If you’re wondering why you are on a vegan diet and acne is still a problem, don’t skip this article!
You’ll learn about what foods may be contributing as well as tasty plant based options to consider instead.
Disclaimer: This article is just providing information and is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Always talk to your doctor about any health concerns, if you want to make major dietary changes, or take a supplement. See our Disclaimers for more details.
This article was originally published on 11/18/21. The recent updated date is listed above.
What is Acne Vulgaris?
To better understand what may affect zits, lets define the condition, otherwise known as Acne Vulgaris.
“The common form of acne, in teens and young adults, that is due to overactivity of the oil (sebaceous) glands in the skin that become plugged and inflamed…”Treatments include keeping the skin clean and avoiding irritating soaps, foods, drinks, and cosmetics.”Source: Medicinenet.com (you can read their full definition here)
You know what stood out to me?
Acne can be caused by a variety of factors! Food is only one potential contributor (with an emphasis on potential – more on that later).
Factors that may contribute to acne include(1):
- Family history
- Certain conditions (such as PCOS with high levels of androgens)
- Poor sleep
- Certain types of food
This article is dedicated to talking about that last point, but first things first:
Do Vegans Have More Acne Then Non Vegans?
We don’t know (that’s the short answer)!
Longer answer: Research is extremely limited on this subject. Furthermore, I could not find any randomized control trials (RCT) on this topic.
One study suggests that there wasn’t a significant association between a vegan diet and acne (2). However, there are many limitations to this study, including the very small sample of those on the vegan diet and the retrospective nature of the study.
So-no, we can’t prove that vegans have more or less acne than non vegans.
Still, what we eat may have a role to play in pimple formation.
Lets talk about specific foods next!
Foods that May Contribute to Acne
Before we “dig in” to the food research (pun intended 😉 ) we need to make some very important caveats about the role food might play with acne:
- We have very limited research regarding the role acne plays with diet. Lots of this research comes with flaws (such as difficulties with food recalls and the potential placebo effect)
You are so unique. Despite what the research says, certain foods might contribute to acne for some but not others. Talk to your doctor before making any major dietary changes.
- Eliminating foods can have unintended consequences, such as anxiety over what to eat and decreases in nutrient intake. Again, work in conjunction with your doctor and dermatologist if you think certain foods are contributing to your acne.
Alright, now that we got that out of the way, here’s a look at research behind certain foods that may contribute to breakouts!
Drinking milk could make acne worse for certain individuals.
But… it’s complicated.
One 2020 cross-sectional study suggests that dairy milk (not plant based “milk” just to be clear!) consumption was associated with current acne (3). However I’m not aware of nay RCT’s, and studies are mixed as to whether other dairy products, (like yogurt) promote acne.
While we aren’t quite sure as to why milk may be associated with acne, it has been proposed that dairy proteins may elevate insulin and IGF-1 (a growth hormone promoted by dairy) levels. These are factors that could promote the growth of acne(4).
Again, the research is very unclear and not conclusive. Those who consume lots of milk and have acne may find it worthwhile to talk to a dermatologist about a dairy free trial.
Does This Affect Me as a Vegan?
Vegans do not consume dairy products (because they avoid all animal products).
High Glycemic Index (GI) Foods and Glycemic Load (GL)
Individuals suffering from moderate to severe acne, might notice that they have worse acne on a high GI (glycemic index)/ high (glycemic load) GL diet.
The glycemic index (GI) uses a scale of one to one hundred that is based on the rise in blood glucose level for a particular food.
The glycemic load (GL) takes the portion size into consideration.
High GI foods are typically digested and and absorbed quicker than low GI foods, resulting in higher blood sugar spikes.
Examples of higher GI foods include white bread, rice milk, and watermelon. Lower GI food (sometimes defined as a GI index of <55 (5)) examples include soybeans, apples, and barley.
One randomized control trial associated a a low GI/GL diet with decreased IGF-1 (a growth hormone), which is a factor that could be related to acne (5). Of note, there were several limitations to this study, including length, the small number of participants, and the exclusion of participants without acne.
Does This Affect Me as a Vegan?
There are several vegan foods that range on the spectrum of the glycemic index. In other words, you can be vegan and eat a low, high or mixed GI index “diet.”
Regardless of what foods we eat, remember: your acne may have nothing to do with diet at all.
And even though a food may be labeled as “high GI,” it can still provide beneficial nutrients.
For example, watermelon, (a high GI food) provides the antioxidant lycopene, and a good dose of beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A). In other words, a nutritious food you probably don’t want to shun because it’s so garn tasty and nutritious!
Again, we can’t stress enough that adding dietary restrictions without proper guidance can unintentionally cause disordered eating, nutrient deficiencies and more.
What About Chocolate?
The research on the role of chocolate and acne is so mixed that it”s hard to conclude that chocolate causes acne for several reasons(6).
Number 1: different types of “chocolate” may be defined as milk or dark, with little or very high amounts of added sugar. Plus, some studies may even group cocoa powder into the “chocolate group” (we know cocoa has different properties than chocolate).
So, is it the milk in the chocolate that promotes acne? Or the high sugar content?
In those cases, perhaps a dairy free, low sugar dark chocolate would not have the same effect as a a high sugar milk chocolate.
So was it the chocolate or the increased stress that caused the acne? As you can see, there are several confounding variables that make research in this area difficult.
As is the theme here, a chocolate free trial may help you tease out whether it is contributing to zits or not.
Is There Anything Vegans Can Eat That is Protective Against Acne?
Again, we aren’t quite sure.
I know, that’s not the answer you want to hear, but remember, acne is multifactorial.
There’s not a lot of research that speaks to dietary interventions alone for acne. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology Association states that:
“While diet may play a role in causing your breakouts or worsening your acne, keeping your skin clear requires more than diet change.”Source: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/causes/diet
In Conclusion: Vegan Diet and Acne
The connection between acne and diet is not well established yet.
As would be expected: we know even less about whether or not a vegan diet contributes to acne!
While there is some evidence to suggest that high glycemic index foods could contribute, remember: acne is multifaceted, and every individual is different.
Talk to your doctor and dermatologist about what you can do if pimples are keeping you up at night. Cutting out food needlessly is not recommended.
Did you find this article helpful? Any other questions about plant based diets and acne? Let me know below!
And while you’re here, why not poke around on our blog? We go over other topics such as vegan diets and PCOS and why higher calorie vegan foods (like sweet potatoes) are important!
Sign up for my e-mail subscribers list to keep up with new posts, and may the fork be with you…