Low-carb diet found to be effective for acne

While in conventional medicine skin conditions are generally seen as a problem in the, err, skin, in natural medicine they are generally seen a sign of something deeper within the body. Eczema, for instance, is often found to be related to internal imbalances which may include factors such as food sensitivity and a lack of certain healthy fats in the diet. Another skin condition that seems to have at least some of its root in diet is acne. In the past, researchers have suggested that one potential provoking factor in this skin condition is the consumption of certain carbohydrates (see previous article below).

Now, a group of researchers based in Melbourne, Australia, have taken the next logical step and have tested the effect of a diet somewhat restricted in carbohydrate on acne. In this study in 43 men aged 15-25 years, participants were assigned to one of two diets [1]. One of these was a low ‘glycaemic load’ (GL) diet (of which 25 per cent of energy came from protein and 45 per cent came from low-glycaemic-index carbohydrates) and a ‘control’ diet which emphasised carbohydrate-dense foods. The study lasted for 12 weeks.

At the end of the study the total count of acne lesions in those on the low GL fall by about 24 compared to about 12 in those on the control diet. Inflammation in the skin was also adjudged to have fallen by about twice as much in the low GL diet-eaters compared to those eating the control diet. Overall, the low GL diet led to a rough halving in the number of acne lesions and extent of inflammation in the skin.

It is perhaps worth noting that individuals eating the low-GL diet lost an average of 2.9 kg during the 12 weeks of the study, compared to a loss of only 0.5 kg in the control group.

All of the differences in acne severity and weight were ‘statistically significant’.

This study seems provides good evidence that a low glycaemic load diet can be effective in the treatment of acne. And, as an added benefit, it shows that a diet which controls the consumption of high glycaemic index carbohydrates may be effective for the purposes of weight loss too.


1. Smith RN, et al. A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms in acne vulgaris patients: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86(1):107-115

Natural treatments for acne – originally posted on 18 May 2003

While acne is generally thought of as an adolescent affliction, my experience suggests otherwise. In my practice, I see a pretty regular stream of individuals who, long after the hormonal rush that comes with puberty has died down, continue to suffer from ‘bad skin’. In fact, statistics show that more than one in two women and 40 per cent of men over the age of 25 have at least some acne, and for quite a few this problem can even persist into middle age. Traditional nutritional advice for those prone to acne is to avoid fatty food, with chocolate often singled out as particularly spot-inducing fare. However, recent evidence suggests that it is not fat, but another commonly-found ingredient in chockie bars, that may incite the skin breakouts that plague so many of us.

Clues to the cause of acne may be had by comparing the nutritional habits of populations with differing susceptibilities to this skin condition. With this in mind, researchers recently took an in-depth look at the diets and dermatological health of two indigenous populations: the Kitavan islanders from Papua New Guinea and the Aché hunter-gatherers from Paraguay [1]. While the Kitavans subsist mainly on fruit, vegetables, fish, and coconut, the Aché diet is comprised almost entirely of wild, foraged for and locally cultivated foods. Intriguingly, the prevalence of acne in both these groups eating essentially natural foods was found to be nil, even in those caught in the hormonal maelstrom that comes with puberty and adolescence. This, clearly, is in stark contrast to the rip-roaring rates of acne seen in industrialised nations.

Some have suggested that such differing propensities to acne are a matter of genetics. However, the observation that populations swapping their traditional diet for something less natural become more acne-prone points strongly to nutrition as the critical factor. The typically Western diet is renowned for its overly fatty nature, and this supports the commonly-held belief that fatty foods cause spots. However, some researchers have put forward the notion that rather than fat, it is sugars and starches (carbohydrates) that are the major protagonists in acne eruptions. While carbohydrates in traditional diets generally come in whole, unadulterated forms, those consumed in the West are typically refined, and may contain a load of sugar too. It seems that eating a diet rich in foods such as white bread, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, sweet drinks and sugary breakfast cereals may have important implications for our skin.

One effect these foods tend to have is stimulate the production of copious quantities of the blood sugar regulating hormone insulin. Laboratory experiments show that rushes of insulin in the system encourage the secretion of a skin waterproofing agent called sebum, and also may initiate changes in the skin that tend to block the glands that make it. It is this backlog of sebum in the skin, often coupled with a bacterial infection, that cause spots, pimples and acne. The evidence suggests that keeping the carbs in our diet based on natural sources such as fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses and brown rice, rather than more processed fare, makes for healthier skin in the long term. The good news is that chocolate isn’t necessarily off the menu: dark varieties containing 70 per cent or more cocoa solids are relatively low in sugar, and are therefore the treats of choice for those keen to clear their skin from within.


Cordain L, et al. Acne vulgaris: a disease of Western civilization. Arch Dermatol. 2002;138(12):1584-90

14 Responses to Low-carb diet found to be effective for acne

  1. chris 9 July 2007 at 1:01 pm #

    gosh – and there is me thinking that we have been advicing a reduced sugar intake for acne for years!!

  2. Dr John Briffa 9 July 2007 at 7:45 pm #

    Chris – eating a low GL diet means more than just limiting refined sugar, but many starchy foods too.

  3. Rachael 13 July 2007 at 4:45 pm #

    Is a low GL diet the same as a low GI diet? I have had moderate acne for years and am now 24 still the same as ever despite conventional treatments. Will give this diet a try, where can I find guidelines to follow it?

  4. helen 15 July 2007 at 10:42 pm #

    Not surprising since sugar is an addictive poison to the human system – especially in the huge quanties most people consume it. It may take 60 years to kill you but it will kill you as surely as a heroin overdose & cause several health problems along the way. & before you tell yourself oh I don’t eat sugar – check the ingredients of every proccessed food you buy & include the foods that turn to sugar – bread, jam, cereal, rice, pasta, potatoes, high sugar content fruits, etc. I laughed my head off recently at an uncle who has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes who wondered why he was having a high sugar episode shortly after consuming a bowl of corn flakes with a banana (high sugar fruit) & 2 slices of toast with lashings of jam & marg instead of butter, all the while insisting he didn’t eat sugar!!!! deluded, misadvised & totally in denial about his sugar addiction – he truly believed he was right because his DOCTOR had given him what he should eat according to the diabetes foundation dietry advice.
    Why is this not malpractice at best or manslaughter at worst?All of the doctors/dietitians advocating this sort of high carb low fat diet to suffers of diabetes or any other disease caused by excessive sugar(carb) consumption are actively condemning their patients to short sick lives. You don’t need science to tell you something you can observe for yourself – fat, sick people all deluding themselves that they don’t eat sugar or that dangerous saturated fat – no we eat low fat or the good fats! whatever they are considered to be at the time – don’t forget trans fats used to be the darling of the good fats!!
    What would I know though I can only read the scientific papers from both sides & observe the imperical evidence of my own body recovering from all the illnesses foisted upon me by doctors prescribing drugs & the low fat diet to me for 40 years. Since finding Dr Atkins (who should be given a saint hood for his life’s work) I haven’t looked back. No medication, no obesity, no high blood pressure, no type 2 diabetes, no eczema, no asthma, no sugar addiction & NO HIGH CHOLESTEROL! Of course I no longer eat carbs & I eat stacks of saturated fat, meat protein & a few select green veggies . But then what would I know!!?

  5. Nicola Russell 28 September 2007 at 3:06 pm #

    Can anyone tell me why then since following specific carbohydrate diet i have developed acne on my neck??? Have never had it before and now am healthier than ever before but look like a teenager (despite being 36!)??

  6. Christina 13 October 2007 at 3:19 pm #

    I decided to give this a go and for the last week have completely avoided wheat, corn, rice and sugar. I didn’t bother counting the carbs in vegetables. I’ve seen definite improvement. I had a terrible outbreak when I started and one week later I have one active pimple (that’s much smaller than I normally have) and only a few red marks from past outbreaks. I’m going to keep going with it another week and then experiment with putting rice back in my diet. I’d definitly recommend trying this. I’ve had terrible acne most of my life and I didn’t want to go on accutane.

  7. Acne 22 April 2008 at 10:53 am #

    So is that one of the main causes of acne, eating high-carb foods? Im 19 and still suffer from acne, will this help me get rid of mine?

  8. Body~Detox Diet 9 July 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    a good acne diet should always include foods that are rich in Vitamin-A since Vitamin-A helps in the maintennance of skin health.

  9. Kr 15 October 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    im a competitive bodybuilder who doesn’t eat carbs for months at a time during contest prep (live off natural pb, almonds, chix, eggs, turkey, peppers, onions, lettuce, dressing, sugar free candy)..& still have horrible acne. I also do not take steroids!

  10. william i 28 September 2010 at 9:46 am #

    To Kr, stop eating the peanut butter!

    It’s not a nut and it’s a legume. You may also be allergic to it. I stopped eating peanut butter and switched to almond butter.

  11. polker 27 November 2010 at 8:36 pm #

    @ Kr and whom it may concern:

    there are more variables than simply what you eat. How much you eat is at least one other variable that affects insulin response to food. If you’re eating a lot of low glycemic index foods then your glycemic load will be big, which in turn affects your insulin response negatively. I don’t know how much of the low glycemic index food you are eating, but I assume as a body builder you more than likely eat a lot and therefore may have a high glycemic load which is causing some unwanted inflammation in your body.


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