Why Your Vegan Diet Might be Giving You Acne

Why Your Vegan Diet Might be Giving You Acne

Believe it or not, I generally don’t recommend a Vegan or vegetarian diet for getting rid of acne.

If you just started a Vegan or vegetarian diet and find yourself breaking out, there may be some solid reasons why.

While breaking out after a major change in your diet is completely normal, abstaining from meat and seafood can lead to nutritional deficiencies, hormonal changes, and digestive issues that can make acne worse, not better.

While some people may benefit from a Vegan or vegetarian diet (there is no one size fits all “acne diet”), it’s not uncommon to see your complexion get worse on a plant-based dietLuckily, with a few simple modifications, your Vegan or vegetarian diet can become a lot more skin-friendly.

In this article, we’ll cover three main sections:

  1. What really causes acne? 
  2. Do plant-based diets work for acne?
  3. The ultimate plant-based diet for acne

Feel free to skip ahead if you’ve read some of my other articles about the link between diet and acne.

What really causes acne – diet, hormones, genetics

I’m not going to go super in-depth here about how your diet and hormones cause acne.

Still, I’m going to go over the basics of how diet and acne are linked so that we can understand why most plant-based diets don’t work well for acne-prone skin.  Feel free to skip ahead if you’ve read some of my other articles on diet and acne.

There are several root causes of acne that we know about so far – these are things happening below the skin, things that have nothing to do with your hygiene:

  • Diets high in carbs and sugar (sweets, bread, pizza, etc.) trigger a cascade of acne-causing hormones (insulin, IGF-1, IGFBP-3, etc.) to be released in the body1https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/86/1/107/4633089 (dairy also triggers several of these same hormones).
  • Individuals with acne are much more likely to have nutritional deficiencies in essential nutrients like zinc2https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/51728, vitamin D3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4580068/, and vitamin A.
  • Too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 fatty acids can drive inflammatory acne.  High intake of DHA omega-3s has been shown to improve acne4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543297/.
  • An unbalanced gut microbiome or other digestive issues are generally linked to not only acne but also compromised immune systems and autoimmune disorders

Putting it all together, you could say that there are a few main dietary root causes of acne:

  1. Excessive carbohydrate consumption
  2. Dairy consumption
  3. Nutritional deficiencies
  4. Chronic inflammation
  5. Digestive issues

That’s not to say that factors like stress and exercise aren’t important too, but when we’re looking at diets these are the main criteria we can look at.

Now it’s time to move onto the real question at hand – do plant-based diets avoid the root causes of acne?

Do plant-based diets work for acne?

Spoiler alert.

Just like every other diet out there, a plant-based diet might work for you, it might not.

While we’re getting more and more evidence every day about what causes acne, there are still no studies that have found any evidence that plant-based diets lead to less acne.

In fact, some plant-based diets actually seem to make several of the root causes of acne worse, which is why I generally don’t recommend your standard plant-based diet for clear skin.

While celebrities or models might talk about how plant-based diets have led to glowing, perfect skin, plenty of everyday people have had the opposite reaction.  Just take a look at some of these forum posts (here, here, and here) to get a better idea.

With that being said, some of you might do really well on a plant-based diet, while others may not.  You’ll never know unless you try it out.

Still, one of the problems we run into when we talk about “plant-based diets” is that, just like most other diets, they can vary a LOT from person to person.  Some people might eat tons of fruits and veggies, whereas other people might opt for more grains and legumes.  For that very reason, let me define the type of plant-based diet I’ll be analyzing in this article:

Image result for vegan pyramid

This is a pretty run-of-the-mill plant-based diet that a lot of people will adopt when they go Vegan or vegetarian.  A decent amount of grains, some legumes, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils.

Later in the article, I’m going to share some modifications you can make to a “standard” plant-based diet to make it a lot more friendly for your skin, but for now, let’s look at why I don’t recommend the above diet as a starting place for acne-prone skin.

3 reasons I don’t recommend plant-based diets for acne

At the end of the day, there are 3 main reasons I don’t generally recommend most plant-based diets for acne:

  1. Plant-based diets are high in antinutrients, like phytic acid and lectins, which prevent essential nutrients like zinc from being absorbed
  2. Plant-based diets are typically higher in carbs, which can trigger the release of the acne-causing hormones
  3. Plant-based diets may lead to nutritional deficiencies in vitamin A, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which help prevent acne

I’ll cover each of these reasons in-depth, and then move on to how you can avoid them altogether.

#1 – Many plant-based diets are high in antinutrients

Antinutrients are compounds found in plants that prevent nutrients from being digested properly.

Simply put, plants use antinutrients to try and prevent animals from eating them.  They damage and disrupt the digestive system of the animals that eat them (this includes humans!) in an attempt to stop animals from eating them.

Do all plants have antinutrients?  Yes.

Are all antinutrients bad?  No!

However, there are some antinutrients that are a lot worse for acne-prone individuals than others, and some Vegan and vegetarian diets might be rich in these antinutrients.

Phytic acid, found in some nuts, spinach, chard, dark chocolate, grains, and legumes, is a massive inhibitor of zinc absorption.  As we know, zinc is one of the most important nutrients for clear skin.  One study found that just 30mg of zinc per day led to significantly decreased acne after 12 weeks5https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/51728.Plant-based foods highest in phytic acid. Phytates can prevent nutrients like zinc from being absorbed .

If you’re not getting zinc due to high consumption of phytic acid, you could be missing out on one of the single most important nutrients your body needs in order to protect and heal your skin.

 

Lectins, found in grains, nuts, and legumes, can disrupt the digestive system and potentially trigger inflammatory acne.

While not all lectins are dangerous, certain lectins, like gluten (found in bread), peanut agglutinin (found in peanuts), and phytohaemagglutinin (found in kidney beans) are commonly problematic.  Intolerances or allergies to these lectins are surprisingly widespread, and the foods that contain them typically have high concentrations of them.

#2 – Plant-based diets are typically high in carbs

Eating too many carbs is, without a doubt, one of the single largest dietary contributors to acne.

It’s not that carbs are evil or that you need to avoid them entirely – it’s that too many carbs, and especially the wrong type of carbs, can create hormonal acne.

When you eat carbs, your body releases a hormone known as insulin to help turn those carbs into energy the body can use.  This is all fine and dandy if you’re not eating too many carbs and burn regularly those carbs off through exercise.

Too much insulin is a real nightmare for acne:

  • It prevents skin cells from properly shedding
  • It tells the body to produce way too much sebum oil, resulting in oily skin that easily clogs
  • It promotes inflammation, which can turn a harmless infection into a bright, red, angry pimple

If you’re eating a higher-carb diet, you may be producing too much insulin.  The ADA estimates that half of all US adults have some form of insulin resistance.  Insulin resistance is a condition where every time you eat carbs, your body releases a ton of insulin to convert those carbs into energy.

Lots of insulin = Hormonal acne

This is a problem for many people adopting a typical plant-based diet that’s rich in bread, pasta, rice, and even fruit.

#3 Plant-based diets may lead to key nutritional deficiencies

What comes to mind when you think of nutrient-dense foods?

Plants, right?  Lots of green vegetables, colorful fruits, and heart-healthy whole grains.

Surprisingly, some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet actually come from animals and are extremely difficult to get through plants alone.

On top of the fact that plants are high in antinutrients, which can prevent your body from absorbing key skin-clearing nutrients, it’s also extremely difficult to get some nutrients through plants alone.

Zinc

Zinc is absolutely essential for clear skin, and it’s one of the only nutrients with scientific studies backing its skin-clearing potential.

While many plant-based foods are high in zinc, like lentils, seeds, and quinoa, they’re also high in phytic acid, that pesky anti-nutrient that blocks zinc from being absorbed.

It’s a catch-22 – even if you’re eating a lot of zinc on a plant-based diet, you might not be absorbing any of it.

The best sources of zinc (without the phytic acid) are almost all found in animals: beef, lamb, oysters, and shrimp.

Vitamin A

When it comes to nutrients that fight acne, vitamin A is right alongside zinc when it comes to essential nutrients for clear skin.  It decreases skin oil production, improves wound healing, protects the skin, and fights inflammation.

While it’s a common belief that vegetables are high in vitamin A, that’s only part of the story.

Vegetables are high in vitamin A, but they’re high in beta carotene, a form of vitamin A that needs to be converted into retinol in order to be used by the body.  In some cases, only a fraction of vitamin A found in plants actually gets converted into usable vitamin A, leading to deficencies6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854912/.

What foods are high in retinol vitamin A?  Beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and cod liver, egg yolks, salmon, and mackerel.

DHA omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for fighting off inflammatory acne.  Particularly on a plant-based diet, which can be extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is key.

The ideal omega ratio is around 4 to 1, but the average American has a ratio of 20 to 1

There are two main groups of omega-3 fatty acids found in food:

  • DHA & EPA Omega-3 – Found in fish, meat, and eggs.  Your body’s preferred form of omega-3.
  • ALA Omega-3 – Found in plants, like nuts and seeds.  Must be converted into DHA omega-3 for use.

Unfortunately for plant-eaters, consuming ALA omega-3 fatty acids is an extremely inefficient way to get DHA omega-3s.  One study found that only about 8% of ALA omega-3s get converted into ALA omega-3s7http://www.dhaomega3.org/Overview/Differentiation-of-ALA-plant-sources-from-DHA-+-EPA-marine-sources-as-Dietary-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids-for-Human-Health.

So, where can you find DHA omega-3?

Salmon, sardines, mackerel, various other fatty fish, eggs, and seaweed (in small amounts).

Unless you’re properly supplementing, these nutritional deficiencies can be a problem for Vegans and vegetarians.

 

The ultimate plant-based diet for clear skin

At this point, you’re probably wondering how in the world you can have an acne-friendly plant-based diet.

Luckily, it’s really not that hard – with a few simple modifications, you can be on your way to clear skin while eating Vegan or vegetarian.

1. Cut out processed and artificial foods

A lot of people have a similar experience when they first go Vegan…

Oreos are Vegan?  So are potato chips?  French fries too?  This diet isn’t so bad!

If you’re eating tons of processed, artificial, and fried foods, your skin is not going to clear up no matter how little animal products you eat.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Artificial/packaged foods are almost high in sugar or carbs, which spike insulin, an acne-causing hormone
  • Artificial and processed foods usually contain cheap industrial oils loaded with inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids, like soybean oil, corn oil, and sunflower oil
  • Pretty much all fried foods are high in inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids and carbs

A simple rule of thumb – If it’s not “real” food, it’s probably not great for your skin.

Cutting out the artificial crap can be a huge contributor towards clear skin on a Vegan diet.

2. Watch your carb intake

Remember how we talked about insulin, the acne-causing hormone triggered by carbs (and how the ADA estimates that half of all US adults have some form of insulin resistance8https://www.healthline.com/health/diabetes/insulin-resistance-symptoms)?

Well, the good news is that it’s not impossible to eat a low or moderate-carb plant-based diet.  On top of that, eating the right type of carbs can also lead to less hormonal acne.

A lot of folks will start eating lots of bread, pasta, and rice when they go Vegan, all of which are high glycemic index foods, meaning they trigger a lot of insulin.  Even some fruits can be extremely high in carbs.

Here is a list of vegan foods with a high glycemic index (remember, a high GI is bad, it means the food spikes insulin, an acne-causing hormone):

FoodGlycemic Index
White bread75
White rice73
Brown rice68
Sweet corn52
Spaghetti49
Cornflakes81
Popcorn65
Instant oat porridge79
White potato78
Sweet Potato63
Pineapple59
Watermelon76
Soda59

Low glycemic index carbs, like vegetables, berries, nuts, and legumes, are safer choices when it comes to hormonal acne.  Here is a list of vegan foods with a low glycemic index (remember, these are safer carb choices than high GI foods):

FoodGlycemic Index
Apple36
Orange43
Blackberry25
Strawberry41
Chickpeas28
Kidney beans24
Lentils32
Carrots39
Broccoli 10
Lettuce10
Cherries22
Quinoa35
Coconut45

If you want more information on the link between carbs, sugar, insulin, and acne, read my in-depth article here

3. Cut out grains

Grains have long been known to be a contributor to acne for a few reasons:

  • Grains contain an antinutrient known as phytic acid, which binds to essential nutrients like zinc and makes it extremely difficult to absorb zinc.  Consuming too many grains can lead to nutritional deficiencies in nutrients your skin desperately needs.
  • Many people have a difficult time digesting lectins found in grains, like gluten or peanut agglutinin
  • Grains are almost always a high glycemic index carb source, which means they trigger lots of insulin (an acne-causing hormone)

It’s not just wheat or barley that can cause issues for people – quinoa, rye, legumes, corn, and even peanuts have similar acne-causing characteristics to bread or pasta.

Cutting out these high-GI, high-lectin, high-phytate grains is crucial for clear skin.  Instead, opt for healthier sources of plant-based carbs, like sweet potatoes, fruit, or even white rice.

Note: Beans and legumes are a tricky case – they’re definitely better sources than refined grains, but can still cause issues depending on the person.  For more information, read my guide to beans and legumes here.

4. Get DHA & EPA omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3s are crucial for preventing inflammatory acne.  Unfortunately, most plants are high in ALA omega-3, which is inefficient for the body to absorb.  DHA is the bodies preferred form on omega-3, and the best for acne.

If you feel comfortable with it, increase your intake of DHA omega-3 through a sustainably-sourced, wild-caught omega-3 supplement, or make sure you limit your omega-6 intake (more on that later).

There are also Vegan-friendly DHA omega-3 supplements sourced from seaweed or algae extract.

5. Supplement with zinc the right way

Zinc is arguably the single most important mineral when it comes treating acne at the source:

  • Assists in the absorption and transportation of vitamin A
  • Protects against acne infections and UV radiation
  • Regulates the process of skin dying and shedding
  • Protects the gut & improves intestinal healing
  • Helps prevent insulin resistance
  • Improves sleep quality and decreases stress

Zinc is so powerful that one study found supplementing with just 30mg of zinc a day led to nearly 50% less acne after 3 months9https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/51728.

Unfortunately, many common foods on plant-based diets inhibit the absorption of zinc due to their phytate content, including cereals, corn, and rice10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10801947.

Plant-based foods highest in phytic acid. Phytates can prevent nutrients like zinc from being absorbed .Vegan foods high phytates include:

  • Grains (wheat, corn, rye, etc.)
  • Most legumes – Soy, pinto, kidney, navy beans, peanuts, lentils
  • Some nuts – almonds, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, cashews
  • Potatoes
  • Uncooked spinach, chard
  • Dark chocolate

These foods can significantly impair the absorption of zinc, especially if you eat them uncooked or soaked.

Whenever possible, soak, sprout, and thoroughly cook your beans, legumes, nuts, grains, and vegetables.  You’ll decrease phytic acid levels and make them easier to digest.

On top of that, consider supplementing with a high-quality zinc supplement outside of meals high in phytic acid.  If you know you’re going to be eating dark chocolate or raw spinach, consider saving your zinc supplement for a different meal or time.

6. Eat foods high in vitamin A with fat

When it comes to nutrients that fight acne, vitamin A is right alongside zinc when it comes to essential nutrients for clear skin:

  • Reduces sebum oil production (oil that clogs pores)
  • Improves wound healing (can help heal acne scars faster)
  • Protects the skin against free radicals
  • Helps regulate the skin shedding process
  • Reduces inflammation

While it’s a common belief that vegetables are high in vitamin A, that’s only part of the story.

Vegetables are high in vitamin A, but they’re high in beta carotene, a form of vitamin A that needs to be converted into retinol in order to be used by the body.
Not all vitamin A is created equal - beta carotene compared to retinol vitamin a
In some cases, only a fraction of beta carotene found in plants actually gets converted into retinol.  Some people are deficient in vitamin A despite eating foods with tons of beta carotene.  That’s also why you can’t trust a nutrition label when it says a vegetable has 300% of your daily vitamin A.

Luckily, you can increase the absorption of beta carotene (possibly even triple it11https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S146685640700046X) by doing two simple things:

  • Lightly cooking your vegetables
  • Consuming vegetable oils with a skin-friendly fat, like olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil

Most vegetables (and sweet potatoes) are excellent sources of vitamin A.

The key to getting vitamin A on a plant-based diet lies in eating the right food and preparing it in the right way.

7. Stop eating soy and products with soy

Soy oftentimes becomes a staple when people switch to a plant-based diet, which can be a real disaster for acne-prone skin.  Worse yet, soy is in tons of Vegan products, including tofu, meatless burgers or meat alternatives, protein powder, and plant-based milk.

You should avoid soy for two main reasons:

  1. Soy is high in phytic acid12https://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert/ – remember that pesky antinutrient, phytic acid, we were talking about earlier?  Well, it turns out that soy is extremely high in phytic acid.  Unlike other legumes, the phytic acid found in soy doesn’t get destroyed through soaking, sprouting, or cooking.
  2. Soy may lead to hormonal imbalances – soy contains phytoestrogens, or “fake estrogens”, that bind to your body’s real estrogen receptors and mimics naturally-occurring estrogen without producing any of the benefits.  In other words, soy may create an imbalance of estrogen in the body, leading to acne.

That’s a pretty lethal combo: the phytic acid in soy makes it hard to absorb key nutrients that protect your skin (like zinc) and the phytoestrogens in soy may create a nasty case of hormonal acne.  Ouch.

8. Eat moderate amounts of nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are usually pretty great for acne-prone skin.

In fact, some nuts contain nutrients that you can’t find nearly anywhere else:

  • Almonds and hazelnuts are both loaded with vitamin E and magnesium
  • Brazil nuts have tons of selenium
  • Pistachios are high in prebiotics and vitamin K

Unfortunately, a lot of people make the mistake of going completely crazy on nuts when they switch to a Vegan diet.

For nuts low in omega-6 fatty acids like macadamias or chestnuts, this might not be a huge problem, but most nuts are actually loaded with omega-6 fatty acids that create inflammatory acne.

Nuts lowest in omega-6 inflammatory fatty acids that cause acneI’m not saying you should avoid nuts altogether, but do your best to treat them like a snack, not a meal.

Seeds are essentially in the same boat, but with even more omega-6 fatty acids, so really be conscious of how much you choose to eat.

9. Watch out for hidden vegetable oils

Speaking of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids, vegetable oils are arguably the worst offenders.

The problem with vegetable oils is that they can be found in just about anything if you’re not careful.

Foods that commonly have vegetable oils in them - fried foods, processed foods, margarine, salad dressings, low-fat dairy, coffee creamersEspecially for Vegan foods where a recipe or food would typically use animal fat like butter, lard, or tallow, restaurants and manufacturers will replace those animal fats with inflammatory vegetable oils.

Some vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids include:

  • Corn oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Rice bran oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Peanut oil

If you want to keep a full list handy, you can download the free GoodGlow Shopping Guide, which includes a full list of vegetable oils, added sweeteners, and additives to avoid for clear skin.

10. Listen to your body, watch for food sensitivities

If you’ve recently switched to a plant-based diet, you probably picked up some new staples.

When I went keto, I started gobbling up macadamia nuts like no tomorrow despite not eating them for the first 18 years of my life.

You’re bound to run into some foods that your body doesn’t handle well.  It could be because you don’t have the digestive enzymes necessary to break it down, an allergic reaction, or a minor intolerance.

Whatever the case, food sensitivities, and intolerances can trigger inflammatory acne by putting stress on your immune system and creating the right conditions for chronic inflammation to take hold.

If your body is always on high alert because you’re eating food it doesn’t agree with, your skin is going take a hit.

Itching, redness, excessive bloating, and breakouts are signs you might have a sensitivity.

Try a basic elimination diet to see if you can get to the root of it.

Should you try a plant-based diet for clear skin?

I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll say it again – I do not think that most plant-based diets are the best choice when it comes to getting the nutrients necessary to preventing and healing from acne.

With that being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t create a pretty kick-ass, plant-based, skin-clearing diet, it just revolves around choosing the right foods.

Generally speaking, eating a diet that revolves around real, whole foods, including a good amount of fruits and vegetables, safe plant-based fats, some starches (white rice, sweet potatoes, etc.), some nuts and seeds, and maybe some legumes is a pretty good strategy at getting rid of acne while still going plant-based or Vegan.

If you want a handy, free one-page guide to plant-based diets for acne, including foods to eat and foods to avoid for clear skin, download the GoodGlow Diet Blueprint.  It has everything you need on one-page to start eating an acne-free diet – simply omit any animal products and you’ve got yourself a customized, plant-based, clear-skin diet.

Have you tried a plant-based diet for acne before?  How did it go?  Let me know in the comments below!

Diet Blueprint Thumbnail@2x

FREE DIET BLUEPRINT

Everything you need to start eating an acne-free diet, all on one page.  Get permanently clear skin from within.

  • Quick, simple, understandable
  • The best foods to eat for clear skin
  • The foods you need to avoid

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