Eating salad, not ice cream, may be better for your skin. Photo: Stewart Shining/Trunk Archive.
Can cutting meat and dairy from your diet—even part-time—make your skin glow? Lily Simpson, the chef behind The Detox Kitchen, a London-based meal-delivery service, thinks so. “I go vegan every other week and, when I am eating meat, I stick to fish and lean white meat,” she told the Daily Mail. “I definitely notice I have brighter, clearer skin since going part-time vegan.”
Simpson isn’t the only person to say that her skin changed along with her diet. The Internet is filled with tales of complexion transformation. (Nothing cleared this writer’s cystic acne, for instance, until she stopped eating dairy.) But beyond personal stories, is there proof that eating a plant-based diet can lead to brighter, clearer skin?
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Yes and no, says Dr. Eric Schweiger, a dermatologist in New York City. “Thirty years ago, the medical community thought there was no correlation [between diet and skin],” he says. “The pendulum has swung the other way, and there’s scientific evidence.”
The thing is, that evidence doesn’t mean that a vegan diet is the only way to clear up one’s complexion. “I don’t think there’s any study that says a vegan diet, per se, is good for your skin,” he says. “But if you look at clinical studies, you’ll see that a low glycemic index diet is good for your skin. People who are vegan generally eat healthy, with fewer carb-packed foods, so they’re inadvertently getting onto a low glycemic index diet.”
In other words, many foods with a low glycemic index (think lentils, broccoli, zucchini, salad greens) also happen to be vegan. Unless you’re the type of vegan to pig out on chips and pasta, your food intake is likely to rank low on the glycemic index. However, fish and chicken also have a low glycemic index—so vegans aren’t the only ones who can benefit from this type of diet.
Dairy, however, looks like a definite culprit . “Studies show there is a connection between dairy and acne,” Schweiger says. “Some people think it’s related to the hormones found in milk today—a lot of cows are pumped with hormones to produce more milk, and humans can eat those hormones.” Because hormones are theoretically bad for acne, he recommends that if patients do drink milk, they choose organic.
Jenny Sansouci, Be Well Health Coach at Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, also sees a connection between dairy intake and complexion woes. “A lot of people have issues digesting dairy, and if your digestion is off, it’s going to show up on your skin,” she says. But, she adds, cutting out meat doesn’t seem to have the same effect. “We haven’t seen that meat and fish affect the skin as much as dairy would,” she notes.
So, should you go vegan—even every other week? It depends. “Some people do really well on a vegan diet, but others don’t,” Sansouci says. “You need to pay attention to how your body feels and how food affects you.” She recommends keeping a food journal, noting how your body responds to eating different kinds of food. In general, she recommends healthy fats such as coconut and avocado, and staying away from dairy and sugar—and that advice, she says, goes for anybody.
The most important thing, Schweiger says, is finding balance and setting realistic expectations. “Diet is a part of [having good skin], but not the only part of it,” he says. “As a dermatologist, I think there’s a bigger benefit from prescription medication or the right over-the-counter regimen than just the right diet. But if you want to take full control of your skin care regimen, your diet should be part of it.”