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Can Foods Make You Break Out?

The links between your diet and your skin may surprise you.
By Eric Metcalf, MPH
WebMD Feature

By now, it’s common knowledge that certain nutrients help specific body parts work better. Healthy bones require calcium and vitamin D. Our hearts may do better when we eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. And for healthy skin we should eat, well, hmmm, that’s a good question.

If you’re not sure which foods are good for your skin and which ones are harmful, you’re certainly not alone. Little research has shown a connection between particular foods and skin health, says Cheryl Karcher, MD, a New York dermatologist who worked as a nutritionist before she became a doctor. And a lot of the “common  knowledge” that people pass around about eating and skin health is based on individual people’s cases, she says.

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Still, “the skin is a reflection of your total body health,” says Karcher, who is a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology. A nutritious diet that keeps your inside healthy will help keep your outward appearance looking good. On the other hand, a poor diet will show up on your skin.

Several experts whose expertise straddles both nutrition and dermatology are here to tell you which foods may support smooth, healthy skin, and which foods are more likely to lead to rashes, blemishes, and breakouts.

The Blood Sugar Connection

For the first part of her career, Valori Treloar, MD, worked with patients like a typical skin doctor. But over time, she grew tired of the few options that she could use on hard-to-treat cases, as well as the serious side effects that some could cause. 

So the Massachusetts doctor became a certified nutrition specialist and now promotes diet fixes to her patients along with medicine.

Several studies from 40 years ago “proved” that diet doesn’t cause acne, Treloar says, and this thinking became a widely held belief in medicine. “All through medical school and through my dermatology training, I was taught, ‘Don’t worry about what your patient eats, it’s not relevant to their acne,’” Treloar tells WebMD.

But in recent years, some research has supported new thinking.

A good way to improve the health of your skin is to eat in a manner that keeps your blood sugar steady, she tells WebMD. Some foods make your blood sugar quickly soar. This triggers your body to make a burst of the hormone insulin to help your cells absorb the sugar.

If throughout the day you’re “eating a cookie, you’re eating a granola bar, and you’re drinking a sweetened beverage, you’re pushing your blood sugar up high and fast, and you’re going to have more insulin circulating in your bloodstream,” says Treloar, who co-authored The Clear Skin Diet.

Some research suggests that insulin may play a role in acne. In a 2007 study, researchers explored a possible link. The study included 43 teenage boys and young men with acne. For three months, some ate a diet including foods with a low glycemic load (which is a measure of how foods affect people’s blood sugar), and others ate a carbohydrate-heavy diet without being concerned about their glycemic index. Those who ate the special low glycemic load diet had more improvement in their acne. 

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