THIS Diet Finally Cleared My Cystic Acne — When Nothing Else Worked

mbg Contributor By Nina Nelson
mbg Contributor
Nina Nelson is an actress, YouTuber, and co-author of The Clear Skin Diet.
THIS Diet Finally Cleared My Cystic Acne — When Nothing Else Worked

Photo by Alberto Bogo

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In 2014 I was a 20-year-old girl with a burgeoning career in the entertainment industry. So why was I struggling with suicidal depression? The answer was written all over my face.

Three years earlier my twin sister, Randa, and I had been "discovered" while standing in line for a screening. We’d struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be the head of a big talent agency. We signed with him that week and began working regularly in commercials, TV shows, print ads, even music videos—our first was with Justin Bieber.

But at age 20, sudden cystic acne breakouts brought our acting careers to a screeching halt—we even feared our agent was going to drop us. The acne destroyed our self-confidence, turning us into hermits. We consulted with dermatologists and other experts, tried a variety of medicines and treatments, but nothing worked for long. Our acne always came back with a vengeance. All the doctors said the same thing: "Accutane!" But we were reluctant. Several people we know had had bad reactions to the drug. A close friend of ours believed Accutane was responsible for her colitis. She'd had to drop out of college to regain her health.

While desperately trying to find information about acne, we discovered there are cultures of people in the world who never get acne. These lucky people lived in places like Okinawa, Japan; Papua New Guinea; Eastern Paraguay; and certain parts of Africa. They were virtually acne-free zones. The research we read indicated that what these disparate cultures had in common were low-fat, unprocessed, starch-based, plant-centered diets. We had been raised on a healthy vegan diet. We grew up on peanut butter sandwiches, adored avocados, and are crazy about hummus. But what worked for us as children wasn’t mixing well with our young adult hormones. The research about lowering fat intake and eating largely unprocessed was very intriguing to us, so we decided to switch up our game. What did we have to lose?

Within three days of our new regime, we’d had no new breakouts. In six weeks, our acne had receded dramatically, and our skin was actually clearing. As our acne disappeared, our acting careers resumed. We were working regularly again, which was fantastic. Clearing our skin and recovering our self-esteem meant we could get our lives back. The diet allowed us to take control.

Here’s what we did to tame our severe acne:

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1. We ate only plant-based foods—no animal products.

We focused on whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. We learned to rely on the power of sweet potatoes and yams, which are loaded with skin-affirming vitamin A (and they taste fantastic too!).

2. Unrefined starches became the cornerstone of our diet.

Starches are low in fat, low in calories, and high in satiation (meaning they will make you feel full and satisfied). Mashed potatoes and brown gravy—we make a vegetable-based broth—are my comfort foods. Who wouldn’t feel better sitting down with a big warm bowl of creamy mashed potatoes slathered with delicious gravy? I feel good just thinking about it!

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3. We avoided all oils.

While not all doctors would agree with this advice, for us, cutting them out made a huge difference. My skin quickly stopped feeling so greasy. Plus, cooking fat-free is actually fun. You can sauté with water or broth and bake with applesauce.

4. We avoided high-fat plant foods.

Nuts, nut butters (like peanut butter), seeds, olives, coconuts, avocados—these foods get between 70 and 95 percent of their calories from fat. My skin personally didn't do well with all that fat.

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5. We ate only whole foods.

On our skin-healing diet, we focused on whole foods, food as grown, and minimally processed foods. We avoided refined foods like white rice, white flour, white bread, cakes, cookies, potato chips, etc. When I wanted a crispy snack, I ate a crunchy fruit or vegetable instead of greasy chips.

6. We ate simply; variety was not important. Repetition can promote long-term success.

When I find a meal I like, I eat it over and over again! If I enjoy it, I know I can stick with it. I actually love rice and beans. Really! I not only COULD eat them every day, but I actually DO. But even though I might eat rice and beans each day, there’s still variety. I vary the type of beans cooked—one day might be lentils, another black or pinto beans, cannellini or limas. Of course, there are also many different types of rice—basmati, jasmine, long grain, and short grain. Even when you are eating the "same thing," it’s still different. Keeping the base the same makes it easier to cook everything, prevents decision fatigue, and ups the chances of success.

After my skin had been clear for a while, it seemed like I was onto something, so I wrote The Clear Skin Diet with my sister to help other people suffering in the same way. I would have never thought that a devastating skin breakout would lead to being able to help people also suffering with debilitating acne. What looked like a curse actually ended up being a blessing.

And here are some topical products to help treat cystic acne.

And are you ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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