Nutrition Secrets for Healthy Skin: Is Sugar Causing your Breakouts?

The second installment in the Nutrition Secrets for Healthy Skin Series is all about sugar and acne. While sugar scrubs are commonly used to exfoliate the surface of your skin, regularly ingesting sugar may have a very different effect on your acne. Have you ever noticed that your skin breakouts get worse after a few days of indulging in desserts? Many people with acne suspect that sugar is a trigger for their breakouts, but decreasing sugar intake is not commonly recommended as a treatment for acne. Scientists are just now beginning to understand the relationship between sugar and acne despite having studied the connection for decades. Although the current research is somewhat inconsistent, it does suggest that high intakes of sugar and refined carbohydrates may trigger breakouts and/or exacerbate current acne. 

Related Reading: Is Dairy Causing your Breakouts?

Acne & Sugar

Most of the better quality studies on acne and sugar examined the effects of eating a high glycemic index diet (or a high glycemic load diet) on acne development and severity. The Glycemic Index (GI) measures how much a specific food increases your a blood sugar. Foods that score high in the GI cause significant increases in your blood sugar after they are consumed. The GI has become less popular among scientists and registered dietitians because it does not take into account typical serving sizes or other nutritional benefits of various carbohydrate foods. The Glycemic Load (GL) is a more useful measurement of how certain foods impact your blood sugar because it was created based on standard serving sizes of specific foods. Foods that score high on the GL also significantly increase your blood sugar compared to low-GL foods. High-GL foods include:

  • Products made with white flour (breads, bagels, pastas, desserts)
  • Soda
  • Juice
  • Desserts and candy
  • Sugar
  • Sweetened cereals
  • White rice
  • Dried fruits

The stronger studies on this topic suggest that a high-GL diet (high in refined carbohydrates and sugar-containing foods) may increase the development and severity of acne. In one study, research participants decreased total and inflammatory acne lesions after 12-weeks on a low-GL diet compared to participants following a high-GL diet. Another study found that research participants following a low-GL diet had lower levels of sebum (oil secretions) production in their skin. Excess sebum production is a known risk factor for acne development. 

How Sugar Can Cause Acne

Sugar and refined carbohydrates are rapidly digested and absorbed in your body, which results in a drastic increase in your blood sugar (also known as glucose). Elevated blood glucose triggers a reactive and exaggerated release of the hormone insulin into your blood stream. High levels of insulin in the blood trigger the release of growth hormones that are known to increase sebum production, unregulated cellular growth, and androgen production. All of which are involved in the development of pimples.

Take Away Message

Decreasing your intake of high glycemic load foods, like sugar and refined carbohydrates, is a promising strategy for preventing and treating acne. The research on this topic has not yet defined how much sugar/refined carbohydrate intake is necessary to influence acne development. However, decreasing your intake of these foods can have tremendous benefits for overall health even if you don't notice a substantial difference in your skin (although I have found that most people do).

Recommended Reading: Acne: The Role of Medical Nutrition Therapy

Have you guys noticed any difference in your skin when you eliminate sugar? Share your own nutrition secrets for healthy skin in the commend section! Stay tuned for more in the Nutrition Secrets for Healthy Skin Series

XO Tamar

Author: Tamar Samuels MS, RDN, CDN

Tamar Samuels is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the founder of All Great Nutrition, an unconventional nutrition and health coaching service for anyone who wants to transform their lives to become their happiest and healthiest self. Tamar's nutrition and health coaching program helps you develop sustainable self-care behaviors that nourish your body and mind for a lifetime. Through her personalized and holistic approach, you will finally achieve your greatest wellness goals...on your terms! When she's not working with awesome people like you, she loves lounging in her Brooklyn, New York apartment with her lazy dog Shiloh. 

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