First things first: Your diet didn't cause your eczema. But your diet can either make your eczema symptoms better or worse.
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If you have eczema (aka atopic dermatitis), you join 30 percent of the population of the U.S., according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). While most eczema sufferers are children and adolescents, adults can have flare-ups too, so it's important to know your personal triggers to keep your skin healthy and itch-free.
How Diet Affects Eczema
Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that's triggered by environmental factors, and it may or may not be inherited, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
While there are many things that can cause an eczema flare-up, diet is one that gets a lot of attention. Flare-ups can range from small patches of dry skin to itchy patches all over the body that can be intolerable. Eczema flare-ups are different for everyone, as are the triggers that can cause them.
The most important point when looking at the link between diet and eczema is the individuality of the trigger, board-certified dermatologist Robin Evans, MD, tells LIVESTRONG.com. In other words, a food that affects one person may not cause a reaction in another, so trial and error is usually necessary to find a person's particular triggers.
What Foods Are Good for Eczema?
Because it's hard to know what foods may be your personal triggers, one of the best things you can do is eat foods good for skin health in general. This means you should follow a diet that provides nutrients and hydration that will support the health of your skin and keep it looking its best.
1. Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Eczema is an inflammatory condition, so an anti-inflammatory diet is highly recommended. According to Harvard Health Publishing, anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds, including almonds (as long as you don't have an allergy)
- Dark leafy greens
Dr. Evans recommends foods such as salmon, mackerel and flaxseed to get in extra omega-3 fatty acids throughout the week.
"Eating a diet rich in omega-3s is useful because of the anti-inflammatory properties of these nutrients," she says.
Other sources of plant-based omega-3s include chia seeds, walnuts and edamame. And some foods are fortified with a type of omega-3 known as DHA — including some eggs, dairy milk, plant-based milk and juices — so check out the labels next time you hit the grocery store.
Dairy foods are sometimes considered inflammatory. Some studies have found that milk and cheese increase inflammation in the body, while others have concluded that dairy has anti-inflammatory benefits, according to an August 2017 review in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
But if you don't have an allergy or sensitivity to dairy, you may want to consider including yogurt in your eczema diet. Probiotic-rich low-fat yogurt seems to bolster gut health and help prevent inflammatory cytokines in the gut from entering the bloodstream after a high-calorie or high-fat meal, according to a June 2018 study in The Journal of Nutrition.
2. Foods Rich in Vitamin C
Foods containing vitamin C are notoriously good for your skin. Why?
First, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, which means it falls into the above category of anti-inflammatory foods.
Second, vitamin C is needed to form a healthy skin barrier, which helps lock in moisture and prevent dryness and irritation, according to August 2016 research in Nutrition Research and Practice. This study also indicates that people with eczema have lower levels of vitamin C, which implies an association between these elements.
Most fruits and vegetables are typically rich in vitamin C, including:
Does Drinking Water Help Eczema?
What Foods Should You Avoid When You Have Eczema?
When you or your child has eczema or a flare-up, you may be desperate to find out what the culprit was and get rid of it immediately.
1. Foods You Are Personally Sensitive To
While Dr. Evans stresses that the foods that trigger eczema flare-ups are different from person to person, there are a few common culprits to note. According to March 2016 research in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, these include:
The authors of this study caution that understanding the extent of the relationship between the food and eczema is crucial to treatment.
"Minimizing dairy intake can be useful for some individuals, as this can be a trigger for some with atopic eczema," Dr. Evans says. And similarly, "some patients with atopic dermatitis may have gluten sensitivities."
For babies with eczema that's triggered by dairy, soy milk may provide a safe alternative to regular cow's milk, but keep in mind that some infants and children experience intolerance of soy protein as well, according to Nemours KidsHealth. Work with your child's pediatrician to identify the triggers of your child's eczema and safe food alternatives.
If you suspect you have a food allergy or sensitivity, see your doctor to get tested.
2. Inflammatory Foods
According to the Mayo Clinic, these foods include:
- Red and processed meats
- Sugary foods, including cereals and drinks
- Deep-fried food
- Processed desserts and pastries
Is Coffee Good for Eczema?
Although you may find stories online of people who gave up coffee and "cured" their eczema, there doesn't seem to be any current or credible published research to show whether or not coffee or caffeine can help ease eczema symptoms.
What About Diet Plans for Eczema?
There is no cure for eczema, per the NIAID, only natural remedies and treatments to help manage symptoms. Diet is often the first go-to for treatment and certain diet patterns may help calm the inflammation and ease the itch.
1. Mediterranean Diet
When following the Mediterranean diet, you will eat fish at least twice a week and have a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and olive oil — the latter of which has independently been shown to bring down inflammation in the body, according to August 2019 research in Nutrients.
The Mediterranean diet is "a great fit for someone with eczema to start seeing results," Arsenault tells LIVESTRONG, but adds, "the only concern I have about this diet for clients with eczema is those who are gluten-sensitive or have celiac disease. The Mediterranean diet encourages a lot of grains, so I work with these clients to find gluten-free grains like quinoa, amaranth or millet."
Ready to Adopt a Mediterranean Diet?
Start with this seven-day meal plan.
2. Elimination Diets
An elimination diet is a meal plan that removes specific foods or food groups from a person's diet, with the goal being to suss out any food intolerances (or in this case, foods that trigger eczema).
While this type of diet may seem like the best solution to help ease symptoms of eczema, proceed with caution, especially when eliminating foods from a child's diet. You run the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies if you don't find an alternative food containing those eliminated nutrients.
The American Academy of Dermatology indicates that 40 percent of children who have eczema also have food allergies. That's why, when looking at foods that can trigger symptoms of atopic dermatitis, it's important to make a distinction between a true food allergy and a sensitivity.
The March 2016 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology study mentioned above found that some children who eliminate a tolerated but offending food can sometimes have worse reactions when the food comes back into their diet. This highlights the need to seek guidance from medical professionals when starting an elimination diet for eczema, especially for children.
When Arsenault works with clients who have eczema and chooses this route, she has a method: "We eliminate one food group at a time to see if that helps, anywhere from three to five days. We work together to ensure cutting out specific foods or a food group doesn't result in nutrient deficiencies over time."
Bottom line: If you find the offensive food that triggers eczema symptoms and you take that out of your diet, seek out guidance from a registered dietitian, who can break down your diet and ensure you are getting all of the nutrients you need for good health and suggest alternative foods with the nutrients you may be eliminating. Arsenault recommends patience: "It's a long process of trial and error, but really helps us get to the root cause and potential triggers."
3. Dyshidrotic Eczema Diet
Dyshidrotic eczema is a type of eczema that causes small, very itchy blisters on the hands and feet, according to the National Eczema Association.
Because metals, particularly nickel, are a common trigger, people with dyshidrotic eczema may want to avoid or limit foods that contain nickel. According to a May-June 2013 report in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, these foods include:
- Whole wheat
- Whole grain
- Cocoa and chocolate
- Baking powder
- Soy products
- Red kidney beans
- Legumes (including peas, lentils, peanuts and chickpeas)
- Dried fruits
- Canned foods
4 Tips for Starting an Eczema Diet
When working to get your eczema under control,, your best bet is to start with a few key steps:
- Make an appointment with a dermatologist to discuss the type of eczema you have and your treatment options. He or she will also be able to help you pinpoint whether or not you have a food allergy or intolerance.
- Start keeping a food diary with what you eat and what symptoms you experience. This is a way to track trends in your diet and health.
- Start adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet. Eating more fruits and vegetables, fish and olive oil may help more than just your skin.
- Seek advice from a registered dietitian to help guide you through the process of changing your diet, if needed, to ensure you are getting all the nutrients needed for good health.
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis)"
- Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: "Natural History of Food Triggered Atopic Dermatitis and Development of Immediate Reactions in Children"
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: "Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis) Overview"
- Nutrition Research and Practice: "Associations Among Plasma Vitamin C, Epidermal Ceramide and Clinical Severity of Atopic Dermatitis"
- Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health: "Diet Review: Mediterranean Diet"
- Nutrients: "Effects of Olive Oil and Its Minor Components on Cardiovascular Diseases, Inflammation, and Gut Microbiota"
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Can Food Fix Eczema?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Foods That Fight Inflammation"
- Mayo Clinic: "How to Use Food to Help Your Body Fight Inflammation"
- National Eczema Association: "Eczema and Exercise"
- University of Missouri System: "How to calculate how much water you should drink"
- Nemours KidsHealth: "Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis)"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Dairy products and inflammation: A review of the clinical evidence"
- The Journal of Nutrition: "Premeal Low-Fat Yogurt Consumption Reduces Postprandial Inflammation and Markers of Endotoxin Exposure in Healthy Premenopausal Women in a Randomized Controlled Trial"
- National Eczema Association: "Dyshidrotic Eczema"
- Indian Journal of Dermatology: "Low Nickel Diet in Dermatology"