May 2015 Issue

Nutrition is More Than Skin Deep

Since skin is the mirror of your nutrition status, make the most of your food choices by choosing plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Photo: Thinkstock

Healthy skin reflects overall health, which means it can be influenced, for better or for worse, by the nutrients in your diet. A poor diet can contribute to inflammation, oxidative stress, and glycation (bonding of a protein to a sugar molecule), three factors that contribute to skin aging as well as age-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Inflammation and oxidation takes its toll on skin. “The two biggest disruptors of skin health are inflammation and oxidation, because they cause destruction of the normal network that gives skin its elasticity and strength, collagen and elastin,” says Alan Dattner, MD, who practices integrative medicine and holistic dermatology in New York. “It’s important to protect against the cascade of events that leads to inflammation and damage of the elastic tissue of the skin.”

Your body constantly produces free radicals, molecules that can damage DNA or cells. At normal levels, they help your body function. In excess they lead to oxidative stress, which contributes to health problems, as well as premature skin aging by destroying collagen and elastin. “Sun damage, excessive alcohol intake, and cigarette smoke can produce excessive free radical damage,” says Dattner, adding that eating foods rich in antioxidants can help prevent this oxidative damage.

Many nutrients and phytochemicals may help protect against UV rays, especially vitamins A, C, D, and E; and carotenoids, including beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein (see Food Sources of Healthy Skin Nutrients). “Carotenoids have been very well known and better studied in particular diseases,” Dattner says.

Increasing the level of antioxidants, including carotenoids, in the skin helps neutralize free radicals before they can cause damage. Studies show that people with high levels of carotenoids in their skin look young for their age, with less wrinkling and skin roughness. The yellow-to-red carotenoid pigments in plant foods also contribute to healthy skin color.

The impact of glycation. Processed, fried, and sugary foods in the diet contribute to accelerated aging from glycation, the linking of sugars (glucose and fructose) to amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to form advanced glycation end products (AGEs,) according to the AGE Foundation. In youthful-looking skin, collagen and elastin, both proteins, are flexible and repairable. When sugars in the skin bond to collagen and elastin, they become stiff and unrepairable.

AGEs can be formed in the body or come into our body already formed. Dry, high-heat cooking methods—think of the skin of a roasted chicken, the golden crust on bread, or grill marks on meat—form AGEs. Lowering AGEs may reduce the systemic inflammation and oxidative stress that contribute to premature aging. The AGE Foundation suggests eating a diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than sugary and processed foods, as well as using moist cooking methods, such as poaching, steaming, stewing, and boiling. Cooking and marinating with herbs and spices, including cinnamon, cloves, oregano, allspice, ginger, and garlic, also can inhibit AGE formation.

Food over supplements. If your diet is already adequate, will improving it further by taking supplements make you look better? To date, the evidence for taking isolated nutrients in supplement form is inconclusive. The healthiest and safest way to get the nutrients you need to promote healthy, attractive skin is to eat your fruits and vegetables.

Food Sources of Healthy Skin Nutrients

Morroccan Carrot-Kale Salad