Throughout the years I’ve written articles about dozens of the most obvious dietary triggers of acne – dairy, sugary foods, and industrial oils, just to name a few – but did you know those seemingly healthy foods, like kale and almonds, can trigger acne, too?
In this article, we’re going to take a look at 7 “healthy” foods and talk about why they’re actually pretty likely to trigger acne in some acne-prone individuals.
1. Coffee (and Tea)
A lot of people that I talk to will make some huge dietary changes to try to beat acne – cut out sugar, dairy, and sometimes even high amounts of carbs. Many even incorporate intermittent fasting for an added boost.
Yet they continue to still get acne – why is this?
In many cases, it comes down not to what they eat, but what they drink, and more often than not, the core problem is coffee (and in fewer cases, tea).
There are many studies (often funded by the caffeine or coffee industry) that find beneficial effects related to coffee and the gut microbiome1https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190519123556.htm, insulin resistance2https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/12/2990#:~:text=Higher%20habitual%20coffee%20consumption%20was,concentrations%20(10%E2%80%9315), and overall health.
Yet after 2 years of running the GoodGlow blog I can definitely say that coffee is by far the most common culprit of dietary-driven acne that I’ve helped people overcome.
In many cases after cutting out coffee, individuals have significant improvements in their skin, even if they switch to tea.
Why is this?
While coffee is generally thought to be a “healthy” food (and in many ways, it is), it’s problematic specifically for acne for a few reasons:
- Caffeine triggers a stress response from the body, which increases cortisol levels. This disrupts digestion and decreases insulin sensitivity, which can lead to hormonal acne
- The phytic acid found in coffee prevents your body from absorbing crucial acne-fighting nutrients, like zinc
- Coffee impairs sleep, which is crucial for overall mental and physical health
- The high acidity of coffee can cause digestive issues in some people
- The diuretic (dehydrating) effects of coffee can lead to the loss of nutrients like potassium and magnesium
- It’s extremely high in oxalates, which can have an inflammatory impact on the body (more on that soon)
- Some coffee is high in mold, which can cause autoimmune issues
So, it begs the question, then why does tea generally work better for acne?
There are a few reasons this may be the case:
- Coffee is considerably more acidic
- Coffee has much more caffeine (and no L-Theanine, a compound found in tea which blunts the stress response of caffeine)
- Tea has more antioxidants
The biggest issue simply seems to be that considerably more people have issues tolerating coffee.
When they drink coffee, their body triggers an inflammatory response – joint pain, itching, an upset stomach, a rash or redness of the skin, or even acne. In individuals that I’ve worked with, this seems to be a silent epidemic – more people than we think, especially those dealing with autoimmune-related issues, like acne, simply can’t tolerate coffee.
A lot of folks want to ignore their body’s natural response to coffee in favor of the plethora of research regarding some of the benefits of coffee. But the truth is, the body doesn’t lie – if coffee gives you these symptoms, try switching to tea (or a caffeine capsule).
2. Raw Kale and Spinach
This one is probably the most surprising on the list – how can raw kale and spinach, of all foods, be breaking you out?
Aren’t they loaded with nutrients?
As I discuss in Unmasking Acne, beating the root causes of acne is not about simply adding nutrient-dense foods to your diet. On the contrary, acne is almost always caused by intolerances or issues that arise from consuming foods that trigger hormonal or inflammatory responses from the body, even in small amounts.
Raw kale and spinach are two foods that fall into this camp.
Because despite looking great on a nutritional label, they are extremely high in two acne-causing anti-nutrients: oxalates and phytates.
In the book, I describe the impact of each on acne:
“Phytic acid is an antinutrient found in grains, legumes, nuts, and other plant-based foods that prevents you from properly absorbing nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, manganese, copper, and magnesium. This is particularly problematic for acne – manganese, magnesium, and especially zinc, are all critical for clear skin.”
In summary, phytic acid prevents your body from being able to absorb nutrients necessary to fight acne.
Oxalates, on the other hand…
“Oxalates are antinutrients that bind to calcium in the blood… One study found that oxalates may be responsible for, “A wide variety of other health problems related to inflammation, auto-immunity, mitochondrial dysfunction, mineral balance, connective tissue integrity, urinary tract issues and poor gut function”[i].
[i] Mercola, J. (2019, November 10). The Damaging Effects of Oxalates on the Human Body. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from Mercola website: https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2019/11/10/oxalic-toxicity.aspx
Oxalates can cause digestive issues (a healthy gut microbiome is crucial for beating acne) and inflammation, two of the root causes of acne.
Raw kale and spinach are extremely high in both oxalates and phytic acid.
What this means for your skin is simple: despite the fact that kale and phytic acid seem like nutritional powerhouses, they can actually be major triggers of acne if you’re not careful.
While some folks are quite to vilify all foods that contain these anti-nutrients, I don’t think that it’s necessary for the vast majority of people to cut these foods out.
Instead, focus on consuming them in moderate amounts and always cook them before consumption.
Cooking plant-based foods in a skin-safe fat, like ghee or avocado oil, is a surefire way to maximize nutrient absorption and minimize antinutrient content.
3. (Most) Dairy-Free Milk
It’s no secret that dairy is an acne-causing nightmare.
The hormones found in dairy (IGF-1) trigger a massive increase in the production of sebum oil, skin cells, and insulin, all of which come together to create the perfect breeding ground for acne.
But what about dairy-free milk alternatives, like soy milk, hemp milk, and oat milk?
While these alternatives may seem like good options (and they are likely better options than dairy, still), they each have some downsides that make them prone to causing acne:
- Hemp and flaxseed milk are extremely high in inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids
- Oat and soy milk are relatively high in carbs, contributing to insulin-driven acne, and also high in lectins and other anti-nutrients that can impair digestion
- Even almond milk is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which in some people can cause inflammatory acne
So, what dairy-free milk alternatives are safe for clear skin?
Macadamia milk and coconut milk top the list for a few reasons:
- They’re both incredibly low in inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids
- They both have very few anti-nutrients or compounds that make them difficult to digest
- They are high in healthy monosaturated fats and low in carbs, making them ideal for avoiding insulin-driven hormonal acne
4. Protein Powder
Alright, so if consumption of sugary foods can lead to insulin-driven acne, and consumption of inflammatory fatty acids leads can lead to inflammatory acne, then protein powder, which contains neither of these things, should be fine, right?
Well, not quite.
There are a few broad camps of protein powders:
- Dairy-based (casein/whey)
- Plant-based (pea, most often)
- Animal-based (collagen/gelatin)
In Unmasking Acne, I break down each of them, and why animal-based protein powder is king:
Due to the fact that whey protein powders contain large amounts of the dairy protein, whey, they should generally be avoided for clear skin as well. Despite not containing lactose or casein A1, whey by itself is enough to trigger symptoms of acne.
- One study found whey protein powder to trigger a larger amount of insulin than white bread
- Another found that whey dramatically increased IGF-1
In addition to this, many whey protein powders contain additives and sugars that can aggravate acne even more.
With regards to plant-based protein:
Most plant-based protein powders contain pea protein. While many people can tolerate it just fine, others have a really challenging time with it.
These plant-based protein powders, and more importantly the ingredients that make them up (cocoa powder, for instance) oftentimes contain the very same anti-nutrients we’re trying to avoid with foods like spinach or coffee: phytic acid and lectins.
On the contrary, animal-based protein powders with no additives sweeteners in the form of collagen or beef protein powder don’t run into these issues.
In my opinion, you always want to optimize your diet for real, whole foods, but animal-based protein powder with few added ingredients is a better choice than dairy-based or plant-based protein powder.
Still, no matter what protein powder you go with, make sure you avoid anything with added sugars or flavors.
5. Brown Rice
By far the most frequent question I get regarding the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint is as follows:
“Why is brown rice lower than white rice? Doesn’t brown rice have a lower glycemic index? Doesn’t it have more nutrients?”
Yet again, this question falls into the fallacy that nutrient-deficiencies are the root cause of acne. This is quite simply not the case.
While brown rice has a marginally lower glycemic index at 68 versus white rice at 73, it’s not significant enough to make a huge impact when it comes to insulin-driven acne. Both white and brown rice should be consumed in moderation for this reason.3https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glycemic-index-and-glycemic-load-for-100-foods
On the contrary, brown rice does contain anti-nutrients that trigger the root causes of acne: namely, lectins.
Much like gluten, the hull or husk of rice, the “brown” part, is difficult to digest. Simply put, plants don’t want to be eaten, and these lectins can damage the gut and increase gut permeability, leading to inflammatory acne every time you eat foods high in certain compounds.
Additionally, brown rice contains phytate, much like raw kale or spinach.
White rice, on the other hand, is considerably easier to digest because the hull is removed. Essentially, white rice is rice without the largest source of anti-nutrients. Now, while white rice may still contribute to insulin-driven acne in certain individuals, it’s generally a safer choice for this reason.
6. Farmed Salmon
Wild-caught salmon tops my list of the best seafood for clear skin.
So what about farmed salmon?
Well, contrary to what you might think, I actually recommend avoiding farmed salmon altogether if it’s your only option.
Because the largest health benefits that come from wild-caught salmon are thrown out the window the minute you start consuming farmed salmon.
Wild-caught and farmed salmon contain a high amount of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are crucial for fighting inflammatory acne and your overall health.
Farmed salmon, however, also contains an extremely high amount of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 is an inflammatory fatty acid, which means it contributes to inflammatory acne and cancels out the beneficial effects of omega-3.
Farmed salmon contains upwards of 1.6g of omega-6 per 3oz serving, whereas wild-caught salmon contains nearly none.
Additionally, farmed salmon oftentimes contains pesticides, coloring agents, and additives, that may be harmful in large amounts. 4https://www.onemedical.com/blog/eat-well/farmed-salmon
Overall, I recommend opting for another fish source (sardines, anchovies, mackerel) or a skin-safe omega-3 supplement if you can only get your hands on farmed salmon.
7. Sweet Potatoes
What? No way – sweet potatoes can give you acne?
Then why do I have them as a “Safe” food on the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint?
Because, like just about every other food, if you overdo sweet potatoes it may be causing more harm than good.
While sweet potatoes are an amazing source of bioavailable vitamin A, a nutrient that is absolutely crucial for beating acne, they are also a high glycemic index food.
What this means is that sweet potatoes trigger a large insulin response from your body. Insulin is a hormone that your body uses to convert sugar in the bloodstream into usable energy. While some insulin is typically not a problem for acne, insulin and the hormones that accompany it (IGF-1, IGFBP-3, and IL-1) in high amounts is pretty problematic:
- IGF-1 and IGFBP-3 blocks pores
- IGF-1 increases oil production
- IL-1 and IGF-1 promotes inflammation
That right there is an acne-causing nightmare, especially considering that upwards of half the American population has something called insulin resistance, a condition in which the body releases excess amounts of insulin.
Furthermore, sweet potatoes, while relatively low in generally problematic anti-nutrients like phytic acid and lectins are high in oxalates.
So, should you just totally avoid sweet potatoes or that sweet potatoes shouldn’t be in the “safe” category?
No, absolutely not – most people can (and should!) enjoy sweet potatoes in moderation.
It’s a crucial lesson in the value of not overdoing it, even if a food “looks” great for clear skin, there’s more to it than just consuming “superfoods”.
Putting it all together
Phew, that was quite the list!
Now, I know what you might be thinking…
“Spinach and salmon are off the table? What can I eat for clear skin? Nothing!?!?”
I want to reiterate that the take-home message of this article is not that you need to avoid these foods at all cost, or even that these are “bad” or “unhealthy” foods, but rather that with almost every food you need to be cognizant and aware of a few things:
- Quality (eg: farmed salmon vs. wild-caught salmon)
- How you and your body react to it
For some people, the foods here won’t be a problem at all, but for others who cleaned up their diet a lot only to find themselves still struggling with acne, these are good places to start.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking for the full, definitive guide to clear skin from within, check out my book Unmasking Acne. It covers all the info in this article in greater depth and a whole lot more.
As always, thank you all for the continued support, and drop any questions you might have in the comments below!