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There are many acne trends and tropes surrounding food. You have likely heard at least one: dairy, gluten, chocolate, or greasy food leads to acne. While some of them may stem from science, some of the most compelling research is surrounding the effects of blood sugar levels on acne. Read on to learn more about food choices that may help reduce the instance of acne.  

Glycemic Load of Food

One of the most studied areas of dietary acne research is the correlation between a food’s glycemic load and acne flare ups. Research shows that the more high-glycemic-load foods are eaten, the worse, or more frequent acne flareups become. A food’s glycemic load is a way of measuring how quickly and how much food can raise your blood sugar. The reason this is significant is because the more rapidly blood sugar rises, and the higher it gets, the more our bodies have to work to bring those blood sugar measures back to an even level. These rapid changes in blood sugar can put the body at a greater risk of certain diseases, can influence hormone levels, and can increase inflammation in the body, all factors that can also increase one’s risk of acne. 

What Makes a Food with a High Glycemic Load?

The more carbohydrates a food contains means the more it will raise blood sugar levels. Additionally, the type of carbohydrates that foods contain impacts how quickly it is broken down by the body, therefore, how rapidly it will increase blood sugar. For example, fibre is a complex carbohydrate and cannot be broken down by the body. Foods containing fibre are digested more slowly, thus, raises blood-glucose slowly. Starches have a medium glycemic load and sugars raise blood sugar the fastest.
It’s also important to take into account how food is eaten in combination with one another. We don’t often eat a high glycemic food like a potato on its own. Adding foods containing fats or protein that are slower to digest will help lower the rate in which sugars are released from foods, allowing blood sugar levels to rise more slowly and be managed more easily by the body. So, adding sour cream that contains fats and protein to a potato for example, will lower the glycemic load of that meal.  

What are examples of high and low glycemic foods?

More processed foods tend to have higher glycemic loads because they often lack fibre and nutrients that cause the food to be broken down slowly. They are also more often higher in sugar, increasing the total amount blood sugar will rise. With that said, some whole foods like raisins have a high glycemic load. Interestingly, a food combination that contains a high glycemic load food paired with a low glycemic load food can help balance a snack or meal. For example, pairing those raisins with a handful of peanuts or a bowl of sticky rice with a piece of salmon and vegetables will balance out the total glycemic load of the meal.  

How can I use glycemic load to improve my skin?

Just like every dietary choice, it’s important to consider your holistic health. Eating food just for the sake of your skin is not sustainable. Luckily, there are small steps you can take to incorporate your new understanding of glycemic load into your daily routine to help improve your skin and overall health.  

3 tips for lowering your food glycemic load:

  1. Choose whole food more often – whole food options like whole grains, lean meats or meat alternatives, legumes, fresh fruits, and veggies contain complex food matrices that are often associated with lower glycemic load. These foods also contain more vitamins and minerals that are also great for skin health!
  2. Pair your snacks – instead of reaching for a granola bar, muffin, piece of fruit, or slice of toast alone, pair it with a source of fat and/or protein. That might mean eating those carbohydrate rich foods with a handful of nuts, an egg, a piece of paneer, nut butter, or some Greek yogurt. This will lower the total glycemic load of that snack.
  3. Keep snacking options on hand – studies show that going long periods between meals can cause a significant decline in blood sugar levels leading to extreme hunger. These moments of famishment can result in overeating. Additionally, low blood sugar levels are associated with cravings for carbohydrates in particular, making it more likely that a high glycemic load food will be selected. Having balanced snacks on hand can help prevent moments of extreme hunger and make managing blood sugar levels easier.  
Whether you’re down for a diet deep dive or prefer to skim the surface of eating for skin health, consider how glycemic load and food choices impact your acne. Try taking note of how your food choices influence your flares with our free habit tracker. After all great skin comes from more than just great skin care products.
[1] Bowe, W. P., Joshi, S. S., & Shalita, A. R. (2010). Diet and acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 63(1), 124-141.
[2] Smith RN, Braue A, Varigos G, et al. The effect of a low glycemic load diet on acne vulgaris and the fatty acid composition of skin surface triglycerides. J Dermatol Sci 2008; 50: 41– 52.
[3] Smith RN, Mann NJ, Braue A, et al. A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms in acne vulgaris patients: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2007; 86:
[4] Smith RN, Mann NH, Braue A, et al. The effect of a high-protein, low glycemic-load diet versus a conventional, high glycemic-load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris: a randomized, investigator-masked, controlled trial. J Am Acad Dermatol 2007; 57: 247 – 256.
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