7 Foods That Could Be Making Your Psoriasis Worse

By Corinne O'Keefe Osborn
January 13, 2021

Want to know if you can eat your way to healthier skin? The truth is, no one diet plan is scientifically proven to help everyone with psoriasis. But, there are some foods that tend to cause people to flare up. Avoiding them may help improve or reduce your symptoms. In general, these are inflammatory foods and those that some people are sensitive to. Consider consuming them in moderation or avoiding them altogether based on this helpful info.

1. Refined Sugars

Over the past few decades, as the amount of sugar in the American diet began to skyrocket, a number of scientific reports have demonstrated an association between sugar intake and chronic diseases. And a 10-year study of nutritional trends found that consuming higher amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with higher levels of inflammation in the bloodstream.

Researchers hypothesize that this happens because sugar is broken down by the liver. Too much sugar can overload the liver and cause it to release inflammation-causing substances into the body.

Most of the refined sugars that we consume are in highly processed foods and beverages like candy, cookies, and sodas. You also want to look out for added or hidden sugars, since according to the CDC, about 14 percent of the average American’s daily caloric consumption comes from added sugars. These added sugars often come in the places we least expect, like soups, salad dressings, condiments, yogurts, and breakfast cereals.

Exactly how much sugar is too much is difficult to say. The American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) and that women eat no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day. To put that in perspective, one can of soda has about 33 grams of sugar—more than the daily recommendation.

To reduce your sugar intake, start by limiting your sweetened beverages. Americans get more than 40 percent of added sugars from beverages like soda, sports/energy drinks, juice, and sweetened coffee/tea. Look for diet or low-sugar soda options, flavored seltzer water, and fresh juices not made from concentrate.

Keep an eye on the nutritional facts in the foods you eat—they should list the total sugar per serving. Don’t forget to multiply it if you’re eating more than one serving.

2. Red and Processed Meats

Red and processed meats, like bacon, sausage, and packaged deli meats, can contribute to systemic inflammation. A handful of studies have indicated that high red meat consumption is associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance in the blood that indicates inflammation. Some of these studies found associations between total red meat intake; whereas, others found associations only with processed meats.

Researchers have yet to get a clear picture of why red and processed meats have this effect on the body, but they have found that switching to alternative protein sources can lower CRP levels in the blood.

“Healthier alternatives include protein sources such as poultry, seafood, or soy, as well as plant-based proteins like nuts, avocado, or beans, which contain gut-friendly fiber and antioxidants,” says Staci Gulbin, MS, RD, of Lighttrack Nutrition.

Fortunately, we live in a time when cutting back on meat is easier than ever before. There is a huge variety of meat substitutes for you to check out, including the new Impossible and Beyond burgers.

3. Gluten

Many people with psoriasis are curious about gluten-free diets. An email survey of psoriasis patients found that more than 35 percent reported trying a gluten-free diet at some point. About half of them reported skin improvement after cutting out gluten.

Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, is common among people with psoriasis (about three times as common as it is in the general population). The National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF) recommends a gluten-free diet for anyone who has tested positive for celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity. In people with both psoriasis and celiac disease, a gluten-free diet can significantly improve psoriasis symptoms. If you are interested in getting a blood test to look for signs of celiac disease, talk with your doctor. You may be referred to someone who specializes in food allergies and sensitivities.

Foods that contain gluten include:

  • wheat
  • rye
  • barley
  • malt

Gluten tends to be in:

  • pasta and noodles
  • bread and other baked goods made with wheat, rye, barley, and malt
  • certain processed foods
  • certain sauces and condiments
  • beer and malt beverages

4. Simple Carbohydrates

Not all carbs are created equal. Simple carbohydrates include sugars and refined grains that have been highly processed. During processing, these carbs lose all their beneficial nutrients and fiber. Simple carbs are very high on the glycemic index, a measure of how quickly a food will spike your blood glucose levels.

When you eat something high on the glycemic index, your body releases a surge of insulin into your blood stream. This insulin makes you hungry, causing you to eat more than you should. Ultimately, this leads to obesity and increased systemic inflammation.

“The anti-inflammatory diet is a low-carbohydrate diet,” Susan Bard, M.D., a dermatologist at Vive Dermatology in Brooklyn, NY. “Once you cut the carbs you decrease inflammation, and the weight also goes down.”

You don’t have to cut out carbs completely, but remember to practice moderation. Common simple carbs include bread and anything else made with white flour, white rice and most breakfast cereals. Look for whole grain versions instead.

5. High-Calorie Meals

In response to the many questions they were receiving about psoriasis-friendly diets, the NPF published a paper summarizing data from 55 different studies involving a total of 4,534 people with psoriasis. The only official recommendation to come out of the paper was that people with psoriasis should eat a reduced-calorie diet if they are overweight or obese. The evidence supporting this conclusion was quite strong.

“We definitely know that losing weight will improve your psoriasis; it won’t take it away, but it will improve it [if you are overweight or obese],” says Tina Bhutani, M.D., co-director of the Psoriasis and Skin Treatment Center at the University of California San Francisco.

“Adipocytes, which are fat cells in the body, produce some of the same inflammatory cytokines that drive psoriasis. By decreasing those fat cells, we are decreasing overall inflammation.”

The benefits of losing weight if you are overweight are manifold. Along with decreasing inflammation, you will also lower your risk of comorbidities like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. You may also find that your current psoriasis treatment plan works better than it did before you lost the weight.

“There’ve been a lot of studies where they looked at the same treatment, but in patients with different body weights. And [the lower your BMI], the better you respond to treatment,” says Bhutani.

6. Nightshades

In a 2017 dietary survey, about 52 percent of psoriasis patients reported skin improvement after cutting nightshades out of their diet. Nightshades are a family of plants that includes tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and white potatoes. They contain a chemical compound called solanine that can trigger inflammation in some people. If you suspect that you might be sensitive to nightshades, you can try cutting them out of your diet for a few weeks to a month (or longer, if you like) to see if you experience a reduction in symptoms.

7. Alcohol

Studies have found a positive correlation between alcohol consumption and psoriasis severity in women. They indicate that habitual drinking exacerbates symptoms, including skin inflammation and itching. There may also be a connection between the amount of alcohol consumed and the total body surface area affected by plaques.

In the 2017 dietary survey, about 54 percent of participants reported skin improvement after eliminating alcohol from their diet.

Okay, So What Should I Be Eating?

“For those with inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis, I recommend an anti-inflammatory diet rich in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, plant-based oils like olive oil, as well as fatty fish like salmon, trout, and tuna,” says registered dietician Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD, of Light Track Nutrition.

An anti-inflammatory diet (also known as the Mediterranean diet) is one that is low in inflammation-causing foods and high in inflammation busters like antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

In the NPF diet study, researchers did not find enough evidence to support an official recommendation of an anti-inflammatory diet, but they acknowledged that it may improve psoriasis symptoms in some people. Here’s how it’s said to work:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish, nuts, and seeds, help your body inhibit the release of pro-inflammatory substances.
  • Antioxidants, found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, also inhibit the release of pro-inflammatory substances, and work to fight off cell damage from free radicals.

You may also want to try an elimination diet, which can help you identify foods and drinks that are triggering your symptoms. Start by eliminating anything you suspect could be a trigger. After two to three weeks, you can slowly start adding things back into your diet. Writing everything down in a detailed food/symptom diary will help you keep track of day-to-day changes as well as overall trends. Your food diary will become a valuable resource for both you and your doctor as you work toward a symptom-free life.

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