Forget the needle, scalpel and expensive potions. Whether it’s wrinkles, pimples, dryness or irritation that is giving you trouble, health experts say the true path to clear, youthful-looking skin runs straight through the grocery aisle.
“For too many years, the idea that nutrition could have a significant influence on the skin was dismissed, but that has changed,” says Alan Logan, a Westchester, New York-based naturopathic doctor and co-author of The Clear Skin Diet. “Whether the issue is aging or acne, many recent studies indicate that nutrition really does matter.”
Sue Van Raes, a holistic nutritionist from Boulder, Colorado, points out that because the body tends to prioritize other organs, such as the heart, when doling out nutrients, the skin is the first to show signs of distress when diet is poor: “It’s a critical barometer of our health.” The older we get, the harder it is for our skin to soak up nutrients, making a skin-friendly diet even more critical as we age.
“If someone comes to me for aesthetic reasons, the first thing I am going to say is, ‘Tell me about your diet,’” remarks Amy Newburger, a Scarsdale, New York, dermatologist.
Here’s a quick and easy look at what to eat and not eat to achieve that desired youthful glow:
Wrinkle-free with vitamin C: Vitamin C and other antioxidants, such as vitamins E and A, play a crucial role in neutralizing free-radicals associated with sun, wind and environmental toxin exposure, which age cells and lead to wrinkled skin. Vitamin C is particularly important for building plump, moist collagen. Newburger says, “If you aren’t getting enough C, the collagen is not well able to hold water and looks wrinkly.” Those who spend lots of time outdoors playing or working amid the harsh elements need it most.
This counsel is backed by research, including a study of 4,025 women published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007, in which researchers found higher vitamin C intake associated with a significantly lower likelihood of wrinkles. So, don’t forget to eat lots of leafy greens and consider chugging a glass of orange juice after playing outside in the sun.
Tomatoes and green tea: Two other nutrients that have earned considerable attention from skin researchers recently include lycopene, from tomatoes, and polyphenols, which are omnipresent in green tea.
In 2008, British researchers from the University of Newcastle found that volunteers who took five tablespoons of tomato paste daily for 12 weeks, and were then exposed to UVA light, had 33 percent more protection against sunburn than the control group; they also had higher levels of pro-collagen, a molecule that gives skin elasticity.
While much of the research on green tea has involved topical applications, some animal studies suggest that ingesting green tea also may help protect skin against sun damage. Stay tuned for more research.
Good fats: We’ve all heard how we should eat more fatty fish, such as salmon, and/or add a fish oil supplement to our diet. In addition to having antioxidant properties and hydrating skin cells, essential fatty acids such as omega 3—commonly found in fish, olive oil, flax seeds and walnuts—help create a protective layer that shields against environmental stresses and holds in moisture, Van Raes advises.
Logan adds that these essential fatty acids can also quell inflammation, which can swell tiny red capillaries on the skin’s surface and prompt red patches, or hasten wrinkles by first stretching, then shrinking, the skin. Too, omega 3 consumption is believed to reduce excess sebum production in pores, which can aggravate acne.
Essential fatty acids also are good hormone regulators, moderating the breakouts that can occur in premenstrual women. Research in a 2007 issue of The Journal of Clinical Nutrition even found that higher intake of linoleic acid, found in fatty fish, may be associated with reduced risk of age-related dryness and thinning of the skin.
Stay hydrated: Drinking six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day plumps skin cells, leading to a smoother look.
Cut carbs: Experts say a diet of highly refined carbohydrates (think white bread and spaghetti) is often the culprit for an array of skin problems: It spikes the blood sugar, leading to increased insulin production, which in turn throws the balance of testosterone and estrogen out of whack and disrupts the delicate balance of oils in the skin, making it too dry or too oily. Hormone imbalances also can fuel acne.
For instance, Van Raes observes, a woman with excess testosterone might experience breakouts along her jaw line. One 2007 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 43 acne patients who went on a diet low in processed grains for 12 weeks decreased their pimples by nearly twice as much as the control group. Another report that same year, in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that those who ate more refined carbs had more wrinkles and skin atrophy, a culprit in sagging skin.
Consider allergies: Logan and Van Raes both note that skin problems, such as itchy rashes, often can result from food sensitivities. For instance, when gluten-sensitive people eat wheat, their body becomes flooded with inflammatory chemicals, called cytokines, which can swell skin and promote acne, redness and wrinkling. According to a 2006 research review, gluten-sensitivity has been linked with 21 chronic skin disorders, from psoriasis to hair loss. Meanwhile, two recent studies by Harvard researchers showed a significant link between milk consumption and acne in teens.
Logan recommends eliminating the suspicious food (be it milk or wheat) for three months and then, slowly reintroducing it. This can help reveal if it, indeed, is a culprit that needs to be replaced with a skin-healthy option.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance writer in Estes Park, CO. Connect at LisaAnnMarshall.com.