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Eating Your Way to Acne

Western diet blamed for proliferation of pimples

MONDAY, Dec. 16, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The standard Western diet of refined sugars and starches may be more to blame for the high rates of acne than you'd think.

That's the belief of an international team of researchers who suspect that highly processed foods, such as breads, cereals, chocolate and pizza, cause the body to produce high levels of insulin, which in turn leads to an excess of male hormones. Excess male hormones cause an overproduction of sebum -- the greasy stuff that blocks your pores -- and acne results.

"Acne can be psychologically devastating to a teen," says study author Loren Cordain, a professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University.

More important, he adds, "acne is just one small part of a larger health problem." The typical Western diet likely also contributes to heart disease and other ailments.

According to the study, published in the December issue of the Archives of Dermatology, 79 percent to 95 percent of teens in Western societies have acne. Forty percent to 54 percent of those over 25 have it, and for Westerners in middle age, 12 percent of women and 3 percent of men still suffer from acne.

Cordain says he became interested in the acne-food connection after reading an article about a tribe living in a non-developed part of the world whose members had no pimples until they were introduced to a Western diet.

So, the researchers set out to study two pimple-free populations -- one from Papua New Guinea and the other from Paraguay. These primitive people live without electricity or running water and eat a decidedly non-Western diet. They eat only foods they can hunt, gather or grow.

The researchers examined 1,200 (including 300 teens) Kitavan Islanders from Papua New Guinea and 115 (including 15 teens) Ache hunter-gatherers from Paraguay. They found no cases of acne in either population. In fact, the study says they found no pimples on any of those people studied.

"There was a startling lack of acne," Cordain says, and it wasn't a one-time effect. The researchers studied the Ache people for two years and never saw a single case of acne.

Previous research had shown that when tribespeople such as those studied adopt a Western lifestyle, acne follows. So genetics couldn't be protecting the subjects of Cordain's research.

That meant, he says, the lack of acne had something to do with their environment, and the only known environmental factor that could cause the excess of insulin, male hormones and overproduction of sebum seen in Western civilization is diet.

Others, however, aren't so sure.

"If processed foods cause acne, why don't little kids and the elderly have acne?" asks Dr. Ted Daly, a dermatologist at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y. Daly says he also finds it hard to believe that of the 1,200 people studied by Cordain's group, the researchers couldn't find one pimple or blackhead. If that's the case, Daly says, there is no proof that there isn't a genetic basis, or something else in the environment that accounts for their clear skin.

Dr. Harry Saperstein, director of pediatric dermatology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, says the Cordain theory is "an interesting starting point," but still hasn't been scientifically proven.

Cordain, however, is convinced that the Western diet is at fault and recommends changing your diet to reduce acne and to improve overall health. He is quick to point out, though, that he's not advocating any of the popular high-protein diets, because they're often high in saturated fat.

What he does recommend is a low-glycemic load diet. The glycemic index predicts how much a particular food will raise insulin levels. Bread, potatoes, many cereals and candy all have high glycemic indexes, while fruits, vegetables and bran products have lower glycemic indexes. He advocates a diet that's about one third protein (from lean meat and fish), one third fat and one third complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables.

Daly says if you want to reduce acne outbreaks, keep your skin clean and use a benzoyl peroxide wash or cream daily. He says while he doesn't know of any studies that scientifically link food and acne, if you feel a particular food makes you break out, you might want to avoid it.

What To Do

For more information on acne and its treatment, visit the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases or the American Academy of Dermatology.

SOURCES: Loren Cordain, Ph.D., professor, health and exercise science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.; Ted Daly, M.D., dermatologist, Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow, N.Y.; Harry Saperstein, M.D., director, pediatric dermatology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and associate professor, medicine and pediatrics, University of California, Los Angeles; December 2002 Archives of Dermatology
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