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Could you go vegan?

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

Can following a vegan diet improve your acne?

It’s Veganuary, a huge celebration of being vegan. You might have read that people have reversed their acne by going vegan or maybe you see it as a way of getting healthier, losing weight and improving certain health markers?



It’s true that being vegan is really fashionable right now and you may find that your children are expressing an interest in becoming vegan especially if their friends are doing so. For some it’s the healthiest diet you can have from a nutritional perspective and not only does it save the lives of animals but the planet, too. For most people however, going from where you are now to a 100% vegan diet can be a bit of a stretch.


In this blog, I’m going to put it all out there for you:
  • what it means to be vegan

  • what’s great about it

  • what’s not so good

  • whether a vegan diet is better for acne prone skin or not (it’s not as clear as you’d like it to be!),

  • where you might struggle – and I’ll also be giving you tips for getting started,

  • whether your intention is to immerse yourself fully or if you just fancy dabbling (either is fine).


WHAT IS A VEGAN DIET?

A vegan diet is a stricter version of a vegetarian diet. On top of not eating any meat, fish or seafood – i.e. dead animals, a vegan diet also cuts out any food stuffs made from animal sources (some of which are the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat) – so, not just cutting out chicken meat, but also cutting out eggs. In the same vein, not just cutting out beef but also all forms of dairy - milk, yoghurt, butter and cream. And that means honey, too, as well as certain wines and desserts (gelatin – made from animal collagen).



There is no set macro or micro nutrient ratio for a vegan diet; just vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and any other foods made from plants. However, since the main vegan protein sources are pulses and grains, and only a combination of the two provides complete proteins (containing all the amino acids), this can be a high carbohydrate diet by definition.


WHAT IS A VEGAN DIET?

  • Cruelty-free

  • Promotes natural foods

  • Rich in vitamin C and fibre

  • Plant chemicals that are great for our overall health

  • Helpful for some health conditions (rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, other auto-immune conditions).

  • Better for the environment


DISADVANTAGES OF GOING VEGAN

  • Can be nutrient deficient (B12, haem iron, omega-3 fats, complete protein)

  • Natural food is not a requirement to comply with the diet - a lot of vegan foods are highly processed

  • Often high in carbohydrates

  • Can be too low in protein, especially if you’re stressed or recovering from adrenal fatigue

  • Not suitable for elderly, pregnant women, type 2 diabetics, or those with high triglycerides or carbohydrate intolerance


IS BEING VEGAN HEALTHY?


Good question!


A well-planned vegan diet can be healthy, you just need to be mindful that it takes a lot of hard work and a commitment to plan out your meals to ensure that you have a variety of foods that provide the necessary nutritional requirements.



There have been various well-publicised assertions over the years (most notably the book ‘The China Study’ and, more recently, the films ‘What The Health’ and ‘The Game Changers’) that advocate eating a vegan diet was the healthiest thing you could do.


Although vegans commonly take an interest in how diet relates to health and tend to educate themselves about nutrition, the vegan diet like many diets does not explicitly prescribe healthy foods. There is a vegan alternative for every junk food out there.


Many people try to be vegan by relying on highly processed food – they replace milk, cheese and meat with foods manufactured to look and taste as though they are milk, cheese and meat. Since food manufacturing is not like magic, what is used is non-foodstuffs, including stabilisers, gums, thickeners and highly processed protein extracts. Moreover, you may be counting your vegan cheese as a source of protein, when many of them are actually made from carbs – it’s just something to be mindful of.





WILL FOLLOWING A VEGAN DIET IMPROVE MY ACNE?


There is no substantial evidence to support whether following a vegan diet will improve your acne or not. Increasing your intake of vegetables will as I mentioned above definitely help your skin by reducing inflammation but does it have to be at the detriment of cutting out all animal products from your diet altogether? – probably not.


The onus here however would be on making sure that the animal products that you do consume are good quality (organic, locally sourced, grass fed etc) and that you are limiting your intake of meat to 2/3 times per week. Eating a shed load of poor quality, processed meats will also send your inflammatory markers through the roof.

The best way to look at this argument is to look at some of the common nutritional deficiencies that people with acne suffer from and in which foods those nutrients are most commonly found but also how well they are absorbed by the body. This is not an exhaustive list.


 

Essential Fatty Acids


Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are needed to maintain cell membranes. They are referred to as ‘essential’ because our bodies can’t make them and so we either have to eat them, take them in supplemental form or indeed both.


Omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be anti-inflammatory. There are several types of omega-3 – from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – and the latter is needed for brain health. While oily fish tend to provide both kinds, few plant foods contain both. Really, we’re talking here about seaweed, including nori (the type of seaweed you see wrapped around sushi) and spirulina and chlorella (often sold in powdered ‘superfood’ form). The ALA type of omega-3 is found in flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds.

Yes, you do need both in your diet.




You may also have heard an argument that humans can convert ALA to DHA. That’s true; however, the ability to convert ALA to DHA is something that has evolved over thousands of years in those communities who have been vegetarian for generations. Most of us convert only about 5%. It’s highly likely that you will need to be making friends with supplemental algae oil to get your quota.


The relevance to acne:

Omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory. If your arachidonic acid levels are too high then it makes sebum thicker and more sticky making it more likely to clog your pores. If your diet is too high in carbohydrates (which can be the case with a ‘junk food’ vegan diet) then the likelihood is that your ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is out of whack which is a marker for inflammation within your cells.

 


Vitamin A


Vitamin A boosts the immune system and is the first line of defence against viral, bacterial and parasitic infections including acne. Vitamin A deficiency is common amongst acne sufferers. Roaccutane (isotretinoin), a medication prescribed in cases of severe acne is a synthetic form of vitamin A.


Pre-formed Vitamin A is only found in animal products in a form called retinol which is easily absorbed by the body. You can’t get vitamin A from carrots. What you get is beta-carotene (the yellow and orange foods, remember, but also some green veg like spinach, kale, lettuce and broccoli, as well as seaweeds), which is a precursor to vitamin A and chemically very different.



You may have heard that carotene can be converted into vitamin A, but this conversion is usually insignificant. It’s not the easiest conversion at the best of times, but a further complication is that about 40% of the population carry two genetic variations that slow- down that conversion by up to 60%. This has a significant impact on how much vitamin A you will be able to take in. And, if you have low thyroid function, impaired digestion or a lack of healthy fats in the diet, this conversion won’t happen at all.


The relevance to acne:

Vitamin A regulates prostaglandins that control sebum production.


 

ZINC


Zinc has lots of different functions including being an anti-oxidant. It is critical to immune function and for balancing hormones. It’s primarily found in oysters (I lived in France for a number of years and they love them there!) red meat and poultry. It can be found but in lower quantities in beans, cashews and almonds.



The relevance to acne:

Zinc inhibits an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase which converts testosterone into its active form dihydrotestosterone (DHT). When zinc levels are low then you have higher levels of DHT circulating in your blood which is often a cause of hormonal acne.


 


Vitamin D


Vitamin D is anti-inflammatory, supports your immune system and plays a big role in regulating blood sugar. It’s mostly only found in animal foods and a lack of it in your diet means that you can have issues with blood sugar regulation something proven to cause acne.





The relevance to acne:

Vitamin D is required for a healthy intestinal barrier. If this barrier is compromised it can lead to leaky gut which is the gateway to increased levels of inflammation in the body – remember that acne is a chronic inflammatory condition. Low vitamin D levels are not the only cause of a leaky gut but I won’t go into that ginormous topic in this post.


 


Vitamin B12


Vitamin B12 plays a variety of important roles in the body. The readily-absorbed forms of B12 are only found in animal products like eggs, poultry, shellfish, red meat and dairy products. Several studies suggest that up to 68% of vegans were deficient in vitamin B12.


If you’re thinking of going vegan, you’ll want to be taking a B12 supplement, but you should also be spreading your intake through the day by eating B12 fortified foods, too, like plant-based milks and nutritional yeast. Although fortified foods appear to be less effective in cases of deficiency, they have a high bioavailability for vegans.





Not all B12 supplements are created equal. The synthetic form, cyanocobalamin, is the cheapest but isn’t as well absorbed as the natural forms methylcobalamin, hydroxycobalamin or adenosylcobalamin, which are identical to the B12 found in animal products.



The relevance to acne:

Supplementing with too high of a dosage for your needs (we need very little) could result in an acne breakout.


 


HOW TO GET STARTED ON A ‘HEALTHY’ VEGAN DIET?


Some people like to make changes all in one go. If this is you, choosing a vegan recipe book from the resources I’ve listed below will be helpful.


If you’re not sure or you know that a total upheaval of your diet is not where you’re at, at the moment, then you could try changing one meal at a time – possibly having a vegan breakfast during your first week, adding a vegan lunch during week two and so on.


You might try changing one product at a time, for example, swapping traditional cow’s milk for almond milk, or butter for coconut oil. There’s a plant-based alternative for most things you can think of.



One thing that you can look forward to is some exciting new recipes. Bringing the principles of being vegan into your life even a few days a week (assuming we are talking veg-based meals rather than fake or junk vegan foods) will deliver a whole new taste experience. There will be things that you love – and things the family rejects. It’s all part of the fun of discovering new things.


So, do some people report an improvement in their acne when moving to a vegan diet?

Absolutely they do but others don’t, some swear by good quality meat protein. The causes of acne being varied, the reality is that no one size approach will fit all - unfortunately.


One thing however that we can all agree on is that the following is deemed to be healthy:
  • Enjoy an abundance of freshly prepared vegetables

  • Minimise processed foods and instead cook meals from scratch

  • Eat mindfully and slowly

  • Choose local, organic foods

Given the fact that acne is linked to chronic inflammation, a plant-heavy, antioxidant-rich vegan diet will go some way to mediating inflammation and will certainly not hinder your attempts to be healthy. Given we don’t eat nearly as much fibre as we should for optimum health, committing to eating more veg can only be a good thing.


I’m a firm believer in not eliminating entire food groups from our diet. Making smarter and healthier food choices, in my experience, is the key to having a balanced diet which is in turn the key to good health both internally and externally.


If you would like to find out more about how your food & lifestyle choices can impact your acne then don’t forget to book your free 30 minute skin health review call.





 

RESOURCES - THE BEST VEGAN BLOGS


The Colourful Kitchen www.thecolorfulkitchen.com
Deliciously Ella www.deliciouslyella.com
Minimalist Baker www.minimalistbaker.com
Oh She Glows www.ohsheglows.com


RESOURCES - VEGAN RECIPE BOOKS

Christine Bailey, Go Lean Vegan: The Revolutionary 30-day Diet Plan to Lose Weight and Feel Great
Hugh, Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage Much More Veg: 175 easy and delicious vegan recipes for every meal
Angela Liddon, Oh She Glows
Angela Liddon, Oh She Glows Everyday
Ella Mills (Woodward), Deliciously Ella
Ella Mills (Woodward), Deliciously Ella The Plant-Based Cookbook: 100 simple vegan recipes to make every day delicious
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