Does an Inflammatory Diet Lead to Acne? New Study Strengthens the Link

Potential bad news for your morning bagel habit.

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The link between diet and acne has always been controversial, to say the least. For starters, anything involving diet can be difficult to study, since people eat a range of foods in different amounts throughout the day, and it can be hard to “control” variables in the diet to reach conclusive results.

Plus, acne can happen for a number of reasons, and it’s not always clear which of the factors is most to blame. Some people with acne spend decades trying to pin down the cause of their stubborn acne, and the search can be frustrating and disheartening.

Despite the challenges, there is some evidence that certain foods may not be innocent. An October 2019 study looked specifically at how inflammatory foods might contribute to acne.

What Is an Inflammatory Diet?

An inflammatory diet is one that creates chronic, low-level inflammation in the body. You might not notice or feel it, like you would during acute inflammation—such as when your throat is swollen and painful from a Strep infection. The effects of chronic inflammation can be more subtle, at least at first. (Learn more about chronic vs. acute inflammation here.)

Here's how it works: A diet that contains a lot of pro-inflammatory foods may cause the immune system to respond by releasing white blood cells to attack. White blood cells fight off things they see as a threat (usually pathogens like bacteria and viruses), but in the process, they also damage nearby healthy tissue. During acute inflammation, this can result in some harmless redness and swelling, but in chronic inflammation, this continuous damage can start to take a toll over time.

Eating one pastry every now and then is fine; however, when an inflammatory diet is eaten day after day, this can lead to chronic inflammation. Over time, this increases the risk for diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.

You know that inflammation hurts the organs inside your body. What about the massive organ on the outside of your body—i.e., your skin? 

A Study on Acne + Inflammatory Diets

A study published October 2019 in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics investigated the potential role of these inflammatory foods on acne in adults. 

The researchers used the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII) to assess the “inflammation potential” of each participant’s diet (according to self-reported food records). Foods known to create inflammation—such as red meat, dairy, refined grains, sugar, and alcohol—lead to a higher DII score. (Learn more about the link between refined grains and acne here.)

Foods known to reduce inflammation—such as fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains—lower your DII score. Diets high in these foods are linked to lower inflammation, better blood sugar control, improved blood pressure numbers, and more.

Finally, a dermatologist rated the participants’ acne as mild, moderate, or severe using digital photographs of the adults.

Here’s what the study found: The participants who ate a highly inflammatory diet (a high DII score) were more likely to have moderate or severe acne. Those who ate a less inflammatory diet (a low DII score) were more likely to have no or mild acne.

This study is small and should thus be interpreted with caution, but it supports what researchers already know about inflammation and acne. It seems your skin may be a clue that your body is not functioning optimally on the inside.

While researchers continue to debate the role of diet in acne, there’s no risk in trying out an anti-inflammatory diet (such as the Mediterranean diet) to soothe your skin. In fact, a diet low in pro-inflammatory foods aligns with what’s recommended for your overall health. Reducing inflammation in the body has numerous health benefits that go deeper than skin level—namely, lowering your risk of chronic diseases.

While diet plays an important role in inflammation, there's even more you can do to reduce inflammation in your body: Here are things you can do right now to lower inflammation.