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Acne and Diet Link Revived, New Study

Acne and diet

The relationship between acne and diet has had its ups and down over the years. Now the results of a new investigation suggest the link has been revived, which could mean a shift in how this common skin condition is treated.

Acne treatment may change

One of the challenges of being an adolescent is coping with acne. Approximately 80 percent of young people develop this skin disorder, although adults are not immune to the appearance of pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and nodules that can appear on the face, back, chest, neck, and shoulders.

Belief in a relationship between diet and acne was strong for many years before the 1960s, with experts urging teens to stop eating chocolate and French fries. Then research shifted away from a dietary component in acne, but the trend may be back.

A review of the literature between 1960 and 2012 on diet and acne has indicated that what people eat has a significant role in acne. According to Jennifer Burris, MS, RD, of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University, “dermatologists and registered dietitians have revisited the diet-acne relationship and become increasingly interested in the role of medical nutritional therapy in acne treatment.”

Medical nutritional therapy is more than telling people to eat better. This treatment approach involves having a registered dietitian conduct a comprehensive nutrition assessment, establish a nutrition plan for patients, counsel individuals on lifestyle and behavioral changes, and monitor and evaluate patients’ progress.

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The literature review revealed that dairy foods and foods with a high glycemic load seem to be especially associated with acne. Glycemic load is a value assigned to a food that indicates how much it will raise the person’s blood glucose levels. The higher the value, the more it will raise glucose levels. Foods with a high glycemic load usually (but not always) also have a high glycemic index.

Foods that have a high glycemic load and a high glycemic index include white rice, pasta, most snack foods, baked goods, pancakes, breakfast cereals, and potatoes. However, a food like white popcorn, which has a high glycemic index, has a low glycemic load.

Acne research over the past decade has indicated that while dietary choices do not cause acne, they may have an impact on it. The cause of acne is an overproduction of oil (sebum) from sebaceous glands, which, along with dead skin cells, clogs up hair follicles connected to the glands. Bacteria can then settle and cause inflammation.

Hormones have a significant role in acne in both young people and adults. In adolescents in particular, rising androgen levels cause the sebaceous gland to become larger and produce more oil.

What this acne and diet review means
The results of this acne and diet review direct attention to the influence food choices can have on this common dermatologic problem. Burris noted that medical professionals “should not dismiss the possibility of diet therapy” as part of a treatment plan for people with acne, and that “the best approach is to address each acne patient individually, carefully considering the possibility of dietary counseling.”

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Burris J et al. Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2013; 113(3): 416

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