Breakouts: Could Sugar and Dairy be the Culprits?

+ Rebecca

In a former post, I talked about how changes in my diet helped clear up my skin. I’ve long struggled with acne, and I know that food can definitely impact how many breakouts I have.

It used to be that dermatologists gave little credence to the diet-acne link, but new studies are changing that. There’s one particular one that came out in 2012 that I find really interesting. It reports that in populations of people who consume a Paleo type diet without refined sugars, milk, or dairy products, and who have a low glycemic load in general, acne is non-existent.

Can we adopt dietary habits that clear up our skin? You bet!

Researchers Link Diet with Acne

It started with a 2002 study. Researchers reported that in Western societies, acne effects between 79 and 95 percent of teens, and 40 to 54 percent of men and women older than 25 years. Yet when they looked at two nonwesternized populations in New Guinea and Paraguay, out of 1,200 participants from New Guinea and 115 from Paraguay, they found no cases of active acne.

Then, in 2007, researchers looked at low glycemic-load diets compared with high-glycemic load diets. High-glycemic foods break down quickly in the body and spike insulin levels, increasing inflammation and encouraging the formation of acne. Sure enough-the participants who ate the low-glycemic diet experienced fewer acne breakouts.

A later 2012 study found similar results. Patients who had mild to moderate acne were put on a low glycemic diet or a control group diet for ten weeks. Those on the low glycemic diet experienced significant improvement in inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne. An examination of their skin samples also showed that they had reduced the size of their oil glands and decreased inflammation.

Other studies have found a link between consuming certain types of dairy products and experiencing increased breakouts, as well. What is it about dairy and high-glycemic foods that encourages acne?

This latest study may have found the answer.

Some Foods Overactivate Nutrient Sensor

The key may be a nutrient sensor called “mTORC1.” Short for “mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1,” it activates functions in your body, including inflammation and sebum (skin oil) production. We need it, but like many things, if it becomes overactive, it can lead to problems.

What causes mTORC1 to become overactive? High-energy foods like those with a high glycemic index, dairy foods, and high-sugar foods. In other words, inflammatory foods.

Scientists note that overactivation of mTORC1 can increase risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer. This recent study shows that it may be driving acne, too.

“Acne should be regarded as an mTORC1-driven disease of civilization,” researchers wrote, “like obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer induced by Western diet.” In other words, if you have acne, it could be a signal that something else is going on in the body-something that also increases your risk of modern-day diseases.

How to Clear Up Your Skin

So based on this information, we can guess that if we choose to eat a healthier diet on a regular basis, our skin will clear up. Some people who cut out dairy foods, however, still have acne. Why?

It’s not always so clear-cut. Naturopathic doctor Lara Briden notes that certain proteins in Holstein cow’s milk may cause inflammation in some people, but not all. Meanwhile, milk from goats, sheep, and Jersey cows may not have the same effect, and may be perfectly safe for those with acne to consume.

If you suffer from acne and would like to try dietary changes, I’ve got some tips here to get your started. (You can find more on my previous post.) The important thing is to not give up. You may yet find the answer to your acne in what’s on your plate.

  1. Cut back on sugar: Refined sugar is the key. Try to set little goals, like having one less soda pop a day, or one less cookie or pastry.
  2. Eat more low-glycemic foods: Think about foods that burn slowly in your body and are less likely to spike hormone levels. Harvard University provides this handy chart showing you the glycemic index for over 100 foods.
  3. Eat more whole foods: Go for real fruits and vegetables. It works every time.
  4. Cut back on dairy: If you don’t want to give up your morning milk on your cereal, look for organic milk that comes from Jersey cows, or give goat’s milk or almond milk a try.
  5. Boost your zinc intake: Several studies have shown that zinc deficiency is linked with acne. Add more oysters, wheat germ, cooked spinach, lamb, pumpkin and squash seeds, cashews, cocoa, beans, and mushrooms to your diet. If your breakouts are really bad, consider taking a zinc supplement, but don’t go over 25 mg a day, and take it only for a few weeks.
  6. Manage your stress: We now know that stress boosts hormones, which can increase inflammation. Find something that reduces your stress and do it every day!
  7. Try herbs: Some herbs are natural anti-inflammatories and may help clear up your skin. Try turmeric, ginger, boswellin, ginger, and rosemary. (Add to your foods and/or teas or take as supplements.) Briden also suggests goldenseal, barberry, and philodendron as they help support the digestive system.

Have you noticed a connection between your diet and your acne? Please share your thoughts.

Bodo C. Melnik, “Diet in Acne: Further Evidence for the Role of Nutrient Signaling in Acne Pathogenesis,” Acta Derm Venereol, 2012; 92(3):228-31,

Cordain L, Lindeberg S, Hurtado M, Hill K, Eaton SB, Brand-Miller J. Acne vulgaris. A disease of Western civilization. Arch Dermatol 2002; 138: 1584–1590,

Smith RN, et al., “The effect of a high-protein, low-glycemic load diet versus a conventional, high glycemic load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris: a randomized, investigator-masked, controlled trial,” J Am Acad Dermatol., August 2007; 57(2):247-56,

Kwon HH, et al., “Clinical and histological effect of a low glycaemic load diet in treatment of acne vulgaris in Korean patients: a randomized, controlled trial,” Acta Derm Venereol., May 2012; 92(3):241-6,

Lara Briden, “Insight Into Acne. Dairy, Sugar, and mTOR,”, April 22, 2014,</p>

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