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More Than Skin Deep

By Karen Asp
Posted On Jun 09, 2021
More Than Skin Deep

How your nutritional habits can affect your skin and what foods are best for your body’s largest organ. 

Turns out, you really are what you eat, especially when it comes to your skin. Sure, you can slather on pricey products to improve appearance, but you might want to consider methods to make that beauty radiate from within.

“You can’t have healthy, beautiful skin if you treat it only from the outside,” says Nicholas Perricone, M.D., a Connecticut-based clinical and research dermatologist. “The right food choices are critical to youthful, beautiful, and radiant skin.”

So what should you feed your face? The answers may be simpler than you think.

Nutrition and Skin Health

You might not automatically associate good nutrition with better skin health until you understand this fact: Your skin is an organ, the largest one of the body, and like all of your other organs, it has certain requirements. “It needs the nutrition, oxygen, and amino acids, the building blocks of DNA,” says Christine Choi Kim, M.D., a medical and cosmetic dermatologist and clinical research investigator at the Clinical Science Institute in Santa Monica, California.

Without those essential items, your body can develop nutritional deficiencies—and your skin is one of the first places they show up for all to see. “Think of the skin as a window to the inside of your body,” Dr. Kim says.

While you can blame the standard American diet (e.g., too many processed foods, excess sodium) for causing problems, which are especially tough on those prone to acne, rosacea, and eczema, women in particular are guilty of making two nutritional mistakes that impact the skin: Not eating enough protein and being overly strict about avoiding dietary fat. “Those two behaviors are contributing factors in why women often look older than men of the same age,” Dr. Perricone says.

Without enough daily protein, which the body can’t store, facial features become soft looking. “The depleted supply of protein forces the body to feed upon itself, causing muscle and tissue to break down,” Dr. Perricone says. Long-term protein starvation can lead to a significant loss of skin tone, not only on the face but also in the breasts. Meanwhile, dietary fat will keep your skin soft, supple, and radiant, he adds.

Of course, just as you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, you also can’t undo skin damage from years of sun exposure and smoking. If you start paying more attention to your diet, however, it’s possible you can improve your skin’s outward appearance, decreasing wrinkling and sagging of the skin, Dr. Perricone says. Certain foods can also bolster your skin’s defense against ultraviolet (UV) rays, preventing skin cancer and, as a result, the wrinkles and aging spots that accompany UV damage, offers Dr. Kim.

Your Skin-Savvy Eating Plan

Diets are a dime a dozen these days, and while there’s not a specific diet per se for skin health as there is for the heart or brain, it’s fair to say that what’s good for other organs is good for the skin, too. That’s why dermatologists recommend eating a diet high in antioxidants, potent compounds in food that fight skin-damaging free radicals in the body, and choosing foods that are anti-inflammatory in nature.

Inflammation, after all, is a driving force in every age-related disease, even aging itself. On the skin, chronic inflammation can manifest itself in the form of wrinkles, sagging, discoloration, enlarged pores, and lack of radiance, Dr. Perricone warns.

Foods that increase inflammation are those commonly found in the standard American diet, especially sugar-rich items. “Sugar increases stress hormones in the skin, which can create an inflammatory state,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Eventually, that can lead to the breakdown of collagen, a protein in the skin that naturally decreases with age.

Yet by switching to an anti-inflammatory diet, your skin may show significant improvements. “In just three days of eating an anti-inflammatory diet, your skin will look healthier, more radiant and less wrinkled,” Dr. Perricone says.

Like the Mediterranean diet, an anti-inflammatory diet will load your body with antioxidants and nutrients that can bolster skin health. For instance, vitamins A, C, D, and E have proven effects on the skin, Dr. Kim says. So, too, do omega-3 fatty acids, which are in fish, and even a compound called resveratrol found in red wine and green tea.

To that end, experts recommend avoiding processed foods as much as possible, which are loaded with excess salt or sugar (or both), Dr. Tanzi says. Instead, focus on high-quality protein like fish, shellfish, tofu and poultry. When it comes to carbohydrates, opt for low-glycemic ones: “A low-sugar diet helps give the skin a healthy glow and prevents inflammation,” Dr. Tanzi says. That means add in more colorful fresh fruits and vegetables; low-glycemic grains (quinoa, for instance); and legumes like lentils. Then make sure you’re eating healthy fats, like cold-water fish (especially wild Alaskan salmon, halibut, sardines, herring, and anchovies), nuts, seeds, and extra virgin olive oil.

And while hydration, key for overall health, is often touted as the cornerstone for healthier skin, drinking the recommended eight servings of 8-ounce glasses a day doesn’t guarantee healthy skin. “You can’t drink your way into beautiful skin,” Dr. Tanzi says, adding that some people drinking that amount still suffer from problems like acne. Yet in Dr. Perricone’s view, “Water helps keep the skin soft and plumped up.” No matter, though, your body still needs plenty of water throughout the day, so keep tabs on your hydration. Remember, too, that foods like fruits and vegetables, and soups contain water, which count toward your hydration needs, Dr. Kim says.

While your skin is getting healthier from eating a derma-friendly diet, so is the rest of your body, making it a win-win situation for all of your organs.