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10 Surprising Foods That Cause Acne

You Are What You Eat

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It's no surprise that a healthy diet has a positive impact on all of your organs, including your skin. But when it comes to the role diet plays in acne, the old adage "you are what you eat" holds especially true. "In the last decade there's been a lot of convincing scientific research confirming a link between what you eat and how your skin behaves," explains Whitney Bowe, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

While Bowe is quick to note that dietary changes alone won't clear up your skin, diet is an essential component in an all-encompassing acne treatment plan, particularly if topicals alone don't seem to be doing the trick. (Speaking of products, check out the best acne products on Amazon under $25.) Just be patient: "It takes one to three months for the effects of any changes in your diet to show up on your skin," she says. One good place to start? Nixing these 10 common trigger drinks and foods that cause acne. Whether you're dealing with chronic acne or just an occasional blemish, avoiding them can help clear up your complexion. 

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Dried Fruit

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Fruit equals healthy, right? Not the dried variety. "It's a refined carbohydrate that is high on the glycemic index. It causes a dramatic spike in blood sugar and a subsequent rise in insulin levels," explains Bowe. "This leads to a cascade of hormones that can increase oil production and trigger breakouts." Any kind of white bread, pasta, crackers, or cereal all fall into this same "food that causes acne" category and will have a similar effects on your skin.

Whenever possible, opt for fresh fruit (like the sweet treats found in these delicious kiwi recipes) and swap the white versions of your favorite carbs for whole grain varieties. 

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Skim Milk

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Malaysian research revealed that those who regularly consumed milk were four times more likely to have acne drama than those who didn't (the hormones in dairy are thought to make your skin go haywire). More surprising: Skim may be worse than whole or low-fat milk, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The exact reason why is still unclear, although it may have to do with the different proteins found in skim.

Previous studies suggested it may be the hormones in dairy that are the culprit, but the latest research shows that milk proteins, whey, and casein are also to blame. "The exact process is still unknown, but the thought is that when they bind to receptors in the digestive tract they signal certain molecules that trigger breakouts," explains Bowe. Why skim in particular as a food that causes acne? When companies remove the fat, they add more of these proteins to make the milk thicker and taste less watery, Bowe notes.

Choose non-dairy milk substitutes, like rice, almond, or coconut. (And check out our complete breakdown of the pros and cons of consuming dairy.)

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Whey Protein Powder

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Per the point about skim milk, this food that causes acne is especially problematic since it's in a pure and concentrated form. Vegan or pea protein powders are a better option for your post-workout smoothie. And be sure to scan the ingredients on your favorite snack or meal replacement bar too; whey protein is a common additive in these as well, says Bowe.

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Trans Fats

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These no-good-for-you fats typically come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a common ingredient in many processed foods ranging from cookies to chips to cake mix. Be sure to check the ingredients on anything packaged to ensure that you're steering clear of trans fats. "Just like they can lead to clogged arteries in the heart, trans fats also cause blockages in the tiny blood vessels in the skin," says Bowe. Not to mention they trigger inflammation, which can exacerbate acne flares.

Don't eliminate all fat though; polyunsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly beneficial for healthy skin. Flaxseed oil, walnuts, and chia seeds are all good sources. (P.S. Here's how much of every kind of fat you should eat each day.)

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More specifically, foods that cause acne include shrimp and lobster, both of which are high in iodine, says Jolene Hart, certified health coach and author of Eat Pretty: Nutrition for Beauty Inside and Out. While the essential mineral is beneficial for health and skin, it can trigger breakouts in people who have a sensitivity to it or simply consume too much.

Satisfy your seafood craving with fish high in good-for-your-skin omega-3 fatty acids instead, like wild salmon. (Don't fear fish! Here's how to cook it perfectly every time, according to Obama's former chef.)

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Milk Chocolate

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This food that causes acne touts a trifecta of some of the most common triggers: refined sugar, dairy, and often trans fats, says Bowe.

But that doesn't mean you can't give in to your sweet tooth; just pick dark chocolate, made with at least 70 percent cocoa to avoid the bad stuff and get an antioxidant boost to boot. (Take note: Dark Chocolate Could Give You An Edge At the Gym, Too)

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"Not all sushi has the same acne-causing potential, but there are some serious skin pitfalls to watch out for if you're a sushi lover," cautions Hart. Definitely steer clear of California rolls: White rice has a high glycemic index, while imitation crab meat contains gluten (as does soy sauce), a common inflammation-causing culprit that can cause and aggravate breakouts, she says. And even the nori sheets pose a problem; they contain iodine, which can also trigger acne in some people.

When in doubt, order sashimi with brown rice.

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Bottled juice, even the fresh pressed kind that you would think is good for your skin, can be a major breakout trigger. "Juice, especially if it's mostly fruit, is high in sugar with no fiber. Sipped on its own it causes a spike in your blood sugar that leads to increased sebum production and inflammation," explains Hart.

Eat whole fruit instead or pick veggie-based juices (such as this immunity-boosting green juice shot).

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Non-Organic Meat

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It's not the meat itself that's a problem, but rather the fact that poultry, beef, and pork can contain high levels of antibiotics, fed to the animals to keep them healthy. "Long-term, continual exposure to antibiotics can lead to resistance and disrupt the fine balance between the good and bad bacteria in our body," explains Bowe. And while you may think of bacteria primarily as it pertains to your digestive system, there are also a ton of good bacteria on our skin that keeps it healthy, hence why these foods cause acne, adds Bowe.

Eat organic or antibiotic-free meat whenever possible, and consider incorporating sources of probiotics (fermented foods, yogurt) to help boost the levels of good bacteria both in and on your body. (Related: Should You Be Using Probiotic Skin-Care Products?)

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Alcoholic Cocktails

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Margaritas, mojitos, and other mixed drinks are loaded with sugar (hello, inflammation and blood sugar spikes!), and alcohol is a diuretic that can dehydrate the skin: "When the skin is dry, it can't exfoliate properly and pores get clogged, leading to breakouts," says Bowe.

If you do want to imbibe in an adult beverage, a glass of red wine is your best bet. "It contains the antioxidant resveratrol and studies have shown that antioxidants are very beneficial for acneic skin," she explains. (Or try these 10 tasty mocktails instead.)

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