In the past, the conventional wisdom tended to blame skin problems on genes. It was thought that people were simply born with good or bad skin. Many experts now believe, however, that we have more control over our skin than just about any other factor of our appearance.
Those who eat well, get adequate rest and exercise, and guard themselves from overexposure to the elements are generally rewarded with smooth, healthy-looking skin. Those who eat non-nutritive foods, consume too much alcohol, or skimp on sleep and exercise end up broadcasting their sins to the world.
The skin is much deeper than we generally think, say experts. When we start to dislike what we see in the mirror, many of us reach for expensive beauty creams as quick fixes. A better approach is to start from the inside.
The idea that you can eat your way to better-looking skin is gaining so much popularity that some skincare companies now devote as much effort to specially targeted vitamin supplements as they do to the traditional array of lotions, creams, and serums.
“Your epidermis is only 20 percent of your skin,” points out Howard Murad, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, and CEO of his namesake skincare company, Murad. “If you treat the skin topically with skincare products, you’re only treating 20 percent and ignoring the other 80 percent. But if you change your diet and add supplements you address the whole skin.'”
Diet for All Skin Conditions
All skin types can benefit from a better diet. Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, and co-owner of Bazilian’s Health and Wellness Clinic, says, “Your skin has its own appetite and needs to be nourished. The tools are in your hand and they don’t have to be expensive – but, it does take commitment.”
Bazilian recommends that all her clients adopt a whole foods, plant-based, high-fiber diet. The best foods to eat are fruits and vegetables high in water content, lean proteins, and healthy fats, which are anti-inflammatory and therefore help protect the inside tissue (the blood vessels) as well as the outside tissue (the skin).
“Fill up on colorful fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, foods high in protein, low-fat dairy products, and nuts,” she advises. Such foods are high in antioxidants, important for overall health. In addition, an antioxidant supplement may improve the appearance of the skin. “Antioxidant vitamins are the skin’s best defense against free radical damage,” she says.
Load up on vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, all colors of peppers, most vegetables, strawberries, and broccoli. Another important antioxidant, vitamin E, is found in wheat germ, vegetable oils, leafy green vegetables, and nuts. In addition, be sure to include selenium (found in poultry, meats, grains, Brazil nuts, and seafood) and vitamin A (found in dark-green, orange and red fruits, including tomatoes). And if you’re looking to really feed your skin, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries contain more antioxidants than any other foods.
Mary Horn, director of nutrition and exercise science at Miraval in Catalina, Arizona, cautions against some of the more extreme fad diets. “Some low-fat and low-carb diets do not supply enough nutrients to the body,” she says. “For instance, low-fat diets don’t supply enough of the healthy oils that are needed to support the skin’s elasticity and keep it lubricated. And low-carb diets are throwing out whole grains and quite a few fruits, which supply vitamins like A, E, and selenium – vitamins that are very important to the skin. A balanced eating pattern is important for skin health. The Mediterranean diet, which is high in olive oil, fruits, veggies, and fish has been shown in many studies to protect against oxidative stress, or free-radical damage, which can show up on your skin as wrinkles, sun spots, and other blemishes.”
These days, many skincare experts agree that anti-inflammatory diets improve the appearance of the skin by promoting tissue health. Nicholas Perricone, M.D., adjunct professor of medicine at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and the best-selling author of The Perricone Prescription (HarperResource, 2002), touts the anti-aging benefits of anti-inflammatory plant grasses such as wheat grass and barley grass. Other anti-inflammatory superfoods include green tea, spices (such as turmeric), and berries. “Consuming foods rich in anti-inflammatory antioxidants produces major changes in the skin, including the radiant, healthy glow that is one of the hallmarks of a young face,” says Perricone.
Try these recommendations for your skin type:
Dry, dehydrated skin “Water, water, water. Staying hydrated is key!” says Bazilian. “Water plays a major role in keeping the skin moistened and smooth – think anti-wrinkle!” When people consume insufficient quantities of water, the skin suffers, becoming saggy and wrinkled. Drink a minimum of eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily for a healthy glow, says Bazilian.
Thin, fragile-looking skin Vitamin C deficiencies contribute to reduced elasticity in the skin by inhibiting the production of collagen. “Vitamin C is an essential cofactor in collagen production in the skin,” explains Adriennne Denese, M.D., a dermatologist and the author of Dr. Denese’s Secrets for Ageless Skin (Berkley, 2005). Food sources include citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits, broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, marinara sauce, leafy greens, and strawberries.
Denese recommends supplementing vitamin C – 2,000 mg per day – divided between lunch and dinner.
Sun damage Antioxidants provide protection from the free radicals produced by the sun. Vitamin E in particular can protect against UV radiation, says Denese. Foods high in vitamin E include wheat germ, vegetable oils, nuts, and green leafy vegetables.
Denese also advises supplementation with 400 IU of alpha tocopherol, the most common form of vitamin E.
Eczema “Eczema and psoriasis are inflammatory conditions, as are rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and ulcerative colitis,” says Horn.
Horn recommends 1 – 2 grams of omega-3s per day to help counter the conditions that lead to eczema, but cautions that omega-3 supplementation in higher quantities can interact with other medications and recommends that people with eczema and other skin conditions consult a dermatologist.
Acne An antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory diet can help fight acne. Perricone recommends culinary spices such as ginger, turmeric, and lemongrass, typically found in Asian cuisine, as well as the culinary herbs more common to Western diets such as parsley, oregano, rosemary, and basil, which all have anti-inflammatory properties.
Green tea, in addition to being high in antioxidants, has a “bitter” or “cooling” nature that can help calm adolescent and adult acne. Bazilian recommends starting with at least one cup per day and building up to three.
Supplements for All Skin Conditions
With the prevalence of today’s eat-and-run lifestyles, it may be difficult to meet daily nutritional needs through diet alone. A high-quality multivitamin can fill in those nutritional gaps. In addition, nearly everyone may benefit from a supplement containing omega-3 fatty acids. “Essential fatty acids keep cell membranes healthy,” says Bazilian. “They also keep [the]skin lubricated.”
Foods to Avoid
• Fried foods and foods high in saturated or trans fats. “Unhealthy oils in the body may result in oily skin and clogged pores,” says Bazilian.
• Foods high in added sugars. Perricone calls sugary (as well as fried foods) “pro-inflammatory,” and says they contribute to such skin problems as acne, enlarged pores, and the breakdown of collagen and elastin in the skin.
• High sodium foods. “A diet high in sodium can create bloating or swelling under the skin and puffiness around the eyes,” says Horn.
The lesson here is that beauty really does come from within. Fancy lotions and potions certainly can’t hurt. But when it comes to looking good, the counsel of cosmetics companies may be less reliable than your mother’s homespun advice: pass on the junk food and eat your vegetables.