Imagine a small, remote tropical island surrounded by crystal clear water where fresh produce and fish are abundant, the morale is upbeat and happy, and—ready?—acne is nonexistent. These are all grounds for a perfect fantasy, but you needn't dream up this idyllic paradise—it actually exists.
Google the word "Kitava," and many of the first few search results are the Kitavan diet and its incredible health benefits. The island, located in Papua New Guinea, is virtually uninfluenced by Western nutritional habits—the majority of their diet consists of tubers (yams, sweet potatoes and taro), as well as local fruits (coconut is a biggie), fish and vegetables. The overall diet is praised for its direct correlation to the well-being of its followers; Kitavan people, in addition to not having acne, rarely (if ever) face diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or dementia.
Staffan Lindeberg, a medical doctor and associate professor of family medicine, was one of the first to discover the fascinating diet of the Kitavan people. Albeit a rather simple, natural diet, the fascination lies within the fact that this small island is one of the last populations on earth to still follow the same diet as its indigenous people. Lindeberg and his team noticed that of the 1200 subjects examined on the island, no breakouts were observed during the 843-day study. This included 300 individuals aged 15 to 25 years old, when acne is most prevalent.
The researchers concluded that genetics didn't play a role in the clear skin of these subjects either—genetically similar groups who don't follow this clean, plant-based diet are more susceptible to common Western medical conditions. Exercise also wasn't a notable factor in the cause of their unblemished complexions— researchers observed that Kitavan people actually weren't very active.
So should we all switch to a tuber-rich diet? In short, it couldn't hurt (though, speak with a medical professional first before completely altering your diet). Yams and sweet potatoes are abundant in vitamin C, which helps promote the healing, growth and repair of tissues within the body. Adds Alex Caspero, MA, RD, head nutritionist for Hum Nutrition, "Not only are tubers rich in fibre, which is helpful for reducing LDL cholesterol and insulin resistance, it also helps feed the bacteria in your gut. Gut health might be the unsung hero of banishing acne, as healthy gut flora reduce inflammation which can present as acne, psoriasis, rosacea and other skin issues."
Tubers (as well as many of the other foods in the Kitavan diet like fruits and green vegetables) also have a low glycemic index, meaning they won't spike your blood sugar levels. Foods with a high glycemic index (think processed, sugary, carb-heavy foods) raise insulin levels, thus promoting inflammation and the production of hormones that increase activity in oil glands. Though, note that white potatoes actually don't fall into this skin-friendly category: They have a glycemic index of 85, whereas sweet potatoes have a GI of 54.
As mentioned before, coconuts play a huge role in the Kitavan diet—they use it in all forms: raw, as coconut water and as an oil for cooking. Coconuts have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties, making them the perfect weapon for staving off acne. The MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) in coconuts also promote healthy gut bacteria, which plays an essential role in keep the skin clear by lowering inflammation levels. Another healthy fat that Kitavans eat is the omega-3 found in fish. These also help promote healthy gut bacteria.
Alcohol, coffee, dairy and refined grains barely (if ever) play a role in the Kitavan diet; uncoincidentally, they're all items that negatively affect the body and—you guessed it—cause breakouts. So it's no wonder Western societies are more acne-prone (hello, wine, pizza, pasta, cheese and, unfortunately, all things bad that taste so good). If you're worried, there's a slim chance you'll be able to follow this type of diet. Caspero says to take it slow: "Try reducing intake of sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages, and items that contain added sugar. With so many dairy-free options on the market, it's easy to reduce intake of dairy. Besides their intake of fish, the Kitavans eat a predominately plant-based diet, which is consistently shown as the best diet for reduced chronic disease states and longevity. Clear skin is just an added bonus."
Up next, check out how Eastern and Western experts rated our editor's skincare routine.