Western Diet Found to Influence Acne, According to New Study Led by Colorado State University Scientist

Avoiding the typical Western diet of sugary foods and highly processed carbohydrates could help prevent acne, according to a new study by a Colorado State University researcher.

Loren Cordain, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State, led the study with five scientists from around the country who looked at the more than 1,300 Kitivan Islanders of Papua New Guinea and the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay.

The researchers found a surprising difference in acne incidence rates between the non-Westernized subjects studied and individuals of fully modernized Western societies. Over the course of the study, not a single case of active acne was observed in either Kitivan Islanders or Ache hunter-gatherers.

In Westernized societies, acne is a near-universal skin disease afflicting 79 percent to 95 percent of the adolescent population. Of men and women over the age of 25, 40 percent to 54 percent have some degree of facial acne.

According to Cordain, the perfect skin of the two unrelated groups in the study could not be explained by genetics, but likely was the result of differing environmental factors.

"High-glycemic foods such as bread, cakes, sugars and soft drinks may contribute to the acne suffered by 95 percent of Westernized teenagers," Cordain said.

The diet of Kitivans in Papua New Guinea consists mainly of fruit, fish and tubers – dietary habits that are virtually uninfluenced by Western foods. The diet of the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay includes wild and foraged foods, locally cultivated food and a small percentage of Western foods obtained from external sources. Their diet includes wild game but mainly consists of cultivated crops such as peanuts and sweet manioc, which is a native root.

Few studies have evaluated the prevalence of acne in non-Westernized societies; however, there is suggestive evidence that the incidence of acne is lower in non-industrialized societies than in Westernized populations.

Cordain believes the Western diet permanently boosts the hormone insulin in the human system, which leads to acne. By elevating growth factors and hormones, insulin indirectly stimulates the overproduction of oil and skin cells in pores. Clogged pores nourish bacteria, forming infected blemishes.

The study also found that dietary changes focusing on low glycemic carbohydrates – fruits, most meats, fish and vegetables (excluding potatoes) – may have therapeutic potential in the treatment of acne because of the beneficial endocrine effects. Diets rich in low glycemic foods reduced serum testosterone and fasting blood sugar levels while improving insulin metabolism. These endocrine changes are consistent with those known to promote normal growth of skin cells and to reduce sebum production, two of the main contributors to acne.

"A healthier diet will help avoid the numerous creams and ointments that are prescribed to deal with the problem of acne," said Cordain. "Women who are predisposed to acne because of hormonal conditions have seen improvement when they cut ‘culprit’ carbohydrates."