The Best Food for Radiant Skin
The Problem: Fine lines and wrinkles
Go For: Protein. The building blocks of youthful-looking skin are collagen, which keeps your complexion firm, and elastin, which helps skin spring back to its original shape, like a rubber band, after you’ve smiled or frowned. As we age, our bodies produce less of both—and you begin to see wrinkles and sagging in the mirror. “When you eat a protein-rich meal, it’s broken down into amino acids like lysine and glycine, and these nutrients help your body produce collagen and elastin tissue,” says Jessica Wu, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women with a wrinkled appearance had significantly lower intakes of protein than their unwrinkled counterparts. To get the ideal daily dose, Wu recommends eating fish, eggs, or chicken, or plant sources like soy, nuts, and legumes, at every meal.
Go For: Antioxidants. Your skin is constantly under attack by free radicals—molecules generated by UV radiation, pollution, and cigarette smoke, to name a few. “These highly unstable particles bounce around like ping-pong balls in the layers of your skin and ultimately break down collagen and elastin,” says Zoe Diana Draelos, MD, consulting professor of dermatology at Duke University. “But antioxidants can help neutralize free radicals, rendering them harmless.” That’s why doctors recommend a diet containing a wide variety of antioxidants, including vitamin C (oranges, kiwis, kale, spinach, red peppers), vitamin E (safflower oil, almonds, sunflower seeds), flavonoids (broccoli, strawberries, grapes, parsley), curcumin (turmeric), and lycopene (tomatoes). To boost your antioxidant intake, pay extra attention to how you prepare your food: Vitamin C is heat sensitive, so try to eat certain fruits and veggies raw; the overall level of phytonutrients in broccoli is best retained when it’s steamed or microwaved; lycopene is most potent in cooked tomatoes. You can also step up your defense by tossing your veggies with extra-virgin olive oil, a monounsaturated fat that has been associated with less photoaging (skin damage caused by the sun). For maximum skin benefits, buy olive oil that comes in a dark glass bottle (light can cause photo-oxidation) and avoid using it when searing or stir-frying foods. “Extra-virgin olive oil has a smoke point lower than many other oils, which means it starts to degrade and lose nutrients when it’s heated to very high temperatures,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Marjorie Nolan Cohn.
Go Easy On: Candy, white bread, soda—and anything else with a high glycemic index. The glycemic index is a value assigned to carbohydrate-containing foods based on how slowly or quickly they increase blood sugar levels. Foods with a high glycemic index—like those with added sugar (soda, cookies, ice cream) or refined carbs (pasta, white rice, bagels)—can lead to sharp, sudden rises in blood sugar levels, says Katta. That excess sugar can lead to the creation of collagen- damaging molecules that can cause wrinkling and sagging.
The Problem: Acne
Go For: Fiber. Abrupt surges in blood sugar (see above) can cause changes in your hormone levels, says Katta. And because hormones control the skin’s production of sebum—the oily substance that lubricates your outer layer but can also clog pores—these shifts can make you more prone to pimples. So skip or limit foods with added sugar and refined carbs, and instead load up on foods high in fiber—beans, lentils, artichokes, oats—which release carbs slowly and steadily.
Go For: Zinc. Another way to sidestep blemishes: a hearty serving of dietary zinc. “Research shows that people with acne often have lower-than-normal levels of this mineral in their bloodstream,” says Wu. One theory is that since zinc can act as an anti-inflammatory, a deficiency could result in acne flare-ups. The food with the most bang for your zinc buck? Raw oysters, says registered dietitian nutritionist Caroline West Passerrello. Just two medium oysters can provide more than the daily recommended amount for women. Not a fan? Try beef, pork or cashews.
Go Easy On: Milk. While experts have acknowledged an association between dairy consumption—particularly skim milk— and acne, no one’s quite sure what’s behind it. One possible explanation: If a cow has been given growth hormones to increase dairy production, they could still be present in the milk you’re drinking and, once in your body, may exacerbate breakouts, says Draelos. But switching to organic milk, which by USDA standards can’t come from cows treated with growth hormones or antibiotics, may not provide a skin-saving solution. “Even organic milk contains natural hormones that may worsen acne in some people,” says Katta. If you have troubling breakouts, it might be worth decreasing your dairy consumption or eliminating it from your diet entirely. (Keep in mind: It could take up to 12 weeks to experience a noticeable difference.)
The Problem: Dry skin
Go For: Omega-3 fatty acids. The key to a healthy, hydrated complexion, according to Wu: a robust skin barrier, in which each cell is surrounded by a “little bubble wrap of fatty acids.” As we grow older, production of lipids (good fats that make your skin plump and luminous) naturally decreases, possibly allowing moisture to escape from the skin’s surface. To help keep your barrier in top shape, make sure your diet is rich in skin-strengthening omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, and tuna. If you’re a vegetarian, you can get your fatty acid fix by snacking on walnuts, sprinkling fiber-rich flaxseeds on cereal or yogurt, or drizzling flaxseed oil over quinoa or pilaf, says Passerrello. One study found that people who consumed the oil daily experienced a significant increase in skin hydration and smoothness and a 10 percent decrease in evaporation of moisture from the skin after just six weeks.
Go For: Probiotics and prebiotics. For years, wellness experts have been buzzing about the benefits of probiotics (strains of good bacteria, like those naturally found in your gut) and prebiotics (certain carbohydrates that feed the good bacteria in your gut)—and dermatologists are joining the chorus. “When the trillions of good microbes in your gastrointestinal tract are provided with favorable living conditions, you may experience improved skin barrier function and reduced skin sensitivity,” says Katta. Keep your microbes happy by consuming a combo of prebiotics (asparagus, onion, and garlic all are great sources), and probiotics (found in fermented foods like miso, kefir, and sauerkraut). Yogurt is also a good source of probiotics—just look for a plain low-fat or fat-free variety labeled with live active cultures; you can then sweeten it with a little honey or fresh fruit, says Passerrello.
Go Easy On: Alcohol and caffeine. File this under “obvious, but bears repeating”: To get supple skin, you’ll want to limit anything that may lead to dehydration. “Alcohol and caffeinated beverages act as diuretics, and if you drink a lot, you may notice their ill effects—parched skin and lips—as soon as the next day,” says Katta.
The Problem: Dullness
Go For: Vitamin A. To get glowing, your skin needs to continually grow hearty cells—which is vitamin A’s specialty. Not only is it vital for the creation of new cells, but it also helps speed cell turnover, so your skin is left looking fresh, says Patricia Farris, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine. To get your A game on, eat foods with high levels of beta-carotene—the plant pigment that gives yellow and orange fruits and vegetables their color—which your body converts to this important antioxidant. Good sources include carrots and sweet potatoes, as well as spinach and kale. “The deeper or richer the color of a fruit or a vegetable, the more antioxidants,” says Draelos.
Go For: Polyphenols. Inside the skin’s dermis, or inner layer, are tiny blood vessels responsible for supplying oxygen and nutrients. “When those vessels are strong and dilated, blood flow increases, the skin receives more oxygen and nutrients, and your complexion should look brighter,” says Katta. Polyphenols (a category of plant nutrients), found in fruits like grapes and blueberries, help open these blood vessels. An even sweeter source? Dark chocolate. “Ideally, look for one with 85 percent cocoa,” says Cohn. “And you need only about a square.”
Go Easy On: Trans fats. It’s no secret that trans fats are unhealthy: Studies have shown that the dietary fat—common in fried foods and some processed fare—can raise bad cholesterol levels, decrease good cholesterol levels, and increase your risk of heart disease. Now there’s evidence that trans fats can also be detrimental to your skin. “When you eat foods with trans fats, you can increase free radical production, which may lead to skin-dulling discoloration,” says Katta. To keep your trans fat intake as low as possible, cut back on doughnuts, French fries, and other fried foods. Brilliant, beautiful skin—coming right up!