Hey, Bagel Face

Anyone who has teenagers, or was once a teenager herself, knows what a nuisance acne can be. Who hasn’t anticipated going out on a date at age 17, only to have a red hot zit spring up right on the tip of your nose?

It ain’t rare. Judging by the American experience viewable by a trip to your friendly neighborhood McDonald’s, acne is ubiquitous and inevitable, affecting 95% of 16- to 18-year olds. Even adults are not spared, with 50% continuing to have intermittent struggles. Then why do primitive cultures have zero acne? The New Guinea Kitavans and northern Canadian Inuits, for instance, had no acne–until the introduction of Western foods.

So what is it about the Western diet that makes for postponed dates and Clearasil cover-ups?

Any food that increases insulin also triggers something called insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1, in skin. This stimulates sebum production, as well as growth of hair follicles and other cells in the dermis. The subterranean turmoil caused by increased IGF-1 erupts to the surface as the familiar pimple.

Simple logic: Any food that increases blood sugar also triggers insulin, thereby triggering IGF-1. So foods that trigger blood sugar and/or insulin the most are the most likely to cause acne.

So what familiar food increases blood sugar higher than table sugar, higher than a Milky Way bar, higher than a Snickers bar? Yup, good old wheat–whole grain, white, multigrain; bagel, muffin, wrap; donut, Twinkie, cupcake–makes no difference, it’s all the same. (Interestingly, dairy products do not increase blood sugar much, but they have a unique insulinotrophic effect, a tripling of insulin output by the pancreas, thereby increasing IGF-1 by a different route than wheat.)

So, better than Clearasil, tretinoin, or (highly-toxic) Accutane, is elimination of the foods that increase IGF-1. First step: elimination of wheat.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Curious

    Dr. Davis, I’m curious: do all dairy products cause this insulin-increasing effect, or only those not cultured with bacteria. In other words, would kefir and yogart and aged cheeses be different than milk and cottage cheese? Or is all dairy similar in effect?

    • Hi, Curious–
      For this insulinotrophic effect, cheese is least offensive, the others roughly equally offensive. So cheese is your best bet. But for acne purposes, it probably applies to ALL dairy products.

  2. Kat

    I’m wondering how I can transition my 14 year old son away from wheat. I stopped eating it nearly two days ago and have already dropped 3 pounds – a feat that I have not been able to accomplish with a 1200 calorie a day diet and exercise.

    He is a very picky eater, prefering frozen waffles and Top Ramen to fruit and veggies. But I feel certain that wheat is contributing to his terrible acne. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi, Kat–

      I crafted the dietary advice and recipes to help out in just this situation. You might find, for instance, that shirataki noodles (konjac root) are a perfect pasta/noodle replacement food for wheat pasta. What usually happens is he begins to feel better, have more stable moods, less anger/frustration and begins to understand that it was diet all along, specifically foods made of wheat.

      • Kat

        How do you feel about gluten free breads made from rice flour? I tried one today and it’s nice as toast–I think I could get my son to make that change quite easily. But I noticed when I was in the store buying the bread that there are quite a few “gluten free” (thus wheat free) pastas. Do you think that all carbs are deterimental to one’s health?

        I ordered your book yesterday, so hopefully, I’ll be able to answer some of the questions myself soon. Thank you!

        • Hi, Kat–

          You hit upon the big limitation in gluten-free foods: excessive sugar and carbohydrate exposure.

          You will find that the dietary approach and recipes described in Wheat Belly are designed to address this issue. That way, you can have cheesecake, muffins, and other wheat-replacement foods without all the adverse health consequences of excessive carbohydrate exposure.

  3. cTo

    I changed my diet to a paleo-style one earlier this year (which, by eliminating ALL grains and grain products from the diet, conveniently also eliminates wheat) and I do have to say that my skin is the best its been in my entire life. Not only do I not get acne anymore (or, when I do, its at most a teeny tiny one that’s gone in a day), but a lot of the scarring from a lifetime of acne is starting to smooth out as well. I have also starting using natural, handmade soaps and moisturizing with coconut oil, but the changes to my skin started with just the diet changes first.

    A dermatologist once told me when I was a teenager that my acne was likely hormonal in its root cause. Considering what we know about how wheat can affect insulin and estrogen-producing/influencing fat cells, that could very well be the specific connection to wheat.

  4. liz

    i just made your cheesecake recipe from your book. i was so so so put off by the stevia, i had to throw the entire thing away. is it just me? or does it really taste like medicine? on the positive side, i am only 5 days wheat free, and i have almost too much energy, and i am going to the bathroom normally for the first time in my life! also, the cravings are gone. i have to remind myself to eat. shocking. your eggplant tomato casserole is in the oven and smells wonderful. fingers crossed…
    is it ok to eat dehydrated vegetables for dipping?
    thanks so much,

    • Hi, Liz–

      Everyone has to play around with sweeteners to find the one compatible with you. It’s got to be a genetically-determined issue, since perceptions vary so widely.

      I think that the dehydrated vegetables are a great idea!

  5. BZ

    Dr. Davis
    I had been using Stevia as a sweetener and I just came across a new sweetener named “Just Like Sugar”. It is made from Chicory Root , and claims to be all natural.I am amazed by how good it tastes.The name sure fits it by the flavor and it claims to be all natural.I am asking you not just for myself but also for my 13 year old daughter who has been diagnosed with insulin resistance and is overweight.It has been a daily struggle for me to help her tackle this weight issue.I do not nag but try to set an example of heathly eating and exercise with a personal trainer that she also works with.She definitely is plagued by belly fat more than I or her father and I found this idea of wheat being the culprit very intriguing.Any advice on Just Like Sugar and also convincing a 13 year old to eat differently than 90% of the population would be most appreciated.
    Thank You ,


    • Hi, BZ–

      According to their website, Just like sugar is composed of inulin, fructooligosaccharides, and fructose. But I could not find any mention of the precise quantities of each, including fructose. It’s the fructose that has me concerned, since we should avoid fructose as much as possible. So right now, I’m not sure how desirable this product is.

      I have 13-year old also and it is tough, because they will often just eat badly in defiance. So all we can do is educate them and hope that, when they are in school or at friends’ houses, they will at least try to adhere to a wheat-free, healthy diet. I don’t think there’s much more you can do.

  6. Sunny

    I have been told that to a pound of regular Stevia if you put a teaspoon of sugar and mix it in, that will take away the bitter after taste. Will that teaspoon to a pound make a difference? Possible problem: Truvia has fillers that I was told could have caused heart racing in a teenager I know. Could there be another reason for this reaction?

    • Hi, Sunny–

      Be careful: The pound of stevia you are talking about is likely maltodextrin with some stevia in it. These are the granulated stevias that are bulked up with the carbohydrate, maltodextrin, that acts like sugar. This is why I use liquid stevia, to avoid the maltodextrin.

      I know of no fillers in Truvia. Any idea where you heard this or any further detail?

  7. Jay

    Hi, Dr. Davis.

    I’m 18 years old and I’ve been without wheat for two weeks now. However, I’m not seeing a huge improvement in my skin. How long should it take for acne to clear up on the wheat-belly diet?


    • Dr. Davis

      It should be within days, Fran.

      If not, consider eliminating dairy and all sweets, i.e., anything that triggers insulin.

  8. Felicity Grace

    Hi Dr Davis,

    I have suffered from acne for 14years now. I have read your book and cut out all wheat, dairy and sugar. I have been doing this for just over a week now and my acne has gotten significantly worse.
    Can this sometimes be the case before it gets better?
    Thank you


  9. Oliver Cole

    Hi there, I need some help. I couldn’t find a contact section so I will try to reach someone here.
    I am confused and need guidance. I am an Englishman living in China. For a long time I thought I was doing myself a service from eating a lot of white rice (two or three meals a day). I have no house and live in my school where I work. Therefore I have no kitchen so I eat out for three meals a day. It is very cheap to do this so I was not concerned. Now though, I am concerned. I feel that my health is rapidly declining. I originally put it down to MSG, that is put into every meal that I buy. I then found out about wheat. Now, here is where I am confused. Does white rice have the same negative effects as wheat products? I do not eat a lot of bread and pasta. Only white noodles and white rice. Are these products bad for my health? My symptoms include: Mood swings, slight depression, heaviness of body, lack of energy (lethargic and tired, even after good sleep), and last but not least, daily break outs of painful red and hard boils, spots and whiteheads. These come on my groin, chest, face and neck. Particularly bad and on going breakouts on my neck under my ears have left scaring and hard unsightly lumps that will not go away.
    Please help me! What is it? The rice? The noodles? The MSG? What can I do to solve this problem and feel better.
    Many thanks for any advice,

    • Lindsay

      Hi Ollie, I get the same kind of skin problems (hard cystic bumps on and under my jawline and behind my ears) if I eat a lot of dairy or peanut butter. It took me a long time to figure out this connection. I have a lot of food sensitivities and my skin is the clear barometer for these. I know it sounds crazy, but I even get cystic acne on specific areas of my face from different kinds of foods. If I eat almonds I get bumps all along my nasolabial folds. Sunflower seeds gave me bumps at the very tops of my cheeks (just under my eye area between my cheek and temple). My suggestion is 1) research elimination diets online and try it out (basically you limit yourself to eating only a few foods which are least likely to cause reactions and then slowly add things back into your diet. 2) if this doesn t improve your health, get the hell out of china. I lived there for 2 years and the longer I lived there the sicker I got. Big time air pollution was definitely a factor, and there are very few (if any) safety standards for the use and disposal of chemicals. God only knows what you re being exposed to. Some of my foreign friends were totally fine, but after months of bronchitis that I couldn’t shake with harsh antibiotics, I was partially recovered for maybe a week when I got a horribly sore throat. I was so week and exhausted, and felt like if another serious illness hit me I would end up in hospital (definitely a place you don t want to be in china, as the quality of care seems to be totally random…like most instances of quality service). So, realizing how far my previously great health had deteriorated, I realized that I had to get out of there as soon as possible. Good luck to you! Listen to your skin, it is the canary in the coal mine. In a way, people like us are lucky because we can see right away when our bodies are in distress (it just took me a LONG time to understand that this is what skin problems are for people like us – just an indicator of an underlying health problem)

  10. Tiffani

    Hello Dr. Davis,

    I have been on the wheat-free diet and dairy-free diet for my horrible acne that I have had since I was 13 years old and now 27! It’s only been a week and I really don’t see a difference in my skin. I am eating a lot of fruit now, so can this trigger high levels of insulin which could be causing breakouts?

    Thank you,

    • Dr. Davis

      Yes, it can. Anything that triggers insulin will do this, including too much fruit.

      If you stay below 15 grams “net” carbs per meal, you may see better results, thought it may require several weeks.

  11. Vaiva

    Dear Dr. Davis,

    I have few questions conserning acne issue. I’ve been having mild to moderate cystic acne usually on my chin and cloged pores all my life. It’s usually a permanent state of my skin, sometimes it gets better, but only for a brief period of time. I’m now switching to paleo diet step by step: consuming no sugar, limiting fructose, avoiding gluten and milk. The problem is im very thin already and my lifestyle is really active: i do a job that requires huge focus and also im a dancer, so i find myself very weak sometimes, craving for some carbs. Just seems i can’t get all the extra energy from meats and veggies.And i keep loosing weight very very fast. Is it ok if i add a bit of gluten free carbs like potatoes, legumes ot buckweat to my diet? will I be still possible to manage my acne issues?
    Also im not always able to afford whole meats like beef and turkey, so i sometimes use products of smoked meat like ham, bacon, sausages with my vegetables. In order to avoid high-carb foods. But i buy them only in very high quality. Is it ok from time to time? or should i avoid them too? Because i find extremely hard to cut everything out from the diet out of a sudden.
    Thank you very much for reply.

  12. Judy Smallacombe

    Dear Dr,
    I was wondering if going off wheat would help vasculitis at all. My brother-in-law has had this for some years now and has it regularly usually resulting in having to have cortisone and his legs are a real mess.Have you had any patients that have had this condition and helped by eliminating this
    Here’s hoping !

    • Dr. Davis

      Yes, we have seen this happen a number of times.

      However, note that autoimmune conditions like vasculitis require many months to respond, if they are going to respond. It is not something that will responds within days, as do acid reflux and simple joint pain.

  13. Stephanie

    Has anyone experienced skin conditions getting WORSE when they go off wheat? I’ve been wheat free for over 3 months and the only symptom that has gotten worse is my seborrhea dermatitis. It is absolutely out of control on my scalp and is now also on my arms, legs, face and torso. Normally it is tolerable, never itchy and only on my scalp in a couple of places. It is so itchy now I could scream and it is all over my scalp and is very, very flaky (so disgusting). The only time it is normally bad is during the winter (in summer it always disappears when I’m in the sun, but this summer is really, really bad and I’ve been outside a lot). I’ve tried lots of different things but can’t find what the problem is. I eliminated dairy for 3 weeks as a test but there was no noticeable difference (thank God because I love cheese) and I don’t eat any of the other typical triggers. I no longer eat sugar or any processed or “bad” fatty foods. Topically, I’ve tried tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar rinse, iodine tincture, natural shampoos, no shampoo (baking soda and water mixture) and I spent my entire childhood trying every coal and tar based shampoo and prescription on the market – none of them worked and I stopped using them about 20 years ago because of the carcinogenic link. Stress is not an issue right now so I know it’s not that. I have not taken any probiotics since I’ve stopped eating wheat because I didn’t have any major bowel issues before giving up wheat and I haven’t had any major reactions since I gave it up. Is it still possible that adjustments to bowel flora could be an issue? Does anyone have any ideas? This is so frustrating!!!

    • Barbara in New Jersey


      Since you have had this condition for a very long time, it will take a while to improve.
      Obviously, you are still eating foods that aren’t agreeing with you. Try eliminating the nightshade foods like tomatoes, green peppers, onion, chili/spicy foods to see if this helps. Eat more veggies so that they are at least half your food intake. A mostly meat/animal product diet is not the best to clear up your skin condition. Makes sure you are drinking plenty of water.
      Dr. D. has provided a list of various nutritional supplements to add to your diet. Try taking at least the magnesium. The probiotics are essential since you have had this condition for a long time. It isn’t only for obvious bowel issues. Your gut needs time to heal itself. Flora for wheat/grains/sugar is different from bowel flora without these toxic substances.

  14. Grammie Vi

    I have had the SAME condition off and on for years – flaking skin, scalp, eyebrows and lashes and etc.; even before I became wheat/gluten free. My previous Dr. reminded me that seborrhea dermatitis (and ringworm) is a type of fungal infection. So, anything that feeds yeast/fungus needs to be eliminated. Obviously, sugars/wheat/grains/gluten – but also some other foods – like mushrooms. You may do your own research on overgrowth of yeast; but if you would like more ideas write again.

    • Barbara in New Jersey

      Fungus infections utilize the same opportunistic overgrowth patterns as bacterial overgrowths. Yes, it feeds on certain foods. Healthy intestinal flora will improve your immune system and not provide the fungus will the food it likes in order to survive and flourish enough to cause your skin problems. Dr. Davis has listed some probiotics in the current blog. These make a tremendous difference because they replenish the intestines with proper flora which keeps the fungal flora in balance. For example, candida, which is a fungus, flourishes with wheat /starch and sugar. Eliminate these foods and it no longer flourishes. Add proper flora in high doses and feed this new flora properly with animal proteins and vegetables, this flora flourishes because it is natural for humans. The probiotics makes the changeover to a normal flora much quicker.

      People with healthy intestinal flora do not get these kind of skin problems. They do get poison ivy!

      • Stephanie

        Thanks Barbara in New Jersey and Grammie Vi! You have both given me info. I didn’t know before – I love this blog for the help it provides!

  15. Grammie Vi

    Barbara in New Jersey and Stephanie,
    AND – let’s not forget using antibiotics create greater problems with yeast overgrowth/candida.
    When/if antibiotics are the only recourse — fine – but, I am so dismayed over the fact that the Dr’s who prescribe antibiotics don’t also prescribe/suggest probiotics at the same time!!

    • Stephanie

      Grammie Vi and Barbara in New Jersey,

      Just wanted to follow up on my last post in case someone else can make use of this info. I had an appointment with my naturopathic doctor to talk about the probiotics and magnesium that you both recommended. She widely recommends both to many of her patients, but in my case she tested me and both levels are actually really good. She suspects the seborrhea flare up is due to my liver not getting rid of toxins as effectively as it could (we’ve worked on this issue before). So I’m doing some more liver detox work to see if that makes a difference. If not, we’ll keep exploring all the other possible triggers. Luckily she is a big supporter of the wheat-free lifestyle so I don’t have to explain or justify anything to her!

  16. M. Murray

    Dr. Davis,

    My son has been experiencing skin rashes for almost 2 years now and seems to be getting worse. The only time it has gotten better has been his 2 months travel to Germany. He said he ate a lot of bread while in Germany, but when he came back we were astonished at how much his skin had improved. unfortunately with being back in the states, it is slowly coming back. I’ve been trying to convince him to go wheat free…but it is difficult for a teenager to cut out bread. My question is….why do you think his skin rashes diminished while he was in Germany even though he ate a lot of breads? Thank you for your time.