Believe it or not, just about 90% of the items you’ll find at a grocery store can cause breakouts.
Even “healthy” foods like protein bars and trail mix can contain certain ingredients that make them a nightmare for acne. A single Cliff Bar has as many carbs as a Snickers and a Naked “Green Machine” fruit smoothie has as much sugar as a Mountain Dew. Don’t let these products’ packaging and names fool you.
It’s not just the macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat) you need to worry about either – certain products contain specific ingredients that can flare up acne symptoms even in small doses. Dried fruits, salad dressings, and just about every “low-fat” product you could think of contain inflammation-triggering omega-6 fatty acids. Other unsuspecting products contain wheat that can cause leaky gut syndrome.
Even some acne-friendly foods contain additives or flavors that are a no-go for clear skin. The only solution is to read the nutrition label and ingredients list carefully. The good news is that becoming a pro at this isn’t nearly as hard as you think. With a few quick tips, you’ll know exactly what to look for any time you go grocery shopping.
How to read a nutrition label for acne-prone skin
Unfortunately, the nutrition label used in the USA doesn’t give us a whole lot to work with. We really only get a good look at the macronutrients – carbs, fats, and protein. It’s not perfect, but it gives us something to work with.
How many calories a food contains has little effect on whether or not it’ll cause acne. Some extremely calorically-dense foods, like macadamia nuts or coconut oil, are great for acne, while some “low-calorie” foods are a disaster.
Bottom line: While calories might be helpful for weight loss or fitness tracking, they don’t tell us too much about whether or not a food will break you out.
Believe it or not, you’ve been lied to. Fat isn’t bad for you. Healthy, saturated fats found in foods like olive oil or coconut oil isn’t what makes you “fat”. I won’t go into all the details in this post, but please, if you still are looking for low-fat products and struggle with acne, I’d urge you to stop – low-fat products often contain vegetable oils that can easily flare-up acne. For more info on fats as a whole, I recommend reading this article, or for more on fats and weight loss, check out this one.
On most nutritional labels you’ll find two kinds of fat – saturated fat (generally good fat) and trans fat (bad fat).
- Trans fat – You should really look to eliminate all trans fat if you’re trying to get clear skin. Trans fats are found in artificial and industrial oils that humans are simply not meant to consume. When we eat trans fats our body doesn’t know how to digest it and sees the fat as a threat. Your immune system treats trans fats like it would a virus or infection – it triggers an inflammatory response. This inflammation can become chronic (regularly occurring) and lead to red, nasty pimples that won’t go away without a diet change.
- Saturated fat – I’m not going to enter the general health debate here, but in general saturated fats are totally fine, and oftentimes good for you skin in moderation.
Bottom line: While balancing your omega-3 and omega-6 fats is what’s most important when it comes to clear skin, we don’t have that information on a nutritional label – so, for now, the best we can do is look to avoid trans fats as a whole.
While I’m sure that many breakfast cereal manufacturers would like to disagree, the threat of cholesterol is likely massively overstated if you eat a properly balanced diet. For most people cholesterol doesn’t have a very big influence on acne and skin – nothing major to look out for.
Nothing to see here – you probably won’t find a food worth avoiding just because of the sodium content.
This is where things start to get interesting. Carbs are where you need to pay the most attention to on the label. Why? Carbs tell your body to release insulin, the hormone largely responsible for most cases of acne. Depending on how many carbs you eat and what type of carbs, your body may release more or less insulin. For many people, acne is largely a case of too many sugary, high-glycemic carbs. That’s where the nutrition label comes in handy.
As I explain in this article, eating too many carbs can be the main culprit for acne. While experts believe the ideal daily carb intake is somewhere around 130g, the US recommends 300g – that’s a LOT of carbs, and therefore a LOT of insulin too.
That means the daily percentage value for carbs is deceiving. If a product has 50% of your daily value, it still has a whopping 150g. When in doubt, double the percentage value, so if something had 45g of carbs or 15% of your daily value, consider it to have 30% of your daily value. As you’ll see in just a second, not all carbs are created equal.
Bottom line: Carbs trigger insulin, which can cause acne. Most Americans eat way too many carbs. Less than 150g, or half the daily recommended value is a good baseline.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body can’t digest. While this sounds problematic, it’s actually quite beneficial for your body. It slows down the digestion of other carbs and works wonders for your entire digestion system. Insoluble fiber doesn’t raise blood sugar or trigger a major insulin response. For this very reason, you can “subtract” fiber from total carbs to get a more accurate representation of a food’s carb content. This is what’s referred to as “net carbs”, and it’s a pretty easy equation: total carbs – fiber.
Bottom line: Insoluble fiber is great for our digestive system and lowering the insulin response of carb-heavy foods. More insoluble fiber is generally better.
Sugar is one of the few things that’s just generally bad for acne. Sugar is absolutely fine in low doses, and I’m not saying you should avoid all sugar, but limiting it is a must. Sugar goes directly from food to your bloodstream and triggers a rapid and immediate insulin response. Whatever sugar is left-over gets stored as fat, and consistently eating too much sugar is a blueprint for insulin resistance which can be a huge cause of acne.
Bottom line: Sugar triggers insulin and can lead to insulin resistance. A good baseline is to keep sugar consumption to less than 25g a day.
Summing up carbs: Carbs aren’t inherently bad, but they can be very problematic for some people (like me). If you’re going to consume carb-heavy foods, avoid those high in sugar and look for those higher in fiber. If you can, eat lower glycemic index carbs, like legumes, as they’ll trigger a slower insulin response.
Your mom was right – you need more protein! Protein is great for your overall health and skin. It ensures that your body can function and repair itself from damages easily and effectively. Overall there’s nothing to be worried about with protein and acne – the more protein the better.
That about sums it up for the macronutrient section of the label – but what about the micronutrients? All those vitamins and minerals. Well, we can’t ignore those, let’s dig in…
Micronutrients usually appear below or beside the primary macronutrient label. Unfortunately for US citizens, the only micronutrients required to be included on all labels are vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Occasionally you’ll see foods with more micronutrients listed, especially if the product is marketed as being “healthy”.
Vitamin A is crucial for your skin and an absolute must-have micronutrient for your complexion. Vitamin A prevents pores from clogging, reduces oil production, and helps keep inflammation low. It plays a role in preventing just about every root cause of acne. For this reason, the more vitamin A you can get the better. Not all vitamin A is created equal though. The vitamin A found in many vegetables, like kale, spinach, and broccoli is really a pre-vitamin A that your body converts into usable vitamin A (retinol). During this process most of the vitamin A is unfortunately lost – what this means is that it’s important to get your vitamin A from a variety of sources, like vegetables, fish, liver, and eggs, or a vitamin A liver supplement.
The bottom line: Get as much dietary vitamin A as you can
Another amazing nutrient for your skin. Vitamin C helps prevent inflammation, promotes wound healing (say goodbye to acne scars), and stress reduction. It’s crucial that you get enough vitamin C through dietary sources like broccoli and cauliflower. Many vitamin C supplements are really an incomplete vitamin C that the body can’t properly utilize.
The bottom line: Get as much dietary vitamin C as you can
Calcium is a bit tricky. Adequate amounts of calcium are necessary for a ton of different bodily functions, including bone and teeth health. Unfortunately, calcium also appears to impair the absorption of zinc, a crucial nutrient for clear skin. Plus, many “healthy” sources of calcium, including dairy, further exacerbate acne issues (read more about dairy and acne here). For this reason, it’s a good idea not to megadose on calcium-rich foods. If you do have a diet that’s very high in calcium, you’ll definitely want to take a high-quality zinc supplement.
The bottom line: Don’t overdo it on calcium, particularly calcium found in dairy. Supplement with zinc if you have to.
Just like calcium, you need some iron but not too much. Iron can easily convert into free radicals – highly reactive molecules that can damage skin cells and cause acne. Too much iron can also cause inflammation and insulin issues too. That being said, you need iron for strong muscles and organs – that includes your skin. The key here is to avoid access iron – sticking relatively close to the nutritional guidelines shouldn’t be an issue for most people.
The bottom line: Meet your daily requirements but don’t go overboard
Sometimes there will be micronutrients listed, like vitamin K2 or zinc, that aren’t required by law to be on the nutritional label. These micronutrients can be great for your overall skin and health, but rarely come up. I’m in the process of writing a full article on the best micronutrients for your skin now.
How to read an ingredients list for acne-prone skin
This is where the real work begins. While the macronutrients and micronutrients are important to keep track of, the ingredients list is where you’ll find most of the red flags for acne-causing foods.
While everyone handles certain foods differently, there are a few general groups of ingredients that almost always make acne worse. If you’ve been cutting down on carbs, or even went keto and still don’t see results, this could be why.
Ingredients to avoid #1: Wheat & Grains
Wheat and grains are really harmful to your skin. Not only do wheat products contain potent antinutrients (lectins) that can punch holes in your gut, but they’re also high-glycemic index carbs. This means they’ll spike your insulin levels and damage your digestive system. Wheat is one of the few food groups that touches just about every possible root cause of acne.
Here’s what to watch out for when it comes to wheat ingredients:
- Any mention of “Wheat” (eg: wheat bran, wheat germ, wheatgrass, whole wheat etc.)
- Any mention of “Flour” (eg: bread, cake, enriched flour, pastry)
- Any mention of “Starch” (eg: gelatinized starch, modified starch, modified food starch, and vegetable starch)
- Any mention of “Gluten” (many products will say whether or not it’s gluten-free)
- Any mention of “Cereal” (eg: cereal grains, cereal extract)
- The following names are also used for wheat:
Here’s a common list of other grain ingredients to avoid:
- Any mention of “Corn”
- Corn syrup (especially high-fructose corn syrup)
- Corn sweeteners
- Corn starch
- Corn oil
- Any mention of “Oats”
- Any mention of “Barley”
- Any mention of the following other grains:
Ingredients to avoid #2: Vegetable & Industrial Oils
Remember how we talked about your body not knowing how to digest trans fats? That’s where many vegetable oils come into play. Your digestive system isn’t adapted to properly digest vegetable oils, so it sees them as a threat. This triggers inflammation, and when consumed regularly can lead to chronic inflammation.
Be careful – vegetable oils have seeped into just about every processed and “low-fat” food known to man. It’s really important to keep an eye out for these – I’ve found certain brands of seemingly healthy foods like roasted nuts and dried fruit to contain these harmful oils.
Vegetable oils to avoid:
- Corn oil
- Sunflower oil
- Canola oil
- Rice bran oil
- Sesame oil
- Peanut oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Sesame seed oil
- Safflower oil
Instead, you want to stick to healthy, real, full-fat alternatives, like extra-virgin olive oil, grass-fed ghee butter, and coconut oil.
Ingredients to avoid #3: Hidden Sugar
If a products sugar content isn’t very high that doesn’t mean you’re totally in the clear. There may be artificial sweeteners that can cause issues for acne. Certain artificial sweeteners, even if they don’t register as “sugar”, can signal to your brain that glucose is coming and spike your insulin levels. Some of these ingredients you don’t need to entirely avoid, but bare in mind they may be problematic, especially when found in artificial products.
Try to avoid these sugar-like ingredients:
- Any mention of “syrup” (eg: corn syrup, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, agave syrup, golden syrup)
- Cane sugar/cane juice crystals
- Coconut sugar
- Date sugar
- Fruit juice/fruit juice concentrate
Instead of artificial and processed foods loaded with sugar, opt for more natural sources like dark chocolate, sweet potatoes, or low-fructose fruit (blackberries, blueberries, avocados, oranges, strawberries).
General rules of thumb for grocery shopping for acne-prone skin
The average American grocery store is a jungle of acne-causing food that you need to navigate. On average:
- 68% of the products have added sugar in them
- 75% of processed foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
- Highly processed foods make up 60% of the calories we buy
This makes it pretty tough to grocery shop if you’re looking to achieve clear skin. I’ve been having to navigate this realm years now and I’ve learned some pretty handy rules of thumb. Remember the following 7 tips and you should be able to avoid most acne-causing foods.
- Avoid “low-fat” or “reduced-fat” products – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – fat isn’t bad for you and it doesn’t make you fat. Low-fat products contain more sugar, more industrial fats, and more artificial ingredients that spike insulin and trigger inflammation.
- Stick to the outside perimeter of the grocery store and buy whole foods – most grocery stores have a similar layout – fresh and whole foods along the edges, and processed, artificial foods in the middle and down the aisles. You want to be where the whole, unprocessed food is.
- The shorter the ingredients list the better – while this isn’t always true, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If you buy a “Paleo-friendly” power bar with 36 ingredients in it, odds are some of them aren’t great for your skin. Skip it and buy whole foods instead.
- If you can afford it, go organic – Some foods don’t need to be bought organic (the clean 15), and some do (the dirty dozen). If you can afford to buy organic, wild-caught, and pasture-raised foods, go for it.
- Frozen vegetables are often better – Ideally you’re buying fresh vegetables at your local farmer’s market, but in reality, this isn’t always an option. Quick-frozen vegetables are often “fresher” than fresh vegetables that have been sitting on the shelves for days on end. They’re a lot cheaper too – Trader Joe’s has organic frozen spinach for $2/pound.
- Make a list and stick to it – there’s no better way to screw up your chances for clear skin than going to the grocery store and buying one or two guilty pleasures (*ahem* frozen pizza *ahem*). Plan out what you’re going to buy beforehand and stick to it.
- Bring the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint with you – seriously, download the blueprint on your phone or print it out on paper and bring it with you. It has everything you need to be successful grocery shopping for clear-skin. Stick to “safe” foods and you’ll be good to go.
Putting it all together
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what to look for on nutritional labels and ingredients lists, I’m going to urge you to do two things right now:
- Go through your fridge, pantry, and closets right now and donate any food that might cause issues. Read over the nutrition label and ingredients list – you’d be amazed at how many products contain acne-causing ingredients. Seriously, take the first step and your skin will thank you for it.
- Make a list for your next grocery store visit or bring along the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint with you.
The food you have near you is 90% of the battle when it comes to diet and acne. Self-control is seriously overrated. Don’t keep inflammation-causing salad dressings and insulin-spiking protein bars around with the intention of only having them once and a while – it’s just not worth it.
When you get done, pat yourself on the back. Seriously, I mean it. Doing this is a huge step forward in achieving clear skin from within. It’s not an easy feat. Keep up the hard work, shop diligently, and keep on improving.
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