Meet Alex, a handsome young college student who dared to be different. Like most college students living away from home, Alex had gained some weight eating the typical college fare of unhealthy foods. Alex was in his sophomore year of college when he was inspired to watch the documentary Forks Over Knives.
Alex began to change in his diet, cutting out meat/dairy, and processed/fast foods. Since he lived in an apartment, he was able to prepare most of his own meals, which cut his food bill significantly. Alex suffered from acne since he was in high school. He was using several topical acne medications as well as a prescription antibiotic. He discontinued the medications before college and wanted to see if a change in diet would help. Within days, he saw immediate improvements in his complexion, and within three months, he dropped 25 pounds (without exercising).
Alex's "after" photo illustrates what excellent health looks like! Those that consume a diet rich in unrefined plant food have a healthy "glowing" skin color. This comes from the carotenoids in fruits and vegetables and increased blood flow to the skin. (More about how diet affects our skin tone is below.)
It was Alex that encouraged his parents to watch Forks Over Knives. His father struggled to keep his high cholesterol under 200 for 25 years. After just a few weeks of making the transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet, his cholesterol dropped 50 points. Alex's mother, Amy, had type-2 diabetes for many years but discontinued her diabetic medication after three months and has lost 30 pounds. She now helps others make the transition to a plant-centered diet through blogging and social networking.
We commend Alex for going against popular opinion and pursuing truth in a world which loves to ignore it. It's not easy to live a different lifestyle that's not popular, especially while in college. We need to remind ourselves that wrong doesn't become right, and untruths don't become true just because it's accepted by a majority. As Dr. John McDougall points out, our culture likes to "ignore the bulk of the science, exaggerate the truth, and make false associations" in order to satisfy addictive behaviors. The standard American diet is based on rich, high-fat, calorie-concentrated, low-nutrient foods, which gives us what we want instead of what we need. The hyper-concentrated, hyper-palatable foods have seduced and hijacked our dopamine receptors which prevent us from enjoying the delicious taste and textures of simple, whole plant foods. Read more about food addictions here and here and what Doug Lisle Ph.D. calls "The Pleasure Trap" here.
If you are a young adult suffering from acne or have a teen at home, this article will help you understand how our food choices affect the color, health, and appearance of the skin.
Populations Consuming a Diet Based on Low-Fat Carbohydrates Have Little or No Acne
Acne is a common ailment for many adolescents, teens and young adults like Alex. A major review on diet and acne by the International Journal of Dermatology states: "Acne is described as a disease of Western civilization, a near universal disease affecting up to 95% of teens and about half of adults here in the United States, but if you go to places that still eat more traditional diets, out of over a thousand people examined, not one single case of acne."
Dr. John McDougall adds, "Multiple studies of people living on their traditional native diets – almost all of which are low fat-diets, based on starches, vegetables, and fruits – have found these people have little or no acne. When these healthy people learn the Western diet, acne becomes an epidemic – as do the other diseases of modern civilization (obesity, heart disease, diabetes, prostate and breast cancer)." The incidence of acne in underdeveloped countries is often zero percent. Not a single case of acne was found in well-studied populations including the Kitavan Islanders of Papua New Guinea and the Ache' of Eastern Paraguay. These two populations live primarily on unprocessed, low-fat plant-foods consisting of 70% carbohydrate. Similarly, "People from Malaysia living on rice-based diets have been reported to have no acne problems. A rice-centered diet is also the reason people in rural Japan have very few skin troubles. Even those Europeans on lower-fat diets (Crete, Southern Italy) have less acne compared to those in Western Europe on higher fat diets. The Yemenite Jews following a healthier, lower-fat diet than European Jews report less acne, too." Acne becomes more prevalent when those living in villages move to the city, thereby adopting a richer diet high in fat, similar to the rich American diet. Dr. McDougall adds, that acne is not a natural condition, it's a disease which reflects the components of the rich Western diet.
How Does Diet Promote Acne?
Unfortunately, most medical doctors believe that oily skin and diet have nothing to do with acne. It's commonly believed that acne is related to "surging hormones during adolescence" yet as noted above, this condition is found only in populations that consume rich foods. Dr. McDougall highlights several ways in which diet influences acne:
- "A high-fat diet increases the amounts of fat (sebum) in and on the skin." Extreme changes in fat intake (in animal products as well as vegetable oils) alters the production of sebum. Sebum plugs the pores and feeds the bacteria which causes acne in susceptible people.
- "The rich Western diet increases sex hormones causing precocious puberty (girls mature at 12 rather than 16 – boys mature earlier too). Earlier maturation of women is known to be associated with more severe acne. Excess male hormones (androgens) in men and women are well known to cause acne and increase production of sebum."
- "Growth hormones adversely affect the sebaceous glands causing them to become easily plugged. Insulin-like growth hormone-1 (IGF-1) is known to be increased by dietary protein (meat, poultry, etc.), and especially by dairy products. Research shows elevated IGF-1 levels are associated with more acne."
Other Factors That can Contribute to a Lesser Degree are:
- "Acne is promoted by lack of antioxidants and other plant-derived nutrients that keep the skin healthy."
- "Poor circulation to the skin from a high-fat diet allows the skin to be more susceptible to acne."
- "Fat and oils, brought to the skin by hands picking up greasy French fries and burgers, cause acne – this directly-applied grease plugs the pores and feeds the bacteria."
Natural Growth Factors and Hormones in Dairy Products Promote Acne
- Dairy plays a major role in the development of acne. "The steroid hormones in milk are at high enough concentrations that it may affect our oil-producing pores."
- Studies show significantly more acne in those consuming milk. Because of the hormone content in milk, a leading dermatology journal recommends a "no dairy diet."
- "Dairy foods account for about 60 to 70% of the estrogen that comes from food." Organic milk can still contain up to 59 additional naturally occurring hormones.
- New research supports the position that milk and dairy products influences the onset and prevalence of acne. Milk "appears to represent a sophisticated hormone signaling system... the driving force for a number of diseases. Because we're drinking milk from the wrong species. Cow's milk is designed for calves. Baby calves grow nearly 40-times faster than human infants."
- "Drinking milk and consuming dairy products from pregnant cows exposes us to the hormones produced by the cows' pregnancy, hormones that we were not designed to consume during our teenage and adult years. In nature the offspring consumes only the milk of its own species. Human consumption of another species' milk, especially when that milk comes mainly from pregnant cows is essentially unnatural."
- "The main source of this estrogen is the modern factory farming practice of continuously milking cows throughout pregnancy. As gestation progresses the estrogen content of milk increases from 15 pg/ml to 1000 pg/ml."
Skim Milk Contains the Highest Levels of Hormones
- Skim milk contains the highest levels of natural hormones.
- "The National Dairy Council denies that milk intake causes acne, but a study they supported—the Harvard Nurse's Health Study—found otherwise." They concluded: "We found a positive association with acne for intake of total milk and skim milk. We hypothesize that the association with milk may be because of the presence of hormones and bioactive molecules in milk.
- Reducing the fat content in whole milk results in elevated protein and hormone levels in reduced fat milk products. "Three Harvard studies linking acne with dairy consumption in adolescent girls and boys blamed the sex steroid hormone content naturally found in cow's milk (even without added hormones), particularly skim. The Harvard Nurses study, (published in the prestigious Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology) found that the association between milk intake during adolescence and severe teenage acne was even more marked for skim milk than for other forms of milk. Skim milk contains significant levels of estrogen hormones; with commercial milk containing 15 natural steroid sex hormones. This is not a consequence of bovine growth hormone injections or added steroids. Milk—organic or conventional—is naturally a hormone cocktail." A commentary in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology noted: "It should surprise no one that milk contains such a heavy complement of growth-enhancing hormones. Milk is, after all, specifically designed to make things grow."
Those Who Eat a Diet Based on Plant Foods Appear Healthier and More Attractive
- "How can we tell if someone's healthy? You can look for that golden glow that comes from the carotenoids in fruits and vegetables. College students who went from three servings a day to the recommended minimum of nine servings a day for just six weeks were able to significantly improve their skin color."
- Dietary carotenoids from fruits and vegetables deposited in the skin contribute to a normal healthy, "glowing" skin color. Glowing skin is a reflection of a person's health status since yellow carotenoids like lutein are very health-promoting. Circulation increases in the small capillaries nourishing the skin, which also improves skin color.
- Rather than tanning for a "healthy glow" - eat a diet rich in whole unprocessed plant foods for healthy looking skin.
This is an excellent short video by Dr. McDougall regarding diet and acne embedded below.
Preventing and Healing Acne
Within approximately 4-7 days after changing to a low-fat, plant-based diet, a reduction in the oiliness of the face and hair is noticeable. Pimples will soon disappear, although it may take as long as a month to show significant improvement. "Strict adherence to the diet is absolutely essential" Dr. McDougall writes, "because I have found that small indiscretions result in a crop of pimples within a day or two. One night out to the pizza parlor will mean a face-full of flare-ups." Additional recommendations regarding treating acne can be seen here and here. Many processed foods contain dairy - it can be hard sometimes to recognize it in the ingredient list. Click here for a list of ingredients that contain dairy.
Dairy products are not only associated with increased rates of acne, they raise risk factors for more serious epidemic diseases in the Western world such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.
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