Updated: Nov 10, 2018
When it comes to having glowing skin, what you put on the inside matters every bit as much as what you put on the outside. You can have the best skin care routine in the world, but if you’re not eating healthy foods your skin will show it. So what exactly should you be including in your diet to help optimize skin health? Read on to find out!
Warning- this is a long one. I’ve tried my best to condense the information out there, but the fact of the matter is that skin nutrition is a massive topic!
Essential Fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been getting considerable attention in the nutrition world due to their anti-inflammatory effects and their potential role in multiple disease entities. Their ability to decrease inflammation suggests that they may be helpful in the treatment of such skin conditions as eczema and psoriasis, and may protect against UV-induced skin damage. Several studies looking at EPA/DHA (the two types of omega-3 fatty acids) supplementation have demonstrated this photo-protective effect (1,2). Improvements in the signs and symptoms of eczema and psoriasis have also been exhibited in research, however larger scaled studies are needed to confirm this (3, 4).
Linoleic acid, which is type of omega-6 fatty acid, also seems to be correlated with skin health. High dietary intakes are associated with less dryness and thinning of the skin in middle-aged women, while low intakes are associated with dermatitis (eczema) (1).
So where can you find these fatty acids? Omega-3s are found predominately in cold water fish such as mackerel, salmon, and tuna. Vegetarian sources of omega-3s include walnuts and flaxseed. A fish oil supplement is something everyone should consider taking as most diets do not supply adequate amounts of omega-3s. Here is a helpful guide on choosing one.
In contrast to omega-3s, omega-6 fatty acids are much more prevalent in westernized diets and do not need to be taken as a supplement. Beneficial forms of omega-6s can be found in green leafy vegetables and nuts/seeds.
Polyphenols are a group of plant molecules that have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help protect cells from free radical damage, thereby slowing the aging process and preventing the development of numerous different diseases. So what does 📷all this scientific jargon mean when it comes to skin health? In simple terms, polyphenols can potentially reduce signs of aging due to UV damage from the sun and can protect the skin against further sun damage (5, 6). No, this does not give you an excuse to skip the sunblock. It does, however, mean that a diet rich in polyphenols can act as some extra insurance when it comes to protecting yourself against the sun.
There are a multitude of different polyphenols out there, the majority coming from fruits and vegetables. They can also be found in certain grains and seeds, as well as in red wine (cheers to that!), tea, coffee, and cocoa (this just keeps getting better…). I could go through a list of the different polyphenols and what they are each found in, but I’m sure you would be asleep before reaching the end of the post. So lets just keep it simple- eat lots of fruits of vegetables, drink 2-3 cups of green tea a day, have a glass of red wine here and there (keep it to 1 or less glasses/day), and treat yourself to a square (or two) of dark chocolate.
Yup, another thing that’s impossible to pronounce. Bear with me here- carotenoids are worth hearing about! Carotenoids are a family of plant pigments that can protect the skin against UV damage, reduce the risk of skin cancer, and improve the condition of the skin (namely hydration and elasticity) (2,7).
The most studied carotenoids when it comes to skin health are beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Beta-carotene is found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables such as carrots, yams, mangoes, and papayas. It is also in some green leafy vegetables. Most of the studies focusing on beta-carotene involved high dose supplementation. However, the safety of such high doses is questionable, so it’s better to get it through actual foods verses supplements. Lycopene is primarily found in red colored fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes and watermelon. Eggs are an excellent source of lutein and zeaxanthin, as are green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and corn.
Vitamins A, C, and E have all been implicated in the maintenance of healthy skin. All three protect against UV induced damage, similar to polyphenols and carotenoids (1,2,7). High vitamin C intakes have also been linked to better skin appearance, namely less wrinkles, dryness, and thinning (1). This is likely due to the fact that vitamin C participates in collagen synthesis, which is vital for the maintenance of skin integrity. Low blood levels of vitamins A and E have been linked to increased acne severity and vice versa (8).
Once again, it is better to get these vitamins through foods rather than supplements. Citrus fruits, kiwi, bell peppers, tomatoes, and most other fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C. Vitamin A is abundant in green leafy vegetables, winter squashes, and tropical fruits, while vitamin E is found predominately in nuts (especially almonds), seeds, avocados, fish, and wheat germ.
If you suffer from acne, you should try and incorporate zinc-rich foods into your diet. Several studies have shown a negative correlation between serum zinc levels (the level of zinc in the blood) and acne severity (8,9). In other words, the higher the serum zinc level, the less severe acne is, and vice versa.
Foods rich in zinc include oysters, crab, lobster (which is good news for us northeast coasters who love our seafood!), pumpkin seeds, and cashews. Beef is also and excellent source, however be sure and get organic, 100% grass fed beef as it is much higher in beneficial nutrients and lacks the hormones and antibiotics found in the conventional counterpart.
I think it goes without saying that you need to stay well hydrated in order to have your skin looking its best. We’ve all noticed how terrible our skin looks after a day of traveling or the morning after having a few too many glasses of wine. Although you’ve probably heard conflicting ideas as to whether or not your fluid intake has a direct effect on skin hydration, I don’t think you can go wrong by making a concentrated effort at getting the daily quota of fluids (and no, soda and coffee don’t count… the wine benefits were enough good news for one day). In fact, adding an extra 2L (8 cups) of water per day to the diet was shown to increase skin hydration in two fairly recent, albeit small, studies (10,11).
What foods to avoid
Now that we’ve talked about the foods that are healthy for your skin, we should quickly touch on a few foods that you should avoid. The prevalence of adult acne in the US has been increasing over the past few decades, which has led researchers to examine the environmental factors that may be driving this change. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the main culprits appear to be carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (refined foods like white bread/rice/pasta and packaged foods high in added sugar), dairy products, saturated fats (found in fatty cuts of meat, butter, and full fat cheeses), and trans fats (found in many packaged foods and baked goods) (12). This isn’t really surprising considering that all of these foods increase inflammation in the body and acne is, by and large, an inflammatory condition.
I can’t mention the relationship between acne and food without touching on chocolate. It is probably one of the most common questions that I get from patients who have acne and are concerned about the role of their diet in their skin behavior. Everyone wants to know- does chocolate cause acne? Well no, it doesn’t “cause” acne, but it has been shown to aggravate it in those who are acne-prone (13). Despite this saddening fact, I will be the first to admit that I eat at least one piece (or 5…) of dark chocolate every day. I’m definitely the acne-prone type, but I’ll take a zit any day over not being able to have my chocolate. Some things in life are just not worth giving up!
After all that, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed as to what you need to incorporate into your diet in order to have healthy skin. However, it’s really quite simple and can be broken down as follows:
Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables and make them the center of your dietHave a daily serving of nuts (almonds and walnuts especially!)Get most of your protein from seafood, beans, and lean grass-fed meatsDrink your water (at least 8 cups a day!) and green teaLimit, or preferably avoid, refined carbohydrates and packaged foodsAnd last but not least, have a glass of red wine and a square of dark chocolate (unless -you have acne, in which case proceed with caution) a few times a week
Improving skin health is only one of the benefits you will get from following a diet focused on these guidelines. The same nutrition principles are used for weight control, cardiovascular health, and overall disease risk reduction. I should mention that sleep, exercise, and stress reduction also have a huge impact on the condition of your skin. But we will save that for another day!
And there you have it. Get ready for glowing skin- and continue to follow your gut,