check that out for detailed answer.

      In short, yes probiotics can (and probably will) help. The problem is that studies have shown that benefits from probiotics are strain-specific. So one strain might help while another one is completely useless. And how do you know which ones to buy? That’s the real problem. We don’t have enough data yet to really say which strains will help and which are useless. Also, most manufaturers don’t list individual strains in their labels.

      That said, the benefitial strains usually come from the Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium families.

      So you have to understand that taking probiotics will be a hit and miss game. That’s one reason I recommend eating a wide variety of fermented foods. They are simple to make at home, and quite fun too (at least for me). At the moment I make my own yogurt and sauer kraut at home.

      The other things you described sound very sensible. You should get good results with that approach.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this post a bit and why people break out despite their diet… Maybe it’s not their diet after all? I mean I’ve realised that.. I can actually eat a lot of sweets and such with my skin still remaning under control but if I get stressed out and such it breaks out rather quick.. So.. Maybe that’s why they still break out? Due to the other reasons why people get acne?

    • That was sort of my point with this article. So many people have been mind-fucked by alt-med and natural healing ‘information’ they believe they have to stick to this super-healthy diet and freak out the second they stray away even a bit.

  6. Can your gut be affected after antibiotics, high stress, etc. that makes your skin react to foods that used to not make you get acne? Can healing the gut help the body not respond to carbs, fats, sugars with acne?

    • Yes to both. Antibiotics and stress, especially stress, can have a big effect on gut health. Gut healing can reduce the negative effect some foods have on your skin.

  7. Great and very relevant article, Seppo.

    I have drug myself into the whole paleo-Chris Kresser-Gut-Grassfed beef world after being a vegetarian for 3 years, all in hopes to heal my skin.

    I’m actually 2 weeks into the “autoimmune protocol” paleo diet.

    I’m starting to go crazy with this stuff, it’s so restrictive, let alone having to barrage my system with a bunch of meat it hasn’t had to digest in years.

    The food stuff, I can deal with. My question is, they want me to cut out coffee to fix my gut/skin, and for me that’s kind of something I just haven’t been able to do.

    Have you come across any studies making the cortisol-coffee-skin connection, or do you think I’m safe to continue with my 2 cups of black coffee a day?

    • Thanks for getting Clear for Life, I really appreciate your trust and business.

      I don’t know what to say about the auto-immune protocol. On one hand the whole thing is plausible. I mean, it’s not like liver congestion or other totally fictitious and implausible diseases. On the other hand, I find it very hard to take seriously anything AIP proponents say. The articles are sprinkled with utter nonsense and I don’t know where it ends and the facts begin. The whole thing is driven more by ideology than solid evidence and thus it’s very difficult to evaluate their claims. Though I have to say that Chris Kresser in general has gotten more reliable over the years.

      I don’t know much about your situation so it’s difficult to comment more about this. Doing a food elimination/challenge is the most reliable way to figure out your problem and trigger foods.

      The first step, however, should be to identify your acne type. That helps us to narrow down the type of actions likely to be helpful in your case. If you haven’t already, please read this post: https://www.acneeinstein.com/acne-types/

      • Thank you for your quick response, Seppo!

        I’m pretty sure mine is a mixture of hormonal and inflammatory; I got sudden onset severe acne at age 27. I’ve cut out all grains, dairy, and soy, and added sugar to help the hormonal aspect and am treating with fermented foods and digestive enzymes/probiotics on the inflammatory front.

        I’m thin, and don’t have any other symptoms of PCOS. All hormonal tests came back normal, but I know that doesn’t mean anything. I suspect testosterone/androgen dominance is a factor in my case.

        So what do you think about coffee? Have you seen any evidence to indicate that 2 cups of coffee a day can trigger inflammation or hormonal imbalances through stimulating cortisol? And if so, would the caffeine content of 3-5 cups of green tea per day worsen this possibly?

        • Sorry about my late reply. I’m on holiday in Europe with my wife, so replies will be a bit delayed.

          I haven’t seen any research suggesting that 2 cups of coffee would be a problem; that said, I haven’t specifically looked for that. But even if studies don’t suggest that 2 cups of coffee causes problems, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t cause problems for you. People react differently and studies always have ‘outliers’, i.e. people who react very differently than others. So the only way to know for sure is to test it.

          Most women with hormonal acne have hormones within the normal range, but it doesn’t mean hormones wouldn’t cause problems for them. Compared to women with clear skin, women with acne have somewhat higher androgen levels. The main issue in acne seems to be sensitivity of skin to hormones. So even slightly higher hormone levels can cause problems, and that’s why studies show that acne patients with normal hormone levels still benefit from anti-androgen treatments.

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