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The foods in your pantry that may be causing you to break out
Image by mbg Creative / Various, iStock
May 14, 2020
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As if being stuck at home, isolated from your friends and loved ones and having to adjust to a new normal wasn't challenging enough, you look in the mirror to see that your skin is behaving anything but normal. You're stuck at home and have stopped wearing makeup and using your haircare products that could potentially irritate your skin, so why are you breaking out?

Even if you're sleeping well enough and keeping your stress relatively in check, acne may still be popping up. And while it may be tempting to ignore it as a cosmetic issue, how we see ourselves affects how we treat ourselves, and when emotions may already be running high right now, it's vital not to add more negative emotional fuel to the fire.

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Let's take a step back and examine what actually creates acne. The four contributing factors include:

  • Dead skin cells in the hair follicle 
  • Excess sebum 
  • Presence and activity of facial bacteria 
  • Inflammation from the sebum and dead skin cells clumping together to form a plug in the follicle that becomes inflamed

As I explain in my book The Skin Whisperer, one of the big triggers that plays a significant role in skin health is food. So instead of looking in your medicine cabinet for a solution to acne, take a look in your pantry. Because life has been turned upside down and you may not be able to stock your kitchen the way you normally do, your eating habits probably have gotten a little wonky as well. The result: breakouts.

Here, five foods that may be in your pantry (and on heavy rotation) right now—and how they might be contributing to your acne:

Refined carbohydrates and sugar

The problem: Refined carbohydrates like standard crackers, cookies, and pasta are broken down into sugar by the body. This results in increased levels of the enzyme mTor1 as well as the hormone insulin. Elevated levels of insulin promote increases in other hormones including both insulin growth factor-1 and androgens. Taken all together, the elevated levels of these enzymes and hormones result in an increase in sebum production, abnormal skin cell growth, bacterial overgrowth, and inflammation, which leads to the creation of acne.

Solution: Read your labels to check for added sugars, choose foods with a lower glycemic index, and look for grain-free packaged options and alternative pastas like chickpea or lentil.

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Saturated and trans fats

The problem: Saturated and industrially produced trans fats are commonplace in some standard snack foods as well as bottled salad dressings, sauces, and mayonnaise. On labels, you'll see them as peanut oil, palmitate, and vegetable oil. Studies show that saturated fats activate mTor1, which triggers the creation of follicular skin cells and promotes acne. Trans fats1 have been found to stimulate inflammation, increasing sebum production, and contributing to acne. 

Solution: Check your labels and look for clean, avocado-oil-based mayonnaise and/or mix up your own DIY salad dressings with organic extra-virgin olive oil.

Casein and whey protein

Problem: These proteins can pop up in protein bars and powders, and while perfectly fine for many people, since they are derived from milk, they may cause a problem for those who are sensitive to dairy. Casein and whey are two types of protein found in milk, which can increase insulin levels in the skin, which can cause or aggravate acne breakouts. Casein is linked to dairy intolerance, digestive issues, and inflammation, which can wreak havoc on your hormones as well as trigger inflammation—all of these contribute to acne. 

Solution: Check your labels, and if you're sensitive to dairy, while you may want to skip the whey, if you want to use a casein-based protein powder, look for one containing beta A2 casein. This is easier to digest and less prone to irritate your skin. Also consider using a protein powder from a nondairy source including pea protein, hemp, or brown rice.

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Excessive alcohol consumption

The problem: While I'm all about enjoying a glass of polyphenols-packed red wine or a refreshing cocktail, overindulging on a consistent basis can wreak havoc on your skin. Not only does drinking alcohol throw off your blood sugar, it messes with your hormones by increasing levels of the hormone estrogen and its metabolites while also disrupting gut health. Studies2 show alcohol consumption can lead to increased gut permeability and alterations in the gut microbiome. When you have imbalances, that disharmony can often manifest on your skin. Several studies3 link dysbiosis of the gut microbiome to the development of acne3.  

Solution: Life is meant to be enjoyed, so have your glass of wine or cocktail, but be mindful of how much and how often you're indulging if your acne is flaring.

Milk Chocolate and White Chocolate

The problem: While chocolate itself will not make you break out, what the chocolate is made from might. Milk chocolate and white chocolate overall contain more dairy, sugar, and other additives compared to dark chocolate. Especially for acne-prone individuals, milk and white chocolates can trigger hormonal changes including increased levels of insulin and IGF-1 leading to increased sebum production and inflammatory responses in the body, which can lead to acne. What's more, by filling up on sweets, it leaves less of an appetite for nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, which can help squash inflammation and create harmony among your hormones.

Solution: Choose dark chocolate. Rich in iron, magnesium, and zinc, the cocoa in dark chocolate also contains health-boosting antioxidants called flavanols. Look for chocolate that contains 70% or greater cacao content to reap the antioxidant benefit.

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The bottom line.

If you feel like you've been taking care of your skin properly, resting, and keeping stress at bay but your acne is still cropping up, take a look in your pantry—the solution might be easier than you realize.

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Keira Barr, M.D.
Keira Barr, M.D.
Board-certified dermatologist

Keira Barr is a seasoned dual board-certified dermatologist who is redefining the delivery of skincare and founder of Resilient Health Institute. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, her degree in dermapathology from the University of Florida, and is the former Associate Residency Program Director at UC Davis Medical Center. Drawing from her professional expertise and her own experience with skin cancer, Barr is leading a movement that empowers individuals to feel comfortable in their skin so that they can show up powerfully in it. Understanding that the correlation between the skin, mind and body is the key to productivity, better health, emotional well-being and resilience, Barr works with women all over the world to revitalize their lives and re-energize their bodies to achieve and exceed their physical and personal goals of happiness, confidence and success. She is also a global speaker and internationally best-selling author of The Skin Whisperer: A Dermatologist Reveals How to Look Younger, Radiate Beauty and Live the Life You Crave.