As a person struggling with adult acne, I’ve been searching for healthy recipes because obviously, I have to stick to a very strict and healthy hormonal acne diet. But almost every time I come across a “healthy” recipe, especially on Pinterest, I wonder: “in what way is that healthy?”.
Short explanation: hormonal acne doesn’t mean you are not healthy! It turns out that healthy women can have hormonal acne too. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your levels of male hormones are high, it just means that your sensitive skin reacts with excessive sebum production and inflammation to your normal level of hormones. If your menstrual cycle is regular and normal, most likely you don’t need to alter your level of hormones just to treat acne, you need to treat your skin! Make it less inflamed and more resistant to bad bacteria. To make it less inflamed, it has to produce less sebum. Hormonal acne diet and proper beauty products can help with this.
Now let’s return to those “healthy” recipes I often see on Pinterest. People put a lot of olive or other types of oil, cheese, sour cream, bananas, chocolate, peanut butter, honey, maple syrup, pasta, bread, mayonnaise, coconut milk, etc. in their meals and claim it’s healthy. If it’s healthy, it has to benefit your health, not cause inflammation, insulin resistance, hormonal imbalance, weight gain, etc. If you’re lucky to have good genetics, you won’t notice the changes such a “healthy” diet causes in your body at least while you’re young. Less lucky people, like people suffering from adult acne, can see how such food influences their body, skin in particular, almost immediately after they consume it.
Lately I’ve been searching for information that could explain to me why certain foods lead to more acne breakouts on my skin and here is what I’ve found. Please note that I am not a medical practitioner and even medical practitioners can’t explain some connections between acne breakouts and certain foods yet. Acne is a chronic disease, it can appear at any age and it can be triggered by a variety of factors. Food you eat is one of them. The information below is presented for informational purposes only. I don’t claim that sticking to the hormonal acne diet solely without other treatments will clear your skin but it may improve your skin condition. So, let’s find out why “healthy” recipes we often see on Pinterest are actually not that healthy, at least for people with acne-prone skin.
Hormonal acne diet vs “healthy” recipes on Pinterest
…or what is wrong with those “healthy” recipes?
Excessive dairy consumption
Many years ago, at the dawn of modern civilizations, humanity didn’t have enough nutritional options. They didn’t have the knowledge and tools required to grow crops, so they relied on gathering what they could find in wild nature, meat, and then someone somehow thought that animal milk could be used as food suitable for people. Having not so many options, the idea seemed great. Farming started thriving and people created yogurt, kefir, cheese, cottage cheese, butter, cream, sour cream, etc. Dairy products became available for many. Then people learned to add sugar and flavors to dairy products and to put dairy products in bakery and sweets, so now we have milk chocolate, ice cream, pancakes, buns, cookies, cakes, whipped cream, etc.
Nowadays many people don’t even realize how much dairy they consume every day. We drink coffee with milk/cream in the morning, we may also eat a bun or a cookie (many recipes include dairy) , or a slice of bread with cream cheese and salmon, then we eat burgers (bun + cheese), then we also like pizza with cheese of course…Stuffed crust? Yes, please, more cheese. Okay, then I personally also like cream sauce, cheesecake, tiramisu, red velvet, milk chocolate…please stop me.
So how much dairy do you eat per day? If it doesn’t show on your face or body – then great, congrats, you have good genetics. However, adult acne can appear at any age. Mine started when I was 24.
What’s the problem with dairy? – you would ask. I didn’t understand it either because I am not lactose intolerant. Apparently, lactose intolerance may not be the biggest problem. Dairy products increase insulin (anabolic hormone) levels a lot and insulin triggers production of other hormones (for example, androgens) in some women. Your skin may be very sensitive to hormones even if their levels are okay (it may be genetic sensitivity, for example) but when your level of insulin is constantly high, even normal skin may become sensitive and inflamed. Insulin index is what you need to assess whether some foods can trigger an acne breakout on your skin. Insulin index shows how much insulin is released after you consume certain foods. Read more about insulin index here.
Casein and whey proteins, contained in dairy, spike insulin dramatically. For example, some sources claim that the insulin index of cottage cheese per 100 grams is more than 120 unlike its glycemic index which is around 30. Just compare, the insulin index of a chocolate bar like Mars is 122. It turns out that eating cottage cheese is not better than eating sweets which are forbidden for people with acne.
As I have learned when researching this topic, the more fat and the less protein dairy products contain, the better it may be for your skin. For example, Mascarpone cheese used for Tiramisu contains a small amount of protein and a large amount of fat which, apparently, may be better for people with acne-prone skin than, for example, Philadelphia cheese, which contains more protein and less fat. I haven’t found any scientific evidence that supports or dismisses this claim, it’s just a conclusion I have come to. Note that the amount of saturated fat in Mascarpone is also large which may be not so good for acne-prone skin either.
Some sources also assume that the hormonal imbalance is caused by hormones present in dairy (animals produce milk to feed their babies, so it’s full of hormones).
Now let’s return to the glycemic index which is a very popular tool nowadays. Having researched a lot of information on acne, its possible causes and treatment options, I think that the glycemic index shouldn’t be paid much attention to when choosing foods for your hormonal acne diet as it’s too outdated. The insulin index is what you should refer to instead.
So, can dairy lead to insulin resistance? It seems so. By the way, insulin resistance is linked not only to acne but also to prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome to name a few. If you can’t eliminate dairy from your diet, at least try to control the amount of dairy you consume.
Excessive sugar consumption
Before acne, I used to consume at least ½ or one full chocolate a day. I mean a 100 g one chocolate, not a small bar. I thought that as I was not overweight (and I’m still not, I am underweight), I can’t have diabetes. Did I know anything about insulin resistance? No. I also didn’t know that blood sugar spikes lead to production of more androgens such as testosterone which triggers or worsens acne because testosterone increases sebum production. Does it mean that women don’t need testosterone? No, it’s an important hormone for a woman’s body but it should not be in excess. When we eat too much sugar (honey, cane syrup, maple syrup, brown sugar – all more or less the same, see my article on health), our skin produces more sebum and becomes inflamed. This is how I understand it and what I see on my face.
So, consuming added sugar, especially in combination with dairy products (for example: ice cream, milkshake, yogurt with sugar) or with white flour (cookies, cakes, muffins, etc.) worsens your skin condition if you have acne or oily skin. Let alone the hormonal imbalance such food causes and the severe effects it may lead to (like obesity and polycystic ovary syndrome).
Don’t forget that we not only eat added sugar, we also drink added sugar! Coffee with syrups, cocktails, milkshakes, canned beverages mostly contain large or even excessive amounts of sugar.
When I started researching what causes acne and how to treat it and found out that I couldn’t eat added sugar anymore, my first reaction was denial. I was like: “but I need sugar for proper functioning, don’t I?” Yeah, it turns out I don’t (please note that I don’t have diabetes or any other severe condition or chronic illness. I am aware that some people need to take glucose because of diabetes). Added sugar is a man-made thing, it’s unnatural to add it to almost everything. Human body generates the glucose it needs for functioning from carbohydrates.
Consumption of food high in insulin index
Insulin index is what you should refer to instead of the glycemic index if you have acne. You may use both for making more informed choices. So, as you already know, dairy products, especially low-fat options have a high insulin index which means that when we consume dairy, a lot of insulin is produced, androgens are produced and this spike in hormones makes our skin produce more sebum – more inflammation on our skin if it’s acne-prone. But what exactly is on the list of foods people with acne should avoid? – was one of my first questions when I started researching the topic. If I can’t eat added sugar, can I still eat natural sugar like that in fruits? It turns out not all fruits are good for people with acne-prone skin. For example, bananas and grapes should be avoided if your acne is moderate or severe or eaten in moderation if you have mild acne. Pay attention to changes in your skin condition after you’ve eaten a banana or grapes. Mixing bananas with milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese or eating desserts with bananas and chocolate (and sometimes even peanut butter) is a bad idea if you struggle with adult acne.
There is a number of other foods high in insulin index that should be avoided by people with acne. For example, all foods made of white flour. Do you like white bread? What about a crispy toast? Forget about it. No toast, no jam, no butter, no Nutella, unfortunately, if you have adult acne. I know this feeling when it seems that everyone else around can eat whatever they want as much as they want and never have a pimple. It’s very unfair but clear skin is worth it. Moreover, acne is not a life sentence anymore. Nowadays, there are numerous beauty products that can help you get rid of acne. After that you’ll be able to eat your favorite food like sweets or white bread in moderation.
Acne is a chronic condition usually, which means that it may come back at any age but wise and moderate consumption of your favorite and maybe not very healthy food sometimes will help you stick to a generally healthy diet for clear skin.
Obsession with drinking fresh juice
Due to advertisements, I’ve always thought that drinking fresh juice is very healthy. The best way to start your day is a glass of fresh juice – everyone was advising in my childhood. Now it turns out you shouldn’t take that advice. Apparently, drinking a glass of fresh juice is equal to eating several fruits at once (for example, one glass of orange juice equals approximately 3 full oranges). But when we eat those 3 oranges instead of drinking only the juice, first of all, it takes more time. Secondly, with oranges we also consume the fiber in it which doesn’t let your blood sugar level spike too fast. When our blood sugar rises, insulin is released and you already know how it works for our skin. Surprisingly, drinking a lot of fresh fruit juices is also linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Drinking too much coffee
Although there’s no significant evidence that it is true, some sources, including professional skin care companies, suggest cutting down on coffee consumption if you have acne because cortisol – a stress hormone released in your body after drinking coffee, causes increased sebum production. Sebum clogs pores and leads to acne breakouts. If your general level of stress throughout the day is high, cut down on coffee because it adds to it.
Eating a lot of saturated fats and trans fats
Red and fatty meat, bacon, sausages, cheese, butter, cream, sour cream, palm oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, cakes, pastry, fast food, peanut butter, etc. include a lot of saturated fat.
Saturated fats should be consumed in moderation not only because they worsen insulin-resistance but also because they increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Consuming not enough of dietary fiber
Before I had acne, I consumed a lot of added sugar (much more than 30 grams per day) and not enough fiber. We know that added sugar is bad because of the insulin spike and because of triggering androgens production and increase in sebum production due to it but it’s not only that. Added sugar is bad for gut health. Our good bacteria in the gut don’t like added sugar, they like fiber! Eating too much sugar can cause dysbiosis (disruption in gut microbiota) which is believed to be another possible cause of acne. Besides acne, symptoms of dysbiosis include constipation or diarrhea, bloating, gas, irritable bowel syndrome, immune system problems, food allergies, etc.
Our good gut bacteria need fiber for survival. So, here is another reason why it’s better to consume full vegetables and fruits instead of drinking fresh juices.
A good gluten-free and sugar-free source of dietary fiber are whole psyllium husks. Put several tea spoons of whole psyllium husks in a cup, add 300 milliliters of room temperature water, stir it and drink the liquid immediately (because it becomes glue-like within minutes) approximately an hour after dinner.
General tips to get rid of hormonal acne
- Avoid dairy products, especially low-fat high-protein options
- Avoid whey and casein protein powder and protein bars
- Avoid consuming sugar, honey, any syrups; maltitol can be used in moderation only; xylitol, erythritol are quite safe but can cause some digestive problems (bloating, gas, diarrhea) if used in excess; stevia appears to be the safest sweetener
- Avoid drinking too much fresh fruit juice
- Avoid foods and drinks high in insulin index (at least while undergoing skin treatment): white bread, granola, bananas, potatoes, grapes, limoncello, etc.
- Eat more simple food: without sauces, honey, coconut milk in recipes
- Drink less coffee
- Eat less saturated fats
- Drink more water and green tea (green tea reduces inflammation)
- Eat more vegetables and fruit
- Make sure you consume foods rich in vitamins A, E, C, D3; omega-3, zinc, magnesium
- Take prebiotics and probiotics (consult with your doctor)
- Consume whole psyllium husks
- Eat bigger portions but less often so that your insulin level has enough time to decrease
These simple rules together with the right skin care routine can help you improve your skin condition if you’re struggling with acne. Remember that the journey to clear skin takes a lot of time. It took me half a year, a lot of research, sticking to a really healthy diet, and trying many different beauty products to see a significant improvement in my skin condition. See my favorite skin care products for acne treatment in Best Acne Treatment Products and make sure you avoid 24 Common Mistakes in Acne Treatment.
I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs throughout this half a year. I had clear skin weeks when I used antibiotics and usual acne breakouts after I stopped using them. Now I don’t use antibiotics because the amazing results they give are only short-term, while the long-term effects (killed good bacteria on my skin and in my gut which affects the immune system and skin condition) are frightening and can’t solve my skin problems. I’ve achieved significant results thanks to my home skin care routine + hormonal acne diet. Maybe it won’t work for people who have demodicosis or a polycystic ovary syndrome. So, instead of trying to cure acne on your own, take tests to rule out other diseases and parasites as possible causes of your acne.
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