If your skin has been a bit lackluster lately, it might be what you’re eating – or not eating. In fact, the use of nutrition as an antiaging tool has been termed the “inside-out” approach.
So after a lifetime of attention-getting headlines about the latest miracle foods for skin and hair, I decided to turn to several of New Orleans’ top dermatologists to help separate fact from fiction.
There’s no guarantee that eating these top beauty foods – or any one particular product, for that matter – will give you instantly dewy, glowing skin, but every little bit helps. Plus, these nutrient-dense foods provide full-body benefits, inside and out. The fact that they might also help to improve your skin is just one more reason to eat them.
Our skin is a window to the rest of the body, a reflection of everything that’s happening within, from nutritional status to liver function. Our skin shows signs of aging as a result of factors that we can’t control, like genetics and time, as well as also external influences like sun exposure, smoking, and pollution.
The aging of our skin is a complex, multifaceted process; nutrition is one of several elements that we have some level of control over.
A diet filled with antioxidant-rich foods is a good starting point. “Our everyday metabolic processes, combined with factors like sunlight and smoking, inevitably result in the formation of free radicals,” says Dr. Mary Lupo, board certified dermatologist with Lupo Center for Aesthetic and General Dermatology. “These free radicals attach to the collagen and elastin in our skin, breaking them down at a more rapid rate. A diet rich in antioxidants will help negate the effects of these free radicals that compromise the integrity of our skin.”
Antioxidants may also help boost the protective effects of sunscreen. “Some ultraviolet (UV) light can get through sunscreen, and antioxidants in the skin and blood may prevent this UV light from having as deleterious a photo-aging effect on the skin,” says Lupo.
Top vitamin A, C, and EGCG antioxidant foods: Green tea (especially matcha tea), carrots, and red peppers.
Next Best: Spinach, kale, broccoli, strawberries, kiwifruit, and cantaloupe.
Antioxidant-packed fruits (based on the USDA’s ORAC scale, a measure of a food’s antioxidant capacity): Blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, and prunes.
Antioxidant-packed legumes and vegetables (based on the USDA’s ORAC scale):
Red beans, pinto beans, and artichoke hearts.
Probiotics are well-known for their role in digestive health, but now we have another reason to include these beneficial bacteria in our diets: Lupo says that not only can immune-boosting probiotics promote skin healing, they can also help alleviate allergic and inflammatory skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis.
Top food source of probiotics: Yogurt with live active cultures
Next best: Kefir, buttermilk, and miso.
Limiting your intake of certain foods can be just as significant in the appearance of your skin. As is often the case, sugar and fat are the two big buzzwords – but for opposite reasons. Too much sugar is at the top of nearly every dermatologist’s list of Diet Don’ts, but surprisingly, too little fat also can cause skin issues.
“The metabolism of sugar increases the production of glycated end products, which have the direct effect of accelerating collagen breakdown,” says Lupo. The result: Skin is more prone to the formation of fine lines and wrinkles.
Sugar also causes an inflammatory response in the body, and anything you can do to reduce inflammation can help improve the skin’s appearance – acne, in particular, says Lupo. Cutting back on sugar doesn’t mean just limiting soft drinks and sweets. Lupo also advises patients to steer clear of inflammatory foods like white starches, including rice, pasta, potatoes, and breads, incorporating more non-starchy vegetables and whole grains instead. A square of dark chocolate (lower in sugar, and higher in fiber and antioxidants) is her favorite way to satisfy a sweet tooth.
As for fat, on the other hand, our most well-intentioned efforts to avoid it may be doing our skin more harm than good. “Following a strict very low fat diet (less than 20 percent of calories from fat) can actually be detrimental when it comes to our skin’s appearance,” says Dr. Julie Mermilliod, board certified dermatologist and System Chair of Dermatology with Ochsner Health. “We need to consume enough fats to maintain our skin’s hydration.”
Studies have shown that higher intakes of total fat, monounsaturated fat, and even saturated fat seem to improve skin hydration and elasticity. “Dehydrated skin is more easily damaged and looks older more quickly,” says Mermilliod. “And skin elasticity is an important target for anti-aging regimens, since a decrease in elasticity is one of the reasons that firm, toned skin becomes loose, sagging skin.”
Certain medications which impact fat can also have a corresponding impact on the appearance of our skin. Lupo has noticed that patients on cholesterol-lowering drugs often get very dry, flaky skin. “These medications are pulling the fats from the skin, as well as from the bloodstream.”
If you think you need to add a little fat back into your diet, try to keep the emphasis on heart-healthy fats like omega-3 and monounsaturated fats. And be sure to account for these added calories by consuming less of other not-so-healthy foods (i.e. processed carbohydrates and sugary drinks).
Top food source of DHA-rich Omega-3s: Wild Atlantic salmon
Next Best: Mackerel, tuna, and rainbow trout
Top food source of ALA-rich Omega-3s (small amounts of ALA are converted into DHA): Flaxseed oil.
Next Best: Ground flaxseed and walnuts.
Top food source of monounsaturated fat: Macadamia nuts.
Next Best: Avocado and olive oil
Keep in mind that no matter how nutrient-packed your diet is, good nutrition is only one contributor to looking gorgeous. But when we maximize our nutrition for our skin, our entire body reaps the benefits. And, PS, our skin may look a notch better, as well.
For more on the science of nutrition and skin, check out my FUELED Wellness + Nutrition podcast here. where I’m joined by expert dermatologists Dr. Julie Mermilliod and Dr. Mary Lupo.
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit restaurant initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s articles + TV segments at www.mollykimball.com.