We all know that loading our plates up with fruits and vegetables is good for our insides. But a healthy diet rich in plant-based, whole foods can also benefit us on the outside. Cutting out processed meat, dairy, and embracing whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and berries could have some major skin benefits. But can a plant-based diet really transform our skin?
Dermatologist Dr. Niyati Sharma thinks so. An advocate for plant-based living and all of the skin benefits it can bring, she has opened Australia’s first plant-based dermatology clinic: Inside Out Dermatology, in Melbourne.
Sharma is passionate about a whole-food, plant-based diet; that basically means eating fresh, whole ingredients, and only minimally processed foods. The diet is associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
Sharma says: “If you want really good skin, or you want to help prevent yourself from getting some of the diseases that your family members might have, you really need to look into eating plant-based, whole foods.”
The dermatologist speaks from firsthand experience; she suffered with acne throughout her late 20s. For Sharma, turning vegan wasn’t a dreamy skin cure that saw dramatic changes overnight. Rather, it was a more gradual change, brought on when she decided to embrace plant-based, whole foods. After studying dermatology and nutrition, Sharma realized why her skin was improving.
We recently sat down with the dermatologist via Zoom to talk about why she advises her patients to follow in her footsteps.
Can a Vegan Diet Help Acne?
Acne is one of the most prevalent skin conditions in the Western world. In the U.S., it affects more than 50 million people, and the numbers are consistently going up, with adult acne on the rise. But this isn’t the case everywhere.
In non-westernized societies, acne rates appear to be much lower. “In the seventies, a group of researchers went to Papua New Guinea,” says Sharma. “They discovered that there were no adolescents with acne.”
In 2002, another study on the Kitavan Islanders of Papua New Guinea came to the same conclusion. The authors evaluated research from the 1990s. They wrote: “Not a single papule, pustule, or open comedone was observed in the entire population examined.” They stated that out of 300 Kitavans aged 15 to 25 years, there wasn’t one case of acne. But in a Western population of the same group, acne would be detected in at least 120 people.
The same results were observed in a group of Aché hunter-gatherers from Paraguay, who researchers examined from 1997 to 2001. Not one single case of acne.
The obvious difference between these two societies and Westerners? Diet and way of life. In the West, diets feature a lot of processed foods, and sugar, salt, and saturated fat intake is high. In fact, one study, conducted in 2010 by the National Cancer Institute, found that nine out of ten people in America do not reach the minimum recommended daily intake of vegetables.
In contrast, In both Paraguay and Papua New Guinea, the consumption of processed and animal-based foods was very low.
For the Kitavan islanders, the only animal product regularly consumed was fresh fish. Tubers and fruits represented their “dietary mainstays,” noted researchers. For the Aché hunter-gatherers, while they did consume wild game, 69 percent of their diet consisted of cultigens, like sweet manioc, peanuts, maize, and rice. Essentially, their diets were predominantly based around plant-based whole foods.
We know there is a link between the standard American diet and the risk of internal diseases. Processed meat, for example, is classified by the World Health Organization as a group one carcinogen. And if there’s a link internally, it makes sense that there is a link when it comes to skin health, too.
“If you look at the overall prevalence and incidence of acne, it’s actually gone up quite a lot, even taking into account the population,” says Sharma. “And part of that is, we’re all becoming westernized in our diet. We’re eating and consuming a lot more of all these processed foods, fatty foods, high sugar, and also dairy.”
Of course, there are other potential factors involved when it comes to the skin condition, including genetics, environment, and hormonal changes. But the 2002 study isn’t standalone.
This study, published in 2017 in the international journal of molecular sciences, came to the conclusion that “plant-based foods and supplements, especially those rich in fiber and polyphenols, could provide a natural, low-risk intervention for acne vulgaris.”
If you’re switching to a vegan diet for the first time, it’s important to be patient with your skin. It may get worse at first, but then you may start to see improvements once you’ve settled into your new way of eating.
Dr. Pam Benito, another dermatologist, told Bustle: “Breakouts and skin changes aren’t uncommon for people transitioning to a vegan diet … if you do get acne after cutting animal products out of your diet, give your body a few weeks to adjust to your new eating style and you might see it clear up on its own.”
She added: “However if the issue is from food allergies, hormone imbalances, or a poor skincare routine, it may not simply go away on its own.”
While a whole-food, plant-based diet may improve your skin, there’s one animal ingredient, in particular, that needs special attention: dairy.
Can Dairy Trigger Acne?
It’s widely accepted that there is a link between dairy consumption and acne. Essentially, this is down to hormones.
Cow’s milk isn’t produced for humans to drink. The sole purpose of that milk is to nourish calves and help them to grow and develop.
Cow’s milk is made up of two proteins: whey and casein. Research suggests that when humans digest casein, a growth hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) is released.
We already have IGF-1 in our bodies. It’s produced in the liver and body tissue and helps to promote cell growth and division. It’s particularly important when we’re children, as it helps with growth and development. But having too much can present a problem for our skin.
Consuming more of “the breast milk of mammalian milk” triggers breakouts, says Sharma. Higher levels of IGF-1 can impact the sebaceous glands and lead to the stimulation of oily sebum production.
She adds that it’s not just cow’s milk that stimulates the hormone, but goats milk too.
“[IGF-1] stimulates the sebocytes [sebum-secreting cells in the sebaceous glands] to get bigger and bigger,” says Sharma. “So you get the more nodular cystic acne.”
So cutting dairy milk out of your diet could have a big impact on clearing up acne. But milk isn’t just consumed on its own, it’s also used as an ingredient in a number of products. So it’s also important to pay attention to what Sharma calls “hidden dairy.”
“My patients come in and say, ‘oh, but I don’t really have any dairy.’ Then we start to break down what they actually eat,” she says. “You think ‘oh actually, what about the protein bar that you ate? And what about that milk chocolate you’ve eaten?’ It all adds up, even a little bit does.”
The Importance of Reducing Inflammation
Acne is also linked to inflammation in the body, as are other common skin conditions, like psoriasis, rosacea, and eczema.
“Inflammation is one thing I want people to reduce,” says Sharma. It can be made worse by many things, including smoking, dairy intolerance, consuming fried foods, and eating animal products with high levels of choline.
Red meat, fish, eggs, and poultry all contain choline. As the gut bacteria eat the choline, it produces trimethylamine, which is converted into Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in the liver. A harmful molecule, TMAO leads to chronic inflammation.
“After 24 hours of consuming any animal products we start to see this real spike in TMAO,” explained Sharma.
Referring to patients with psoriasis, Sharma explained that outer inflammation can be an indication of more serious problems going on inside the body.
“Not only is skin inflamed, but we think that maybe arteries and other parts of your body also tend to get affected,” she explains. “So we see a lot more heart attacks in those with poorly controlled psoriasis than we do otherwise. It’s very important that these patients are reducing the amount of inflammation in their bodies.”
And one of the best ways to reduce inflammation is through diet.
Some of the foods that we eat cause inflammation and some of them reduce it. Anti-inflammatory foods are often plant-based whole foods. Berries, broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, and even dark chocolate can help to reduce inflammation in the body. This is due to the high content of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, like flavonoids. The latter helps your body to fight off harmful molecules, reducing chronic inflammation.
“In the last few years, there’s been a few case reports where a couple of patients with really bad psoriasis but normal weight, who weren’t keen on going on any treatment, went on a whole-food, plant-based diet,” says Sharma. “Within like six to seven months, almost all their psoriasis disappeared, which is really incredible.”
“When you eat a healthy diet, you do tend to reduce a whole heap of inflammation in your body,” she adds. “That’s why diseases can progress. They can go from a clogged up into an unclogged artery. It gives the body that chance to recover.”
For more information on inflammation and the best plant-based, whole foods to eat to reduce it, see here.
Can a Vegan Diet Clear Your Skin?
Whether a diet can help clear the skin is all down to the type of foods you eat. An unhealthy vegan diet, while better for the animals and the environment, could still be high in inflammatory foods. French fries, for example, are vegan, but they’re also deep-fried and can be high in artificial trans fats, which causes inflammation.
So Sharma is eager to note that being vegan alone may not be enough to reduce inflammation and the skin conditions related to it.
A healthy vegan diet is filled with plant-based, whole foods, and this is the best for reducing inflammation.
“I always tell patients that being vegan means you’re there for the animals, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy for your body,” says Sharma. “That’s not steering away from veganism or taking anything away, but I always have to differentiate that if it’s for your health, it has to be whole food.”
Sharma isn’t alone. Studies have found that a whole-food, plant-based diet is the best, not just for healing skin conditions, but just for making your skin glow and giving your face a more youthful complexion.
This study, for example, published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology in May 2020, notes that a plant-based diet can help to prevent skin aging. It notes “a [whole food plant-based] diet has been demonstrated to lengthen telomeres” as well as “reverse the aging process of [DNA].”
So, if you’re eager to boost your intake of plant-based whole foods but you’re not sure where to start, here are five suggestions.
5 Vegan Foods That Are Great For Your Skin
Many believe that fish is an essential food for skin health, due to its omega-3 content. Research suggests that omega-3s improve the function of the skin barrier, help to seal in moisture, and keep out irritants.
But Sharma says seaweed and algae are far better sources of the fatty acid. She explains: “Some of the nutrients that are found in fish, like selenium, get blocked by the mercury that’s in the water.” Fish can also contain other toxins, like microplastics.
“I always say to patients, ‘what if you know that the fish doesn’t naturally have omega-3? It eats the seaweed that gets omega-3. So why don’t you just go ahead and eat the seaweed?,” she says. “Don’t eat the fish, eat what the fish eat.”
For more information on omega-3s, see here.
Many berries are packed with skin-beautifying antioxidants. Blueberries, in particular, are high in flavonoids.
Did you know that avocados are also a berry? They’re rich in vitamins C and E, both are antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties. If you’re not a fan of how they taste (avocado on toast isn’t for everyone, despite what Instagram may have you believe), you can also apply them directly to your face and feel their benefits that way.
Kiwis are a berry too; they have more vitamin C than oranges and they’re packed with vitamin E. You can also place them over the top of your eyes, which can help to reduce the appearance of dark circles.
For more information on the skin benefits of berries, see here.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are also rich in vitamin E and vitamin C, as well as anthocyanins. The latter can help to prevent blemishes and dark spots. They are also a source of fiber, iron, calcium, and selenium.
Not sure how to cook sweet potatoes? You could try this recipe for sweet potato cakes with dill and yogurt or these vegan sweet potato tacos.
Walnuts contain nourishing fats which attract soothing moisture from the air and reduce inflammation, helping to avoid breakouts. There are many ways to incorporate walnuts into your diet. If you need inspiration, take a look at this recipe for meaty sausage rolls with walnuts and lentils, or this creamy vegan asparagus and spinach risotto with walnuts.
Carrots are rich in a number of vitamins and minerals, but they’re particularly high in vitamin C. They also contain beta-carotene, which is linked to reduced inflammation. Looking for more exciting ways to get carrots into your diet? You could try one of these five vegan carrot bacon recipes.
So, if you’re struggling with skin conditions, like acne, psoriasis, and eczema, embracing plant-based, whole foods may help you along in your journey to clearer, more pain-free, glowing skin. And eating this way has heaps of other health benefits too. For more information and tips on following a whole food plant-based diet, see here.