We all have one of those days — when the mind wants a salad but the heart wants a chocolate cake. In this battle between the heart and mind, the former often emerges victorious, but the long-term consequences of this choice have a direct bearing on our skin. The skin is, undoubtedly, the largest organ in the body and what we eat has a direct impact on it, especially in cases of acne. UAE-based Maria Marlowe is an acne nutritionist who passionately advocates the relationship between food and skin. She lays out the ground rules for healing acne by making suitable changes to your dietary habits.

Understanding the role of an acne nutritionist

As an acne nutritionist, I help people clear their skin naturally through diet and lifestyle changes, instead of medication. Most people who come to me have been struggling with acne for years, with no relief, despite trying just about everything — including antibiotics and isotretinoin. After a thorough diet and lifestyle assessment, I look for any sources of inflammation and imbalance that could be contributing to their breakouts.

This includes nutrient deficiencies, gut, hormone or blood sugar imbalances, an inflammatory diet, and stress. The biggest misconception about acne is that it’s caused by bacteria. It’s not. It’s caused by inflammation. So, the only way to heal acne is to get to the root of the inflammation and remedy it, which primarily comes down to improving our diet, gut health, and stress (yes, even for hormonal acne!).

Treating hormonal acne

Hormones certainly influence the skin, but it’s important to remember that hormones are messengers. They are simply responding to the environment or inputs you give them. Your hormones aren’t the problem. The habits causing them to become unbalanced are. For example, when you consume sugar or refined carbohydrates, your body releases more insulin and IGF-1. When you’re stressed, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol.

When it comes to hormonal acne in women, excess androgens may be the cause. So we have to ask: what is causing the excess androgens? One common cause is too much refined sugar in the diet. Research shows consuming a high glycemic load diet increases androgens in women, which, in turn, increases oil production and breakouts.

To help balance the hormones through food, focus on consuming a high fiber, low glycemic load diet, which essentially means eat more vegetables and less refined sugar and baked goods. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, radishes and cauliflower are especially beneficial for hormonal acne, as they support the liver. Consuming fermented foods and probiotics can also help. The liver breaks down excess hormones, and we release excess hormones through stool, so it’s important that your liver is functioning well and that you’re eliminating daily.

Intermittent fasting increases insulin sensitivity and helps reduce inflammation, which could help prevent both breakouts and premature ageing of the skin. That said, while it is wonderful for some people, it may not be for everyone (for example, if you’re stressed, pregnant, have a history of disordered eating). So while it can be beneficial, it is not necessary to do long fasts to achieve healthy, clear skin.

Battling body acne

For body acne, like back or chest acne, eliminating dairy, particularly whey protein, may be helpful. Keeping the blood sugar stable through a low glycemic load diet rich in fiber, protein and healthy fats will also be beneficial. Addressing gut health through a high quality probiotic is also important, as the gut is a primary source for inflammation.

Body acne can be exacerbated by the friction created in tight gym clothing, sweating in synthetic clothing, or not showering right after working out, so choose loose, natural fabrics like cotton or linen when possible, and be sure to shower right after the gym or sweating.

Understanding the root cause of bloating and water retention

Bloating is incredibly common...but that doesn’t make it normal! Being chronically bloated or your belly ballooning after a meal is a sign you’re having trouble in the digestive department.

Bloating is typically the result of the inability to properly break down and digest whatever you’re eating. This is often caused by gut dysbiosis — a lack of commensal (good) bacteria and/or too much opportunistic bacteria in the gut. Constipation is another common cause of bloating.

Addressing any food sensitivities or intolerances and adding a high quality probiotic that contains lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains can help with bloating. In fact, I believe so strongly in the power of probiotics to improve not just our gut health, but also our skin health and overall health, that I formulated a highly potent one called Glow Biome. It contains six clinically validated probiotic strains that support better digestion, less bloating, improved regularity, and clearer, healthier, less oily, more hydrated skin from the inside out.

Water retention is often caused by consuming too much sodium. Reducing excess sodium and adding more potassium rich foods, such as banana, avocado, potatoes, beans, lentils or leafy greens, may help.

Is Ozempic the answer for weight loss?

I grew up in a family that struggles with weight issues and obesity. So I understand the allure of these drugs, and the challenges of losing weight naturally.

However, the problem with weight loss drugs, in general, is that they treat the symptom, not the root cause. And so once they are stopped, for many people the weight comes back due to returning to the diet and lifestyle habits that caused the weight gain in the first place.

In regards to Ozempic in particular, it works by helping your pancreas to produce more insulin when your blood sugar is high. Studies show that stopping Ozempic completely will likely lead to regaining most of the weight lost within several months. Additionally, like most drugs, it comes with a laundry list of side effects.

A more effective, long-term strategy, not just for weight loss but for better overall health, would be to consume a low glycemic load diet and implement various diet and lifestyle habits, so that your blood sugar is not high in the first place.

Diets: how to choose them

Diets are like relationships. If you want to cheat on them, you’re following the wrong one. While certain diets, like keto, may be beneficial in the short term in specific scenarios (it was first used to treat epilepsy in the 1920s) if it can’t comfortably be followed long-term, it’s not going to work. Our body thrives on nourishment, not restriction.

The best diets are those that not only mimic nature, but that you’re also excited to eat. While it is true the healthiest diet will exclude certain foods (for example, highly processed or high sugar foods), the focus should really be on what you’re adding in, not what you’re taking out.

A healthy diet should be made up primarily of whole foods that come from nature: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils and animal products. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be perfect or eat these all the time. Our health is a reflection of what we do most of the time, not once in a while. So, if we consume these whole foods the majority of the time, say 80-90 per cent of our weekly meals, then indulging in less healthy foods 10-20 per cent of the time, guilt-free, will allow us the flexibility and mental peace to keep up with the healthy diet in the long run.

Grocery tours

When I had my private practice in New York City, I was constantly telling my clients to eat more vegetables and less processed foods. However, being in a big city, where very few people cook and rely heavily on takeout or eating out, they had no idea where to start.

So I would organise tours at my local Whole Foods market, taking them through each aisle explaining how to choose the healthiest foods. From tips on choosing the ripest, most nutritious fruits and vegetables to deciphering all the buzzwords on animal products (grass-fed, organic, etc.) to reading food labels and upgrading their favourite junk food to healthier versions, it was a crash course in healthy eating.

It became incredibly popular at the time, so I eventually turned the tour into a book, The Real Food Grocery Guide, so that anyone, anywhere has access to this important information.

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