Carbohydrates and Acne

Is There a Link Between High Glycemic Index Foods and Acne?

Carbohydrates and Acne
Carbohydrates and Acne. Photo: Digital Vision / Getty Images

You’re breaking out.  Could carbohydrates be the culprit?

For years, the prevailing belief was diet had absolutely no effect. But now some researchers are taking a closer look at the effect carbohydrates play in the role of acne development.

And not just any old carbs – specifically high glycemic index foods. 

Before you go completely Atkins, let’s take an objective look at what the research really says, so you can make the best choice for your skin.

What are high glycemic index carbohydrates?

The glycemic index is a measure of how certain carbohydrates raise your blood sugar.

Carbohydrate-containing foods are given a score between 1 and 100.  Foods with a number, or higher glycemic index, are more quickly converted into glucose, and cause your blood sugar to spike.  Low-glycemic index foods, or the foods with a lower number, are digested more slowly.  They keep blood sugar levels more even.    

Think of the glycemic index as a way to differentiate between “good” carbs and “bad” carbs.  Whole grains, legumes, vegetables have a lower glycemic index.   High-glycemic index foods include white bread, potatoes, cakes, cookies, and other sugary treats.

It’s these high glycemic index foods that have been linked to acne development.

How can carbohydrates affect the skin?

Researchers believe carbohydrates with a high glycemic index, which cause glucose and insulin levels to spike, may influence the development and severity of acne.

Insulin levels are directly linked to our diet.  Insulin rises fast when we eat high glycemic index foods, and more slowly for low glycemic index foods.   

High insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) levels within the body increase the production of androgens.  And we know that androgen hormones have a direct impact on sebaceous gland activity, making them work overtime.

  Androgens may also increase inflammation. 

Conversely, a diet high in protein and carbohydrates with a low glycemic index improves insulin sensitivity. 

The jury is still out on exactly what this means for the skin, though.  For example, some studies found that many adults with acne have greater insulin and IGF-1 than those without acne.  Others have not shown any major difference in insulin levels between the two groups.

Do high-glycemic index foods cause acne?

Compared to other foods, there is more convincing evidence for high glycemic index foods to be a contributing factor in acne development.  It’s far from proven, though.  Basically, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg with lots more work needing to be done.

One important thing to note – while the studies to date have shown that diet may be a contributing factor, it is not the sole cause of acne.  Acne is caused by a many factors; diet may be just one piece of the puzzle. 

It’s also good to remember that the research isn’t cut and dry on this, and there are conflicting opinions.

  Some believe high glycemic index foods do indeed play a role.  Others in the field don't believe diet does much, if anything, to affect the skin. 

I have found, personally, that more dermatologists today are taking a fresh look at the connection diet may play in acne development.  One thing is for certain – we need to dig deeper into the topic.

Should you change your diet?


Take an honest look at your diet.  We all probably could do a better job of eating healthier foods.   

Instead of highly processed foods, try incorporating more whole grains (such as whole wheat bread, wheat pastas, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.) into your diet, as well as plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, and lean protein. Limit the amount of soda, sugary snacks, and other "junk foods" whenever possible.

Cut out high glycemic index foods and see if you notice a difference in your skin.  If your acne improves, then it’s a happy world.

But don’t hang all of your skin-clearing hopes on a dietary change alone.  While some sources are heralding a low glycemic index diet as the cure for acne, the research just doesn’t support that.  Acne is such a complex problem, it’s very unlikely that changing just one factor is going to completely clear it up.

We do know that cutting high glycemic index foods will lower your chances of developing other health problems.  Diabetes, for example.  So, in the long run, there really are plenty of reasons why you should switch your “bad” carbs to more healthy “good” ones. 

What else can you do to clear your skin?

Whether or not you believe carbs to be behind your breakouts, it’s best to focus not just on your diet but also other ways to clear your skin.

I encourage you to check out the pieces below, to help you build an acne treatment routine that will work for you.

Best-Bet Acne Treatment Options

Why You Need to See a Dermatologist STAT

Create Your Own Customized Skin Care Routine


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Burris J, Rietkerk W, Woolf K.  “Acne: the role of medical nutrition therapy.”  J Acad Nutr Diet.  2013 Mar; 113(3):416-30.

Demir B, Ucak H, Cicek D, et. al.  “Changes in serum desnutrin levels in patients with acne vulgaris.”  Eur J Dermatol.  2014 Sep-Oct; 24(5):589-93.

Manmood SN, Bowe WP.  “Diet and acne update: carbohydrates emerge as the main culprit.”  J Drugs Dermatol.  2014 Apr; 13(4):428-35.

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