The REAL Clear Skin Diet
Updated: Jul 8
If you’re thinking about trying an acne diet meal plan or learning about acne dietary causes, keep reading because I’m an Acne Nutritionist (and creator of the Clear Skin Library and Clear Skin Diet Course) and I’m here to set the record straight.
Despite what you might have read on the internet, acne diet triggers might not be the foods you think. There are two ways to look at a clear skin diet: one perspective is limitation (i.e., what foods to avoid for acne?) and the other is nourishment (i.e., what foods to EAT for acne? What are acne clearing foods or foods for clear skin?). In this post, I’ll be going over both perspectives and you may be surprised at what the research on this actually says! (PS, I personally think eating to get rid of acne should be fun, so I tend to put more focus on the latter- you’ll see this in the Clear Skin Diet Course!).
First let’s dive into what foods are bad for acne prone skin. Based on the research we have, studies show over and over again that there are 2 main foods/food groups that are troublesome for acne prone people. One food group is hyperglycemic carbohydrates. This is a group of carbohydrates that is quickly & easily digested by your body and cause a sharp increase in blood sugar. Some examples of high glycemic carbohydrates are sugar, sodas, sweetened teas, candies, donuts, cookies, cake and processed junk foods. This, most of us know. The second food group is a bit more nuanced, and that’s dairy. Do you really need to cut out dairy to get rid of your acne? What we do know, based on the research we have, is that milk seems to be the biggest offender for acne prone skin1. More specific than that is skim milk. Based on this, in my practice, unless a client knows or suspects they don’t respond well to other types of dairy (they get sinus reactions, digestive troubles, etc), I typically only have my clients steer clear of milk/skim milk products and make sure they are eating good quality dairy only, if eating dairy at all. (PS in my opinion, “good quality” dairy means plain cheese or yogurt from good sources- a local farm vs Kraft slices, for example). The third and final biggest offending food group for acne prone skin is trans fats and saturated fats. We don’t typically see trans fats in the diet anymore since they’ve been banned. However, saturated fats are abundant in our food system and particularly in our Western diet. Now remember, saturated fats aren’t bad- we need a certain amount of them for really important body functions like making hormones, sending brain signals, nourishing joints and keeping our skin adequately hydrated. However, some people may be more sensitive to even smaller amounts of saturated fats and it might cause acne for them. Saturated fats are in many foods- nuts like pistachios and cashews, fatty fish, egg yolks, coconut products, red meats, processed foods (particularly baked goods), butter, cheese, chocolate & chocolate products. The trick with this one isn’t to avoid saturated fats entirely, but to pick food sources that have an overall good balance of saturated fats & anti-inflammatory unsaturated fats. My favorite foods to recommend for this are things like almonds, walnuts and salmon 1.
Now, let’s move onto “What do you eat for clear skin”? Here’s the part that I think may surprise you a bit. Although research does emphasize certain acne clearing foods, it really seems like the overall dietary pattern is way more important in an acne healing diet. What do I mean by this? A major comprehensive study on the acne diet highlighted ECGC (a very powerful antioxidant found in green tea) and resveratrol (another high powered antioxidant typically found in red wine, red grapes, etc)- but throwing back 17 glasses of green tea and wine or cups of grapes for a few days isn’t gonna heal your acne. You would want to be consistently finding ways to incorporate things like green tea and red grapes into your diet often (daily is preferred) and being able to maintain that for the long term. Some clear skin diet patterns supported by research include the Mediterranean Diet, a paleolithic-ISH* diet (more on that in a minute) and a very high antioxidant diet (including curcumin, resveratrol, genistein and silymarin1 and foods that boost glutathione 3,4. Including 1-2 servings of fermented or probiotic foods may also be really helpful for the acne prone, since they promote the growth of anti-inflammatory bacteria in the gut 2.
Before you go running to the grocery store swearing loyalty to a strict paleo-diet, I want to be very clear that although the studies call this type of eating “paleolithic”, that’s actually not quite the right term. This is because the diets named in the studies still included carbohydrates, but primarily low glycemic carbs like quinoa, beans, starchy veggies with skin on, fruits, etc. Other studies we have on the relationship between gut health and acne show that these types of carbohydrates are actually vital for the growth & preservation of our most protective, anti-inflammatory gut bugs that are tasked with sending the right signals to our skin (and keeping our skin happy & clear) 2.
So after all that being said, here’s exactly what you need in your diet to follow a true acne cure diet plan:
VERY HIGH antioxidants. Some of my favorite foods to recommend getting DAILY servings are: berries of any kind, tons of colorful vegetables and green tea.
Get 1-2 servings of fermented/probiotic foods daily!
HIGH FIBER diet. Having the goal of getting enough fiber in mind might be easier to help you navigate than saying “I can only et low glycemic index carbs”, because it’s more than that. Getting in enough fiber helps support the right balance of bacteria in the gut so that doesn’t mess with your skin AND helps control your blood sugar AND helps reduce inflammation AND helps the body detox better. So it’s a win-win-win-win situation. My favorite high fiber diet for acne include: beans and lentils, quinoa & plantains.
BETTER BALANCED FATS. Remember, this isn’t saying avoid saturated fats, but make sure you’re getting MORE unsaturated fats (of the omega-3 variety preferably) than saturated fats. If you’re sensitive to saturated fats then you may need to watch your intake- I have clients who can only have 15g saturated fats per day- but I wouldn’t go any lower than that. Try to get most of your fat intake from foods like avocados, whole eggs, almonds & walnuts..
If you’re looking for a more structured version of this information I've got two options for ya!
The Clear Skin Library is a recipe database with 45+ breakfast, lunch, dinner & snack recipes and example meal plans, acne tracking tools, educational courses and more! Basically it's a monthly subscription to your one-stop shop of all the acne healing tools you need.
The Clear Skin Diet Course is a super in-depth self paced course that walks you through how to eat your way to clear skin step by step. It comes with example meal plans, bonus educational content and is absolutely PERFECT for someone who wants to lower inflammation & heal their acne through food.
Melnik BC. Linking diet to acne metabolomics, inflammation, and comedogenesis: an update. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Jul 15;8:371-88. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S69135. PMID: 26203267; PMCID: PMC4507494. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4507494/
Yan HM, Zhao HJ, Guo DY, Zhu PQ, Zhang CL, Jiang W. Gut microbiota alterations in moderate to severe acne vulgaris patients. J Dermatol. 2018 Oct;45(10):1166-1171. doi: 10.1111/1346-8138.14586. Epub 2018 Aug 13. PMID: 30101990. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30101990/
Arican O, Kurutas EB, Sasmaz S. Oxidative stress in patients with acne vulgaris. Mediators Inflamm. 2005 Dec 14;2005(6):380-4. doi: 10.1155/MI.2005.380. PMID: 16489259; PMCID: PMC1533901. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1533901/
Ikeno H, Tochio T, Tanaka H, Nakata S. Decrease in glutathione may be involved in pathogenesis of acne vulgaris. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2011 Sep;10(3):240-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2165.2011.00570.x. PMID: 21896138. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21896138/