While there’s no doubt that the ketogenic (“keto”) diet is linked with benefits like weight loss and reduced hunger, some people who have tried the diet report that it caused them an unexpected side effect: worsened skin health.
Because the foods you eat are directly related to your gut health, immune function, hormone production and stores of important nutrients, it’s not surprising that such a drastic change to your diet could affect your skin in multiple ways.
To complicate matters, while some may experience issues like breakouts and redness from the keto diet, others find their skin looks better than ever. So what’s the bottom line on eating high-fat and low-carb for your skin: should you or shouldn’t you?
Does keto cause skin issues?
In case you’re unfamiliar with how the keto diet works, here’s what you need to know: it involves eating a lot of fat, preferably from healthy sources like olive oil and coconut oil, fish, eggs, avocado and nuts, and avoiding almost all carbs — including foods like grains, fruits, potatoes and anything with added sugar. Unlike most other low-carb diets, it’s a “moderate” (not high) protein diet.
The goal of “going keto” is to get into the metabolic state called ketosis, in which you burn fat instead of mostly carbs for energy.
The reason that the diet includes so much fat and so little carbs is because your body’s production of ketones (a sign you’re in ketosis) requires you to have depleted stores of glucose and glycogen, which come from carbohydrate foods. You start producing ketones within several days of drastically restricting your carb intake and upping fats.
Studies suggest there are a number of mental and physical health benefits that people experience when they are in ketosis, some of which include:
- Weight loss
- Reduced inflammation
- Decreased appetite and cravings, including for sugary foods
- Improved energy and less fatigue
- Enhanced blood sugar balance
- Improvements in hormonal balance
- And cognitive benefits including protection against neurological diseases
The fact that the keto diet helps to reduce inflammation, plus that it eliminates many inflammatory — foods such as those made with refined grains and sugar — are two reasons why it may help to improve the health and appearance of your skin.
For example, eating a high-sugar diet has been linked with increased acne breakouts, so nixing sweet stuff from your diet may be one way to tame the issue.
On the other hand, it may worsen skin problems in some people for several reasons:
- The diet is much higher in fat than many people are accustomed to, especially if they previously ate a relatively low-fat diet. This can cause digestive issues (the so-called “keto flu”) at first, as well as changes in the microbiome and the body’s sebum (oil) production, which all impact skin.
- The diet is low in fiber and also possibly vitamins and minerals that are important for skin, like vitamins C, E and A which are found in plant foods.
- Dehydration may also be an issue, since the Keto diet causes increases urine production and a higher than normal requirement of fluids.
- Certain people also seem to be susceptible to a side effect of ketosis called prurigo pigmentosa, which is an inflammatory skin rash that causes red, itchy bumps to form. It’s not exactly known what the cause is, but it’s suspected to be tied to an inflammatory response.
How to use keto for better skin
Focus on a “clean” keto diet:
Here’s the great news: there are plenty of keto-approved foods that are nourishing for your skin. Some of the best to emphasize include: low-carb vegetables, salmon and other fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, olive oil, coconut oil and avocados.
Focus on whole foods that are high in healthy fats and are minimally processed, as opposed to things like cheeses, bacon and poor quality oils and butter.
And while dairy products such as aged cheeses and sour cream may be allowed in small amounts on the keto diet, consider experimenting with whether or not avoiding all dairy helps improve your skin concerns.
Eat enough non-starchy vegetables:
Many of the antioxidants and nutrients that are most important for your skin are found in plant foods, which provide carbohydrates, whether a lot or a little.
You can still have 25-30 grams of carbs per day, so don’t skimp on things like leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, asparagus, mushrooms, peppers, squash and so on. These are also hydrating foods and important for providing you with fiber, which is needed for a healthy gut environment.
Drink plenty of water:
To counteract the fact that you’ll be losing more water while in ketosis, drink up! It’s okay to have some black coffee and tea while in ketosis too, but make plain water, seltzer, bone broth and unsweetened herbal teas the primary source of your fluids.
Consume probiotic foods:
Probiotics, or “good bacteria that mostly live in your gut, are capable of helping to prevent a wide scope of immunity-related diseases, including those like eczema and dermatitis that affect skin, due to their anti-inflammatory effects. They can also help you absorb nutrients from your diet better and may be helpful for managing acne and even allergies.
How can you get probiotics on the keto diet? Regularly eat probiotic foods like fermented vegetables (such as sauerkraut, real pickles and kimchi), plus miso, tempeh, yogurt and kefir in small amounts.
Approach the diet holistically:
Last but not least, consider whether other factors may be contributing to your skin problems — such as the products you apply to your body, your stress levels, whether you’re over-exerting yourself, your alcohol intake and your sleep habits.
Remember that everyone is different in terms of what will trigger skin problems, but no matter what type of diet you follow, we can all benefit from healthy habits like using gentle skin products, getting enough rest, relaxing and staying active.
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