In this post we’re looking at how correctly implementing a low carb diet can significantly improve PCOS and acne. Plus my biggest low carb diet hack that means you won’t be going hungry!
the carbohydrate conundrum
Carbohydrates are found in a wide array of both healthy and unhealthy foods but if you’re struggling with acne then it’s important to stick to a low carb diet and limit, or even better avoid, the unhealthier carbs and fill your plate with healthy vegetables that contain lots of anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
We all know that sugary sweets and junk food have a negative impact on our skin but what many of us fail to realise is that even ‘healthier grains’ such as rice, quinoa and whole grain wheat can be equally as destructive on our blood sugar levels when eaten on a regular basis (i.e every day). Below are examples of not-so-healthy carbs that need to be reduced as part of your acne clearing diet.
Examples of not-so healthy ‘healthy’ carbs
- Whole Wheat
- Whole Grain Pasta
- Whole Grain Rice
- Sweet Potato
Excessive carbohydrate consumption is one of the key reasons behind many modern health issues. Excess carbs cause a surge in insulin which causes skin to become more oily and prone to congestion. Let’s face it, how easy is it to consume carb-heavy foods at every meal? Toast or cereal for breakfast? Sandwich or wrap for lunch? Rice, pasta or pizza for dinner? All these types of meals will skew your macro ratio and send your carbohydrate levels soaring while your all important protein and fat ratios will get left behind.
carbohydrate laden meals are the reason you feel hungry again within a couple of hours…
For the full low down on why sugar is the worst food for acne, head over to this post here.
how can a low carb high fat diet clear acne?
Acne sufferers need to keep their blood sugars as stable as possible to prevent spikes. When you eat anything that’s predominately carbohydrates, your blood sugar will spike. When these carbohydrates get digested, they cause the pancreas to produce more insulin and the insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) to help maintain the balance of blood glucose.
All this excess insulin and IGF-1 circulating around the body triggers a release of androgen hormones – a leading cause of acne! An excess of androgens means that our skin will produce too much sebum, which will then oxidise and lead to clogged pores, blackheads and whiteheads which can then lead to further acne inflammation.
Excess Sebum ⇰ Sebum Oxidisation ⇰ Hyperkeratinisation ⇰ Bacteria Overgrowth ⇰ Acne
how can a low carb diet improve pcos?
Adequate protein is essential for balanced hormones, especially if you’re struggling with insulin resistance, PCOS and/or low progesterone/oestrogen dominance. Low carb meals that are higher in protein and fat slow down the effect sugars have on our body and prevents blood sugar spikes as fat and protein digests much more slowly than carbs. Our bodies also need protein to make the amino acids that then go on to produce hormones. The problem is, we’re often not getting enough protein at the right times of the day, or as you’ll see with my own diets over the past 5 years we’re not getting enough protein full stop! Going low carb is particularly important for those who are insulin resistant and struggle with weight loss. For those who are underweight and have PCOS you may not need to be so strict with your carbohydrate intake and can probably enjoy small portions of whole grains like rice or quinoa on a daily basis.
pcos women need more protein
In a 6 month study, women with PCOS followed either a high protein diet consisting of 40% or more energy from protein and 30% fat versus a standard protein diet of less than 15% protein and 30% fat to see the effects on weight loss and blood glucose levels. The results? The high protein diet had a greater weight loss, body fat loss, waist circumference and healthier blood glucose levels – 17 lbs weight loss [1.2 stone] compared to 7 lbs! Higher protein meals mean that signification weight loss can be achieved without ANY restriction of calories! This is because higher protein foods keep you fuller for longer so prevent you from snacking on carb loaded foods that cause your insulin levels to go crazy.
An excellent way of kick-starting your high protein, low carb diet is to start with breakfast. Perhaps opt for a couple of poached eggs with some asparagus fried in coconut oil? Or simply mix some vegan protein powder with some water and some melted coconut oil and Brazil nuts? Each morning I just have a scoop of Sun Warrior vanilla protein powder in my smoothie – 1 scoop of protein powder gives around 18g of protein which will keep your blood sugars balanced so you won’t be craving sweet things by 10am!
Many women don’t realise the importance of a high protein breakfast but it’s really essential for hormone balance.
Skipping breakfast or eating a low protein/carb loaded foods like cereal, pastries or toast is a sure fire way to send your hormones crazy before you’ve even left the front door. Opt for high protein foods first thing in the morning such as plant-based protein powder (not whey), eggs, meat, fish, nuts, seeds or chia seeds to keep your blood sugar levels stable till your next meal.
how much protein do i need?
The US Dietary Guidlines suggests that we should be eating around 0.8 grams of protein per kg of total body weight. But many sources say that this 0.8g figure is just the BARE minimum protein you need to prevent loss of lean muscle – not what you need for OPTIMAL health. For optimal health and strong, clear skin you need to be aiming between 90-125g of protein per day! An example of 100g of daily protein could be a 4 egg omelette for breakfast, salmon for lunch and chicken thighs for dinner along with lots of vegetables. Protein toxicity would be pretty hard to achieve and will only occur if you’re eating 230g+ of protein per day!
what’s your macro ratio?
Eating the correct ratio of macronutrients is a change ALL acne patients need to make. If you’re an acne sufferer then you MUST cut back on the carbs and start eating more protein and healthy fat.
Without the correct ratio and most importantly quantity of macronutrients, you’ll be hungry, cranky and more prone to binging on acne-causing junk food. To recap, the three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein and fat and you should be aiming to roughly get 20-30% protein, 50-65% healthy fats and 20-35% carbohydrates each day. I generally fall around 20-25% carbohydrates, 20-25% protein and the rest fat (50-60%) On days that you do more than 1/2 an hour exercise you may need slightly more carbohydrates and less fat but your protein intake should stay the same at 20-25% (depending on your overall body weight).
Pretty much all my clients that book in for consultations aren’t getting enough fat. Despite eating a relatively healthy diet, they’re only eating a small handful of nuts, a couple of teaspoons of coconut oil for cooking and an avocado a day… this is about 60g of fat which is no where near enough for optimal hormone balance and clear skin. You need to be looking at double that amount at the least of even better, strive for 150-200g of fat per day. It may seem a lot, but by eating MORE healthy fat and LESS carbs that can disrupt your blood sugar balance, you’re making it so much easier for your body to heal, hormones to balance and skin to clear. Increase your intake of healthy fats by eating Olive oil, Avocado, Coconut products, nuts (especially macadamias), seeds, grass fed meat, goats cheese (if you can tolerate it), oily fish, butter and ghee!
my secret hack for macro monitoring
My Fitness Pal is a free health tracker that is primarily used for calorie counting but I prefer to use it for tracking my macro intake to beat acne and PCOS. Now let me get things straight, just because you’re on a low carb diet doesn’t mean you need to go hungry. Quite the opposite! Many people (included myself!) fail low carb diets because they take out the carbs and don’t fill in the gap with extra protein and fat which means they’re left feeling fatigued, moody and fed up. If you forget about calorie counting and focus on getting your macro ratios fulfilled and correct, then you’ll feel satisfied after meals and much less likely to crave carbohydrate laden snacks a couple of hours later. Plus as you saw from the study above, a higher protein, low carb diet will achieve great results without you having to limit your overall food intake.
My Fitness Pal has a little-known tool to help you see exactly how many of each of the three macro nutrients you’re getting on a daily basis. To set up your macro nutrient goals go to Settings>Calorie & Macronutrient Goals and type in the % ratios you’d like aim for – I aim for 30% carbs, 30% protein and 40% fat – this seems to work for me and it a good starting point but you may need to adjust your % ratios depending on your exercise habits and other factors. Then after you’ve logged all your food, simply scroll down to the bottom of the Diary page and click on the Nutrition button and then across to the Nutrition and Macros tabs. I’m not telling you log every single meal you eat for the rest of your life, but logging for a week or two can give you a really good idea of what your getting enough of, and what you need to cut back on! For me personally, when I tried to go low-carb I always fell into the trap of starving myself as I associated low carb with low calorie but this isn’t and SHOULDN’T be the case. If I had used a macro tracker like My Fitness Pal from the beginning then I would have known very quickly that ALL my previous diets weren’t up to scratch when it came to my protein and fat intake.
my macro ratio history
Ok, just for fun I thought I’d show you my macro ratios for different times of my life – before I started healing my body, when I thought I was doing low carb right, my ‘screw low carb diet’ phase and finally where I’m at today!
‘old amy’ carb heavy phase
This is a screen shot from an average day 5/6 years ago where pretty much everything I ate was fried and/or beige. It often included chocolate for breakfast, snacking crisps, sandwiches or biscuits throughout the day then one large carb loaded meal late at night. As you can see my carbohydrate and sugar levels are through the roof, my protein is low and my fat appears nearer the mark – but make no mistake – pretty much all the fat I was consuming was inflammatory industrial fat, NOT healthy whole food fats.
low carb (low calorie) diet phase
So when I first learnt about PCOS and the links it had with my acne I became a little obsessed with cutting all ‘bad things’ out of my diet. I tried everything from gluten free (I was diagnosed with Coeliac 3 years ago), dairy free, refined sugar free, all sugar free, fruit free, low carb, vegan, paleo, juice diets….apple only diets….the list goes on! But the low carb diet was the one that had most evidence that it was beneficial for acne and PCOS so I stuck with it despite feeling exhausted and irritable all the time. My average days diet included an almond milk smoothie in the morning with spinach, kiwi, nectarine, flax seeds and avocado, frittata and salad for lunch and chicken and vegetables for dinner. This low carb diet was also extremely low in calories, protein and fat which explains why I was feeling hungry and moody all the time and snacking on fruit throughout the day. As you can see from my charts – even eating low carb and avoiding all processed food and added sugars, my carb intake was still over my limit and what surprised me that my sugar intake was also just over the limit – despite thinking I was eating the healthiest diet out there! I’m also not getting enough protein for my body mass here either – only 2/3’s of my suggested daily intake.
screw the low carb diet phase
Despite persevering with a low carb diet for over 6 months, it just wasn’t sustainable and I was miserable and fed up with obsessing over food (read more about this in this post here). I stuck up two fingers to the low carb diet and started included grains such as quinoa and rice back into my diet on a daily basis as I genuinely believed that low carb just didn’t work for me. My average diet during this time was still considered very healthy and included a green smoothie for breakfast, a quinoa, avocado and chicken salad with quinoa for lunch and a stir fry or curry with rice for dinner. My moods quickly lifted and I generally felt a lot happier with my relaxed attitude towards food but as the months went on I noticed I started gaining weight around my middle (a common symptom of low progesterone and PCOS) and 5kg in just two months. I was also getting hungry by 10:30/11am and craving junk food all the time. As you can see from the charts my carb and sugar intake was over the recommended daily threshold which is terrible news for my PCOS and acne. As we’ve already discussed in the post – a diet that is predominately carbohydrate will cause an increase in insulin and therefore acne. My average protein intake is even worse on this diet and I was focussing way too much on carbs on not enough on quality sources of protein that will keep my body lean and my hormones balanced.
my macro ratio today
After listening to a webinar from Alissa from FloLiving on the importance of a high protein breakfast I started my mornings with a vegan protein shake teamed with almond milk, melted coconut oil or grassfed butter and 2 Brazil nuts and very quickly noticed an improvement in my blood sugar. That protein and fat rich meal at the beginning of my day meant that I didn’t have to rely on snacks to get me through to my next meal. After a few weeks I slowly began making the switch to more protein and healthy fat focused meals for lunch and dinner and the difference was incredible. No more sugar cravings, no more need for puddings, no more out of control insulin spikes and fewer breakouts! I still eat a small portion of rice 2 times a week but not with lunch and dinner like I used to. As you can see from the screen shot, I’m pretty much spot on with my protein and fat consumption and a little under for carb consumption (yay!) and well under for my sugar consumption (double yay!).
how to eat well on a low carb diet
The key is to make sure you’re getting enough protein and fat each day – I can’t stress how essential that step is. Without the right balance of fat and protein AND the right quantity of fat and protein, you will likely fall into the traps of low carb dieting. There was a time when I never would have believed that I could be satisfied after a meal without having consumed huge quantities of bread or rice but the secret is to just focus on adding extra protein and healthy fats to every meal then you may find you can kick the snacking habits without even trying!
What are your experiences on a low carb diet? Let me know in the comments below!
Peace, Love & Clear Skin