*Disclaimer: I am not a registered dietitian, naturopath, doctor, or another type of healthcare professional. This is simply the product of my own research and opinions, not to be used to replace the recommendations of a registered healthcare provider.
Before vegans grab their pitchforks and start coming for me, I in NO WAY think that going vegan is bad or that people shouldn’t be vegan. Adopting a plant-based or vegan diet is definitely more ethical than any other diet, can be beneficial for your health (depending on how you do it), and more environmentally sustainable. However, going vegan has been marketed as a solution for acne and other skin conditions and I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work for everyone.
When I first started seeing my naturopathic doctor for my severe cystic acne, she initially put me on an elimination diet to see if I was sensitive to any foods that could be causing my symptoms. If you’ve never heard of an elimination diet before, its essentially cutting out foods that people commonly react to or produce inflammation (like gluten, dairy, nightshade vegetables, refined sugar, fried foods, soy, etc.) for about a month to see if there’s a change in symptoms. Once those foods have been eliminated for the month, they are re-added back in one by one (with 2-3 days of space in between) to identify which food(s) is/are producing your sensitivity. To me, it’s a bit similar to the idea of Whole30, where you’re pretty much eating healthy, whole foods.
Because the antibiotics and hormones in meat can contribute to symptoms, the only meat that I could eat was grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free. However, because I was on a budget and didn’t want to be paying for more expensive meat, I just decided that I’d cut out meat entirely. With meat, dairy, and eggs being completely cut out of my diet, I was pretty well on a vegan diet. After a month of this elimination/whole food vegan diet, I felt really good. I lost some extra weight, wasn’t as bloated, and felt like I had way more energy. However, although my acne did improve a bit, a food sensitivity was definitely not the reason for my acne because I was still getting new breakouts after the month.
After I finished this diet, I figured that if my inflammation was getting better as a vegan, my skin will stay less inflamed and hopefully get better if I continue to be vegan. I heard a lot about other people’s experiences going vegan to clear their skin, so I figured it would be a safe bet. I even convinced my boyfriend to go vegan with me for a month (he ended up doing it for two months).
However, after about three weeks my skin became significantly worse. It was way more inflamed, and I had many new, deep, cystic spots. At this point, I was eating the cleanest I’ve ever eaten in my life, so I was genuinely confused as to why I was getting worse.
That’s when I did testing with my naturopath and figured out that I had a yeast and bacteria overgrowth in my intestines. What does this mean? Well, now my experience being vegan made sense. The “benefits” that I was experiencing in terms of reduced inflammation was most likely due to cutting out added sugar from my diet. However, a vegan diet is very high in fiber, so all the fiber/prebiotics I was eating were actually feeding this yeast and bacteria overgrowth, making my symptoms worse. Additionally, I was still eating quite a bit of gluten-free carbs like rice, quinoa, oats, and gluten-free flour, which turn to sugar once broken down by the digestive system. This explains why I had some improvements but eventually ended up getting worse.
The solution for me given all my test results was to go on a low FODMAP diet, which is a low fiber, low sugar diet that is meant to reduce the number of foods that feed my gut bacteria. This meant eliminating foods that have sugar, foods that are fermented, gluten-containing products, and high-fiber foods. This also meant re-introducing meat and fish back into my diet because those foods were one of the only things I was still able to eat. I’m sure it would be possible to be vegan and low-FODMAP, but given how hard it was for me to be low-FODMAP and eat meat, I could not imagine doing without meat. Looking back on it, this diet was actually very meat and fish heavy.
A typical day of eating for me was:
Breakfast: 2 eggs with spinach and 2 pieces of bacon
Lunch: salad with romaine lettuce, chicken/fish/steak, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice; as well as nuts for a snack (almonds)
Dinner: chicken/fish/steak with peppers
After two months of being low-FODMAP and taking the supplements prescribed to me by my naturopath, my acne totally cleared.
Listen, I’m not telling people with acne to go out and do this diet, nor am I saying that this is a healthy or sustainable diet in the long term (it definitely isn’t – at least the way I was doing it), but this is what I needed at the time to heal my gut imbalance. Now that I put in the work, I am able to go back to eating a wide variety of foods without getting severe breakouts, like desserts and bread :)
The point of my story is not to say that going vegan won’t help your skin, because it has worked for a lot of people. My point is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to acne (and most other health conditions). What worked for someone on YouTube or Instagram may not work for you, which is why I HIGHLY recommend going to a naturopath to get tested. This way, you can ACTUALLY figure out what’s going on and reach a solution that’s going to give you real results without having to play any guessing games or wasting your time (and money).