News flash: refined carbs are linked to acne!
Scientists have found that people who eat lots of highly refined carbs are more likely to get acne. Our modern western diet is loaded with highly refined carbs: cookies, chips, white bread, crackers, cereals, donuts, candy bars, pasta, pizza etc. This means acne should be common, and it is.
It’s high glycemic index foods that are linked to acne. Highly refined carbs have a high glycemic index. Cut down on high glycemic foods and your acne should improve. To understand this, you need to know:
- what the ‘glycemic index’ is,
- how the glycemic index differs from carbohydrates,
- what effect high glycemic foods have on your body’s insulin levels and why that matters (yes this is a lot of science, but it’s important for understanding the carb/acne connection).
In simple terms, the glycemic index measures a foods ability to quickly increase your blood sugar, which in turn tells your body to make insulin:
- Foods with a higher glycemic index number increase your blood sugar faster than foods with the same amount of carbohydrates but a lower glycemic index number.
- Refined carbohydrate foods have a higher glycemic index number than complex/non-refined carbohydrate foods and raise your blood sugar faster (because you digest them faster). For example, white flour bread raises your blood sugar faster than whole grain bread, the same is true for white rice versus brown rice. Fruit juice raises your blood sugar faster than a piece of fruit.
- When your blood sugar rises fast your body responds by producing a lot of insulin, which lowers your blood sugar by sending the sugar into your cells for storage. It’s this high blood sugar/ high insulin situation that’s linked to acne!
When your body has to produce tons of insulin because you ate tons of refined carbs (white flour, sugary foods etc.) then complex things happen with your hormones-including hormones that affect your pores. These hormones are your androgens, (like testosterone), and ‘insulin-like growth factor’. They cause your pores to make blackheads and secrete more oil. They even change what’s in your skin oil, making it more ‘pimple forming’. Basically, eating refined carbs causes your hormones to go crazy, your pores go crazy and you get zits.
Frankly, it’s an amazing example of how complex the body is. Who but a scientist could unravel the connection between you eating a douhnut, increasing testosterone and a growth factor, the end result of which is your skin forming blackheads and pimples.
The bottom line: modern teens, and many adults, eat a lot of highly refined/ high glycemic load carbs -and this causes acne.
The solution: eat foods with a lower glycemic index value:
- Eat complex carbs like whole grains (whole wheat flour instead of white, brown rice instead of white etc.)
- Choose sweets with honey or agave, which have lower glycemic index values than refined white sugar
- Grab a piece of refreshing fresh fruit, instead of fruit juice and sugary fruit drinks
- Drink water or sparkling mineral water instead of sugary soft drinks
- Fill up on veggies-all day and all that you want, because they have really low glycemic index values
- Eat moderate amounts of healthy protein including fish, lean meats, tofu, eggs and some dairy
Good guidelines include my Alkaline Mediterranean Diet.
To help you convert to a lower glycemic diet, there are web sites that list the glycemic values of foods. For a more step-by-step guide you could use The South Beach Diet, which is easy to follow. I’ve done The South Beach Diet before, and I found it balanced and healthy, so long as I ate a lot of veggies when I was on it. It’s a classic example of a low glycemic diet and the book is an easy read. Lastly, there are apps for your smart phone that give you the glycemic value of foods.
If you’ve been eating a ‘normal’ American diet, then starting to eat more veggies, fruit, lean protein and whole grains will probably help your acne. The added bonus is that these are great foods for your overall health and I’ll bet you feel great too!
So, which snack food should you chose:
Please note that scientists are just beginning to understand the connection between high glycemic foods and acne. I expect we’ll be getting even more recommendations in the coming years.
Reference: Whitney P. Bowe, MD et. al. Diet and Acne, J of the Am Acad Dermatol 2010;63:124-41
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