I love skin care. I love talking about it, learning about it and sharing what I know with anyone who will listen. I look for ingredients that keep skin healthy without putting additional stress on the body or the environment, and I believe that some of the best skin care ingredients come from nature. However, as much as I am invested in what I put on my skin to keep it healthy, I am equally intrigued about how other factors, such as what we eat, influences the health of our skin.
Years ago, decades ago really, research showed pretty conclusively that diet had no effect on the health of your and complexion. Those who loved greasy fries and rich, sugary treats rejoiced. Gone was the association of these foods with acne and other skin woes. What we failed to realize then, and that we are only beginning to realize now, is that while those foods may not cause skin issues, how our bodies reaction to them certainly can. What you eat does more than satisfy your appetite and give you energy. Your body, being the fascinating system that it is, breaks down, utilizes and in some cases, reacts negatively to everything that you consume. Whether you are fascinated by this, or simply curious about how particular foods affect your health and your complexion, the question that remains is “what foods are good for your skin, and which ones sabotage your efforts for a healthy complexion?”
Your skin is not only the largest organ in your body, it is also a mirror to what is going on inside. It is a rare thing to find someone with a beautiful, healthy, glowing complexion that is unhealthy on the inside. Our skin shows the first signs of any type of fatigue or distress. Even when you have skipped out on a few hours of sleep, your complexion might look a little dull, and those little dark circles and puffy bags will appear under your eyes. Some skincare products and cosmetics can hide some minor issues with your health and lifestyle, but not all of them. To look your best, you need to be your best physically, and a big part of that is learning how to eat not only to fuel your body, but protect the health of your skin. Let’s begin by talking about the biggest dietary offenders, and how exactly they affect the appearance, texture and health of your complexion.
Sugar, Not So Sweet for Your Skin
As a teenager, were you ever told to avoid sugary sodas and treats unless you wanted to wake up to a fresh acne breakout in the morning? For quite some time, we had the luxury of brushing off that advice because science said it really wasn’t a big deal. However, that full-sugar soda or piece of cheesecake does cause some reactions in your body that might not only lead to breakouts, but other issues as well, such as premature aging. When you eat sugar, whether it is in the form of a luscious chocolate truffle, or a fresh fruit salad, your body takes that sugar and immediately begins to convert it into glucose. The difference between the two is that simple sugars, like those found in that luscious chocolate truffle, cause your blood sugar to spike, which means a spike in insulin levels as well. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps to turn all that glucose into energy.
Of course, you probably already know that if you are constantly bombarding your body with these glucose spikes that you are increasing your risk of developing diabetes. What you might not know is that high insulin levels have another serious consequence, and that is inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to many serious health conditions such as heart disease and certain cancers. Many skin conditions such as acne and premature aging can be connected to inflammation as well. Insulin spikes stimulate the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. If you are relatively healthy you might not feel the effects of this process immediately, but there is a good chance that you will notice how it affects your skin. Inflammation can lead to acne, and it can break down the elastin called collagen that supports your skin, leading to sagging skin and other signs of premature aging, such as fine lines and discolorations.
What to Avoid:
- Avoid foods that are high on the glycemic index and contain simple sugars and carbohydrates. Think along the lines of processed white flour breads, crackers, pastas, as well as snacks like potato chips and sweet treats like cookies, ice cream, candy bars, etc.
What to Eat:
- Choose foods that are complex carbohydrates, which break down into glucose more slowly. Foods that contain high amounts of fiber are good choices also because the fiber helps to slow the absorption of the sugar into your body. Choose whole grains, vegetables and fruits that have antioxidant properties or are high in fiber, such as berries and pears. Combine the fruit with a bowl of steel cut oats to boost the fiber and protein content even more.
Fats: The Good and the Bad
It isn’t a surprise to hear that saturated fats are bad for you, so it probably isn’t all that shocking to find that saturated fats are bad for your skin as well. However, when it comes to other fats, like the difference between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, the difference is a little more confusing and the impact of them on the health of your skin might not be as easily understood. Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for good health, and your body does not produce them on its own, so it becomes essential to get them through dietary sources. Omega-3 fatty acids are the good fats that come from foods such as salmon, avocados and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids are known inflammation fighters and will help to ease the inflammatory effects of other foods on your skin.
Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand are a little more complicated. Omega-6 fatty acids help to promote beautiful skin and even hair growth, if they are consumed in the appropriate amounts. The issue is that Omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, rather than soothe it, so the amount of Omega-6 fats in your diet should be significantly less than the amount of Omega-3s in order for a proper balance of the two to be achieved. The typical western diet is actually the reverse of this, with Omega-6 fats outnumbering Omega-3 fats by a significant amount. This means that there isn’t enough inflammation fighting power to counter the Omega-6s and the result is increased inflammation, which if you have read the above paragraph on sugar, you know is detrimental to the health and appearance of your skin.
What to Avoid:
- The biggest source of Omega-6 fatty acids in the typical western diet is from vegetable oils (vegetable, corn and canola oil are examples). To avoid overdoing it on Omega-6 fatty acids, choose to cook with other types of oils, such as olive oil and avoid processed foods that contain vegetable oils or foods fried in them. Also avoid foods that contain saturated fats, including many processed food products.
What to Eat:
- Choose to get an appropriate healthy dose of Omega-6 fatty acids from foods such as eggs, poultry, whole grain breads, nuts and seeds. Load up on Omega-3s from sources such as salmon, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds, navy beans, red lentils and spinach.
Milk: It Does a Body Good, or Does It?
It wasn’t that long ago that milk, and other low-fat dairy foods, were considered some of the healthiest foods you could have in your diet. They contain calcium, vitamin D and protein, which is a great trio. The problem is that as we have become more aware of food sensitivities, it appears that there is a large population of people that have issues processing and digesting dairy foods. The most common skin issues that arise from dairy consumption are a result of either inflammation, hormones or both.
A surprising number of people have a dairy sensitivity and are not even aware of it. In fact, dairy products are considered among some of the most inflammatory foods. On top of this, many people have difficulties digesting the lactose and proteins in dairy products, which often leads to a series of uncomfortable symptoms, like abdominal pressure, bloating and overall achiness. Your skin can suffer similar consequences when exposed to the inflammatory effects of dairy. You might notice that you are more prone to acne breakouts, rosacea, puffiness, redness and irritation when you consume dairy products.
Another issue with some dairy products is that they contain hormonal components which react similarly to testosterone in the body. Too much of this, especially in women, can result in adolescent type acne symptoms that are difficult to treat without eliminating the true cause.
What to Avoid:
- Try going dairy free for a month and see if you notice any difference in how you look and feel. If you just can’t break the dairy habit, try to reduce the amount of dairy products that you consume, and choose options that are lower in sugar. This might mean avoiding your morning fruit flavored yogurt (that can have more than half of your entire days’ worth of sugar in just one small container!)
What to Eat:
- Calcium is important, so if you are skipping out on dairy, you need to be conscious of food choices that will help supplement your calcium intake. The good news is that many calcium containing foods are good for your skin in other ways as well. Choose high calcium options such as kale, sardines, broccoli and almonds, including unsweetened almond milk.
The Antioxidant Connection
While it is easy to focus on what not to eat or drink, l think it is fair to say that focusing only on what to eliminate can feel a little negative. So, why not take a minute to focus on all the good foods that will help to keep your complexion glowing and healthy? Want to know the secret behind some of the best skin-healthy foods? The answer is antioxidants. Antioxidants are necessary to reduce, or eliminate entirely, the damage caused by free radicals. Without antioxidants, your body, including your skin, is at increased risk of oxidative stress, which results in inflammation and an increased risk of serious health conditions including cancer.
To demonstrate the importance of antioxidants in your diet, let’s look at the damage that your skin can suffer from overexposure to the sun. Ultraviolet rays are the number one cause of skin damage and premature aging, and unfortunately overexposure in our youth can show up decades later, even despite your later efforts to protect yourself from damaging rays. The best line of defense is to treat this damage from the inside out by eating foods that are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants not only fight off damage caused by the sun, but they also encourage cell rejuvenation, which means that some of the old, damaged cells, will turn over faster before they have a chance to cause more serious problems. Some foods that are high in antioxidants, such as vitamin A and vitamin E can protect cellular DNA from damage, acting like a type of internal sunscreen. Keep in mind that a diet rich in antioxidants is not an excuse to skip out on the sunscreen. Consider it an extra boost to the daily sunscreen that you do use.
To get the most antioxidant benefit, choose foods with a high ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) including these antioxidant powerhouses: berries, dark chocolate, green tea, artichokes, kidney beans, broccoli, cranberries and walnuts.
Beauty is more than skin deep, and having beautiful, healthy skin requires being aware of how what you eat can affect the health of your skin from the inside out. A vibrant complexion requires a quality skin care routine that includes a healthy diet, rich in the foods that support every aspect of your health. Eat healthy and fresh to look your absolute best!