[By Jane Wong]

The jury is been still out on whether there is a conclusive link between food and acne for many years but latest studies have finally shed some light on this ongoing debate, and it seems that it is true that certain foods may just trigger an outbreak for the acne-prone.

If you are battling zits on a daily basis or are blindsided by a sudden attack of pimples, you may want to look into your diet for these acne-inducing culprits.


As our sugar and dairy consumption has increased over the last 100 years so has the number of people with acne. Coincidence? Not quite, there is now clear evidence that there is a link between dairy and acne with recent research affirming that it’s not what we slather on our skins that matter most but what we put into our mouths.

In 2009, a systematic review of 21 observational studies and six clinical trials found clear links. Two large controlled trials found that cow’s milk increased both the number of people who got acne and its severity. Other large randomized prospective controlled trials (the gold standard of medical research) found that people who had higher sugar intake and a high glycemic load diet (more bread, rice, cereal, pasta, sugar, and flour products of all kinds) had significantly more acne. The only silver lining is that chocolate (dark chocolate that is) didn’t seem to cause acne.

One scientist referred to milk as a “complex aqueous, suspended fat, liposomal, suspended protein emulsion”. What we do know is that milk is designed to grow things–namely, babies–and in the case of cow’s milk, calves. It is naturally full of what we call anabolic hormones (the same ones that body builders and A Rod use to grow big muscles, and which cause bad acne). These are mostly androgens (like testosterone) and growth hormones including insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). There is no such thing as hormone-free milk.

Here’s a short list of the 60-some hormones in your average glass of milk–even the organic, raw, and bovine growth hormone free milk:

  • 20α-dihydropregnenolone
  • progesterone (from pregnenolone)
  • 5α-pregnanedione
  • 5α-pregnan-3β-ol-20-one, 20α- and 20β-dihydroprogesterone (from progesterone)
  • 5α-androstene-3β17β-diol
  • 5α-androstanedione
  • 5α-androstan-3β-ol-17-one
  • androstenedione
  • testosterone
  • dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate acyl ester
  • insulin like growth factors 1 and 2 (IGF-1 and IGF-2)
  • insulin

Scary, isn’t it?

The famous Nurse’s Health Study examining health habits of 47,000 nurses found that those who drank more milk as teenagers had much higher rates of severe acne than those who had little or no milk as teenagers. If you think it is the fat in milk, think again. It was actually the skim milk that had the strongest risk for acne. In other studies of over 10,000 boys and girls from 9 to 15 years old, there was a direct link between the amount of milk consumed and the severity of acne.

It appears that it is not just the anabolic or sex hormones in milk that causes problem but milk’s ability to stimulate insulin production. It actually may be the lactose or milk sugar in milk that acts more like a soft drink than an egg. Drinking a glass of milk can spike insulin levels 300 percent. Not only does that cause pimples, but it also may contribute to prediabetes. This is true despite studies funded by the dairy council showing that milk helps with weight loss. The question is compared to WHAT diet–a diet of bagels and Coke, or a healthy phytonutrient, antioxidant-rich, plant-based diet with lean animal protein?


If a glass of milk causes pimples, that may drive you back to your Pepsi. But not so fast! Along with our dairy culprit, sugar has been highlighted as another major pimple-causing perpetrator. Both milk and sugar cause spikes in certain pimple producing hormones. Dairy boosts male sex hormones (various forms of testosterone or androgens) and increases insulin levels just as foods that quickly raise blood sugar (sugar and starchy carbs) spike insulin. These hormones in turn trigger acne outbreaks.

Studies show that taking kids off sugar and putting them on a healthy, whole foods, low-glycemic load diet resulted in significant improvements in acne compared to a control group eating a regular, high-sugar American diet. In addition to less pimples, the participants lost weight, became more sensitive to the effects of insulin (resulting in less pimple-producing insulin circulating around the blood).

While acne is multi-factorial, and life’s stresses such as nasty break-up with your boyfriend is certainly going to have an impact, your diet also plays a significant role.


But the dietary influences don’t stop there. It is not just sugar, but the bad fats we eat that may also contribute to acne. Think fried chicken, french fries and so on. Increasingly, our diet is laden with inflammatory fats–saturated fats, trans fats, too many omega-6, inflammatory, processed vegetable oils like soy and corn oils. These increase IGF-1 and stimulate pimple follicles. Inflammation has been linked to acne.

So it isn’t surprising that a dose of the “good oils” can help neutralize this effect. Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats (from fish oil) may help improve acne and help with many skin disorders. Load up on fish and other healthy sources of omega-3 fish oil or pop a supplement daily.


Caffeine is another substance you should remove from your diet. Caffeine causes two big problems. First it increases triggers the adrenalin glands to release stress hormones, which increases your stress levels. Too much stress is bad for your health and skin. There are studies linking stress to acne and almost every health condition.

Second, caffeine disturbs your sleep. Even if you can fall asleep after taking in caffeine it prevents the body to enter the deepest phase of sleep. This deepest sleep is especially important because during this phase the body does physical repair and detoxing. If the body cannot recover from the stresses of the day you can expect your health to decline and acne get worse.


Rule of thumb; any food that comes from factory is bad for your skin. Humans evolved eating whole, unrefined foods in their natural state. Processed foods are often highly refined, which makes them impossible to digest properly. This leads to allergic reactions, inflammation and eventually acne.

Because processed foods are highly refined they have little taste left. To make them palatable food manufacturers add flavors, additives and other chemicals to ‘trick’ your taste buds. These chemicals always lead to adverse reactions in your body which will show up on your skin.

Processed foods often contain lots of fat and refined sugars. Say hello to blood sugar and related (such as Candida) problems. This also makes them highly fattening. Excess belly fat directly leads to insulin resistance (blood sugar problems) and inflammation (fat cells produce inflammatory hormones). So avoid eating processed foods and go for fresh produce daily. Your skin will thank you for the switch.

So eat smart and eat right. Sometimes, changing your diet will save you tons of money in expensive skincare products. You are after all what you eat.


* Selected as Article of the Month Aug 2012*


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9 thoughts on “5 Foods that causes Acne”

  1. Does that include soya milk? or just cow’s milk?
    i didn’t real is milk has so many hormones in them! it’s scary list.

  2. lack of sleep triggers the worst outbreaks for me. don’t know about foods, maybe my skin is so bad, it makes little difference what i eat. but thanks for the great tips. useful

  3. i can definitely relate. this is like what the chinese like to call “heaty” foods. scoff if u must but i totally believe in the links between food and acne.

  4. i was on Roaccutane by my aesthetic doctor. recently, i consulted a dermatologist, and he told me that Roaccutane was not suitable for me and put me on Nimegen instead! when i checked online, i found out that Nimegen was just a generic version of Roaccutane. wtf! gals, do your homework before trusting some doctors out there, some are just unscrupulous. I think dermatologists should just stick to giving out creams for rashes.

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