The carnivore diet (also known as “zero-carb”) is by far the most talked-about diet lately and for good reason.
It’s been said to be able to cure autoimmune disorders, lead to effortless weight loss, and even heal, stubborn, cystic acne. So what is the carnivore diet? Well, the diet consists of eating only animal foods, which includes meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood.
Yup, that means you’ll be eating no fruit, no vegetables, no nuts, seeds, or legumes. Just meat.
You can see why this would be controversial. We’ve been told for years that you need to eat at least some vegetables to survive. How else would you get all those vitamins and minerals?
Despite this controversy, hundreds of people who have tried the carnivore diet claim it’s the ultimate cure for severe autoimmune disorders, including depression, leaky gut syndrome, and even arthritis.
With so many people saying the carnivore diet was the magic bullet they needed to overcome countless health problems, could it help clear acne too? In this article, we’re going to take a look at a few things:
- The real root causes of acne (hint: it’s not dirt or bacteria on your face)
- What is the carnivore diet and why it might work for acne?
- A few reasons the carnivore diet might not work for acne
- Should you try the carnivore diet for acne?
- How to use the carnivore diet for acne
What really causes acne?
At the end of the day, acne is a byproduct of your diet and lifestyle.
If you’re healthy on the inside, your skin is going to look great. If you have underlying health issues, then you’re much more likely to get acne.
More and more studies are finding that diet-driven hormones and processes, like insulin and inflammation, are what’s truly behind acne. It’s why I wrote an entire 250-page book on the link between diet and acne, and the dozens of studies over the last several decades that prove this.
You don’t take my word for it, just ask yourself why you still have acne even after using countless cleansers and creams, or why you tend to break out after a sugar binge or greasy meal. Acne is caused below the surface of the skin and treating the symptoms with acne products only damages your skin in the long-run.
If you’re still not convinced, read my article “Why Acne Products Don’t Work” for deeper research.
There are a few main root causes of acne that we know about so far:
- Hormonal acne caused by eating too many carbs or dairy and high levels of androgens (male sex hormones) – leads to clogged pores, excess skin oil, infections, and inflamed pimples
- Inflammatory acne caused by eating unhealthy fats and a damaged gut – turns a bacterial infection into a red, angry pimple
- Chronic stress triggering the release of cortisol (fight or flight hormone) weakens the skin and delays healing
- Not having enough antioxidants to protect the skin makes it easier for acne bacteria to oxidize pores
I’m not going to go into depth here about the root causes of acne, but you can read the linked articles above if you want to learn more about them.
Given that acne is largely caused by your diet, it begs a pretty simple question – does the carnivore diet sidestep the root causes of acne?
Just like every other diet, the answer depends on the person. No single diet is best for everyone, and some people will have different responses to the exact same diet. Everyone is unique and has their own biological quirks that they bring to the table. With that being said, the anecdotal results of the carnivore diet are pretty convincing.
Redditors, bloggers, and carnivore connoisseurs have had amazing success with the carnivore diet. I even had some interesting results with my own 21-day carnivore diet experience. While we don’t have any formal research on the carnivore diet and acne yet, there are several reasons the carnivore diet might be the ultimate diet for preventing and healing acne.
Why does the carnivore diet work for acne?
The carnivore diet can help treat acne in several ways. First, the carnivore diet eliminates almost all foods that trigger autoimmune conditions with the exception of dairy and eggs. Second, the carnivore diet can be extremely rich in acne-fighting nutrients, including vitamin A and zinc. Lastly, the carnivore diet is a low-carb diet, which helps prevent hormonal acne triggered by insulin.
1. The carnivore diet is the ultimate elimination diet
One of the primary goals of the carnivore diet is to eliminate foods that cause autoimmune disorders and symptoms. These autoimmune disorders are usually caused by a few things:
- An unbalanced gut microbiome or leaky gut that allows undigested protein or food to enter the bloodstream, triggering inflammatory acne
- Food intolerances or allergies that are difficult to pin down
- Large hormonal changes due to pregnancy, stress, or general lifestyle changes
Surprise, surprise, the same things that generally cause autoimmune disorders also cause acne by triggering inflammation.
The carnivore diet is that it is essentially the ultimate elimination diet – in one fellow swoop, you get rid of 99% of the foods that could be causing your symptoms. There are people out there who are intolerant, sensitive, or allergic to just about everything, including vegetables. This can be caused by digestive disorders like leaky gut syndrome or SIBO, or simply environmental or genetic factors.
For this small portion of the population, the carnivore diet may be the only diet that really alleviates their autoimmune symptoms, including acne.
For the rest of us that may have a handful of intolerances (gluten, dairy, eggs, and nuts are among the most common), a leaky gut, or an imbalanced gut microbiome, the carnivore diet hypothetically gives the body time to heal from the foods that trigger the worst reactions.
2. The carnivore can be extremely rich in nutrients
Surprisingly, you can get just about every vitamin and nutrient you need from meat, and more specifically, beef, alone. Beef, lamb, and seafood are all great sources of zinc, magnesium, and copper, which are excellent for your skin.
It’s key with the carnivore diet that you eat all forms of meat possible, including vital organs. Yeah, steak tastes great, but you’ll be missing out on fat-soluble vitamins and digestive enzymes that are found in organ meats:
- Liver: Iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin A in retinol form (crucial for acne)
- Pancreas: Digestive enzymes necessary for the absorption of protein & fats (great for the gut, which means it’s great for acne)
- Kidney: Selenium for proper antioxidant functioning (helps prevent against skin oil clogging pores)
These organ meats are all real superfoods. One simple reason your acne may clear up if you try the carnivore diet is that you’re finally eating organ meat. That’s exactly why I recommend eating grass-fed beef liver or taking a grass-fed beef organ supplement even if you’re not on the carnivore diet.
The only major vitamin you may miss out on is vitamin C, which promotes proper antioxidant functioning. Still, vitamin C’s importance for health, especially when on the carnivore diet, seems to be overestimated.
Many pioneers who have tried the carnivore diet and receive bloodwork show no signs of vitamin or mineral deficiencies, despite not eating vegetables.
Furthermore, we have evidence that there are groups of people throughout history who have consumed only meat. The human body is extremely adaptable and will survive just about anything you throw at it in terms of diet.
3. The carnivore diet is low in anti-nutrients
Not only is the carnivore diet rich in healthy skin-clearing nutrients, but it’s also low in foods that prevent nutrients from being properly absorbed. Antinutrients are compounds found in plants that deter animals from eating them. In some cases, antinutrients like gluten can damage the gut, whereas other antinutrients like phytic acid prevent your body from absorbing healthy minerals. Phytic acid, for example, is a massive inhibitor of zinc absorption1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10801947.
What this means is that even if you’re using a high-quality zinc supplement, you might not be absorbing any of it because the plants you’re eating are loaded with phytic acid. Zinc is absolutely crucial for clear skin, and studies have found that the introduction of a zinc supplement can drastically reduce acne, but only if your body can properly absorb it. There are other antinutrients found in plants that can trigger inflammation and digestive issues as well. It’s also worth noting that dairy protein (casein) can also impair the absorption of some nutrients (including zinc).
4. The carnivore diet is a low-carb diet
If you’ve ever eaten tons of french fries, sweets, or even just rice, and found yourself breaking out after, the high carb content is part of the reason why. The reason for these sugar and carb-driven breakouts is a hormone known as insulin. Your body releases insulin to help turn carbohydrates into usable fuel for the body. Insulin isn’t necessarily an acne-causing hormone in healthy individuals, but for those of us with insulin resistance (over half of all US adults), the body releases massive amounts of insulin every time you eat. This makes even small amounts of carbs and sugar a real nightmare for acne. Insulin also triggers the release of three other acne-causing hormones:
- IGF-1 – Increases sebum oil production, overproduction of skin cells, promotes inflammation
- IGFBP-3 – Prevents skin cells from shedding properly
- IL-1 – promotes inflammation (turns acne infections into pimples)
Long story short: if you’re insulin resistant, your acne might be caused by eating too many carbs.
You can read my full guide on carbs, sugar, insulin, and acne here for more information. Luckily, the carnivore diet is extremely low in carbohydrates. In fact, it’s hypothetically possible to eat no carbs when going carnivore, which is why it’s often called “zero-carb”. Be careful though, as there are some foods that are technical “carnivore” but still trigger a significant insulin response. Most notably, milk, yogurt, and other high-lactose dairy.
Drawbacks of the carnivore diet for acne
There are a few potential drawbacks of the carnivore diet when it comes to your skin, however, with proper guidance, you can avoid all these mistakes pretty easily.
Dairy and acne
Problems may arise for some people due to the consumption of dairy on the carnivore diet. Dairy triggers several acne-causing mechanisms:
- Dairy contains hormones that clog and block pores
- Most dairy triggers a large insulin response, which in turn triggers even more acne-causing hormones
- Dairy protein (casein A1) is very similar to gluten and can damage the digestive system
- Calcium prevents zinc, a crucial nutrient for clear skin, from being absorbed properly
- More than half of the global population is lactose intolerant
Yikes, that’s definitely not good. Luckily, you can avoid most of these issues by simply cutting out dairy. You might find that dairy doesn’t give you acne – if that’s the case, great, but for a lot of people cutting out dairy might be what they need to get clear skin, even on the carnivore diet. If you do choose to consume dairy, grass-fed ghee and butter are your best bets. You can read my full guide to dairy here
Too much vitamin B12 can cause acne
Many types of meat, including beef and lamb, are high in vitamin B12. Liver is particularly high in vitamin B12, with a single ounce containing three times the recommended daily amount. Vitamin B12 can contribute to inflammatory acne by promoting inflammation-causing compounds1.
This inflammation can take a relatively harmless acne infection and turn it into a bright, red, protruding pimple. One study found that vitamin B12 altered the gene expression of the skin, making it more prone to inflammation2. This is another reason why your multivitamin might be giving you acne. Not enough vitamin B12 can result in an extreme lack of energy and is one reason why people on plant-based diets often report feeling tired. The key, just like everything else, is moderation.
Problems from toxins and low-quality meat
No matter what diet you go on, the quality of your food matters.
If you’re on the carnivore diet and you’re eating grain-fed beef, farmed fish, or caged chicken, you could be compromising your health goals and cause acne.
Grain-fed beef has significantly more acne-causing omega-6 fatty acids than grass-fed beef. It also has fewer acne-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. The same goes for farmed fish in comparison to wild-caught fish, and conventional versus free-range chicken.
Wherever you can, buy the highest quality, organic meats you can reasonably afford. That way you’re more likely to limit toxin exposure and omega-6 fatty acids that can cause acne, and increase your intake of acne-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
How to treat acne with the carnivore diet
There are a few tweaks you’ll want to consider with the carnivore diet in order to make it the most powerful acne-fighting diet you can. It’s worth noting though, that everyone is different, and while some of us might do great with fish or organ meats, other people might not be able to handle them. You need to listen to your body and adjust the diet to meet your specific needs.
The basics of the carnivore diet are pretty simple – eat meat, seafood, and animal products. The bulk of most people’s carnivore diets consist of beef or lamb, as they have (generally speaking) the most balanced nutritional profiles when it comes to readily available meats. Pork, fish, chicken, eggs, and dairy are all technically on the table too, but as we’ll talk about in a minute here, you may want to limit them.
Generally speaking, people eat between 1.5 pounds and 3 pounds of meat per day on the carnivore diet. Don’t overthink it and you’ll be just fine. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and consider implementing intermittent fasting if it comes naturally.
Eat plenty of wild-caught fish
Fish, particularly salmon, sardines, and mackerel, are loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
These omega-3s help prevent chronic inflammation and fight inflammatory acne. It’s worth noting that wild-caught fish contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids with very little omega-6. Farmed fish, on the other hand, contains upwards of six times the amount of omega-6 (inflammatory) fatty acids than wild-caught fish. If you can’t obtain wild-caught fish, I’d personally recommend taking a fish oil supplement instead of going for farmed fish.
Cut out dairy and eggs
I already talked about dairy before, so I won’t harp on it here. The only dairy I’d say is safe for acne-prone skin is grass-fed ghee butter, because it has no lactose, no casein, and no whey, the three main components that make dairy problematic for acne. On top of dairy, you may also want to cut out eggs.
While eggs are a great source of fat-soluble vitamins and healthy fats, they’re also notoriously common digestive disruptors. Many people simply can’t handle eggs whites, and their skin ends up breaking out.
Most people don’t have issues with the yolk, which is where all the rich vitamins and nutrients are anyways, so I’d recommend cutting out egg yolks at least for the time being.
Add organ meats
Organ meats are going to be your “vegetables” on the carnivore diet – they’re going to provide you with all the essential vitamins and minerals that you can’t get through muscle meat or seafood alone. The most important organ meat is definitely liver, which contains extremely high levels of retinol vitamin A and copper. Vitamin A reduces the size of the gland that produces skin oil, helps regulate the skin shedding process, and protects the skin. Copper is necessary for the absorption of zinc (one study found that 30mg a day of zinc resulted in 50% less acne after 12 weeks2https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/51728). Spleen is an excellent source of vitamin C, and pancreas is a great source of digestive enzymes and probiotics. If you can’t find high-quality grass-fed organs at a butcher, I’d recommend supplementing with a beef organ or liver supplement.
Don’t go overboard on the protein
This is just from personal experience, but too much protein and not enough fat can cause me to break out. I know, it’s tempting to eat 2 pounds of sirloin steak every day, but I personally found my energy and my skin doing best on fattier cuts of meat cooked in saturated fat like beef tallow or grass-fed ghee. Ribeye, chuck, lamb shoulder and legs, chicken thighs and wings, and fatty fish like salmon are all great sources of healthy fats and adequate amounts of protein.
If you are going to eat a lot of meat, though, make sure you’re also getting enough biotin and riboflavin, or else you’ll actually put yourself at risk for fungal acne and dandruff…
Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Biotin and Riboflavin
One issue that people on the carnivore diet frequently run into is fungal or yeast-related skin issues.
Acne, a bacterial condition, seems to clear up just fine, but many folks find themselves struggling with fungal acne, dermatitis, or dandruff on the carnivore diet.
In the absence of non-carnivore cheat foods like coffee, dairy, and egg whites,the reason for this is typically pretty straightforward: biotin and riboflavin deficiency.
In the Carnivore Protocol section of Unmasking Acne, I discuss how both carnivore and more generic ketogenic diets can make an individual more susceptible to these skin conditions:
Both biotin and riboflavin are used in the process of transporting and storing fat – something that your body will have to do quite frequently on the carnivore diet due to the lack of carbohydrates. The more fat you eat, the higher your body’s requirement for riboflavin and biotin.
Without biotin and riboflavin, your body can’t provide the lipids necessary for your skin to be protected and healthy – it becomes read, dry, cracked, and irritated, which makes it the perfect breeding ground for fungal acne.
For this reason, it’s absolutely crucial that individuals who struggle with acne cut out egg whites (which prevents the body from absorbing biotin and riboflavin) and consume biotin and riboflavin-rich foods at least once a week. These include egg yolks, salmon, and liver.
Ideally, you get these nutrients from animal-based foods, but if necessary, supplementing with 100mg of each per day will suffice.
Give it time
My skin definitely improved on the carnivore diet, but it took some time. If there’s anything I’ve learned from switching my diet up a lot over the last two years, it’s that acne almost always gets worse before it gets better. For starters, you’ll probably find yourself losing fat on the carnivore diet. Toxins are stored in fat, and they can be released through the skin. You also may find yourself stressed out or missing some of your favorite foods – this can cause acne too. Give it at least 30 days, and I think you’ll find that the carnivore diet is great for your skin. Be patient, tweak it if you have to, and above all else, listen to your body.
Should you try the carnivore diet for acne?
Okay, so we’ve taken a look at the pros and cons of the carnivore diet for acne. Essentially, a dairy-free (and maybe egg-free) carnivore diet avoids all of the root causes of acne and tackles it at the source:
- The carnivore diet is low in carbs, which prevents the release of acne-causing hormones insulin and IGF-1
- The carnivore diet is rich in nutrients that help prevent acne, including vitamin A, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids
- The carnivore diet is free of lectins, phytic acid, and other antinutrients found in plants that may disrupt digestion
That’s a pretty bulletproof diet for acne right there, but there are a few things you should consider before you jump in…
- The carnivore diet is extremely restrictive and may be difficult to stick to
- We don’t have a lot of research on the long-term effects of the carnivore diet
- Some people (not everyone) seem to experience adverse reactions to foods they were fine with prior to the carnivore diet
From a conservative standpoint, I would argue that it may be most effective to treat the carnivore diet as a last resort. A tactical tool that you can use if you’re still struggling with autoimmune symptoms or acne even after taking the following steps:
- Cut out gluten, sugar, and dairy (the largest offenders for acne)
- Follow the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint (a customized diet specifically designed for acne)
- Cut out eggs, nuts, and seeds
- Limit carb intake to less than 50g per day
- Carnivore diet for 30-60 days
For many people, a modified Paleo diet or the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint will be plenty for tackling their acne from within. For other people, it might take more work, more effort, and more dedication. In these cases, the carnivore diet can be a wonderful tool to tackle the most stubborn cases of acne. As always, be safe and always listen to your body. There is no one-size-fits-all, and while the carnivore diet might work for some people, it might not work for you. If you’ve tried the carnivore diet for acne, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!
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