We ignore it, starve it, roast it in the sun, and slather it with odd concoctions—but is that the best way to treat the skin you’re in? Your complexion may reflect a lifetime of abuse or a legacy of care, either outcome closely linked to what you eat.
As you age, certain foods can stave off wrinkles and age spots, keep skin youthfully firm, and help retain a fresh-faced bloom that can’t be created with makeup. Best of all, these skin-friendly foods are delicious. Try our seven simple diet tips if you want to save face.
Brilliant fruits and vegetables, such as bell peppers, mangoes, strawberries, and broccoli, are chock-full of antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals that neutralize the free radicals produced by ultraviolet (UV) rays. The more antioxidants your body has to draw from, the more protection they can provide. Each color signals particular sun-protective compounds: Deep reds and pinks indicate lycopene, greens harbor lutein and zeaxanthin, and oranges and yellows supply beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Get at least five fresh servings a day.
The water content of skin cells determines how moist and supple your skin is. Cells filled with adequate water are healthy and plump; dehydrated cells sag. Dry skin is also more prone to wrinkling, cracking, eczema, irritation, and scaling. Water is your most important beverage. Tea is another good choice; it contains beneficial phytochemicals, called catechins, which may help prevent skin damage. Green and white teas, in particular, show promise for their high catechin content. “Research is still being done, but it’s very possible tea can aid in reducing skin wrinkling,” says Wilma F. Bergfeld, MD, head of clinical research in dermatology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “At the very least, it keeps the skin from getting dehydrated, which causes wrinkles that, like pleats, don’t go away.”
As your skin ages, it produces less of the collagen that keeps young skin firm. According to a 2000 study, vitamin A may slow and possibly even reverse this loss by stimulating new collagen synthesis (Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 2000, vol. 114, no. 3). Feast on yellow, orange, and green leafy fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, mangoes, and winter squash, all rich in beta-carotene, the nutrient your body uses to manufacture vitamin A. The brighter the color, the more beta-carotene the food contains.
Current research links fewer skin wrinkles with omega-3 fatty acid intake from seafood and other good-fat foods (Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2002, vol. 61, no. 2). Best omega-3 fish sources include wild salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel. If you’re a vegetarian or concerned about mercury found in some fish, get your omega-3s from enhanced eggs, flaxseed and hemp oils, and walnuts.
A new study on mice shows that topical applications of genistein, a soy isoflavone, are remarkably efficient in protecting skin from sun damage (Journal of Nutrition, 2003, vol. 133, no. 11 Suppl). Researchers theorize that genistein (and possibly dietary soy) scavenges for free radicals while blocking DNA damage and other harmful effects of sun exposure. Pour soy milk over your morning cereal or into smoothies, munch edamame for a snack, or crumble flavored tofu into stir-fries and casseroles.
Your overall diet, not any one food or food group, has the biggest effect on skin quality.
Researchers recently found that people who ate 40 grams (about 4 tablespoons) of tomato paste daily had 40 percent less incidence of skin-damaging sunburn after exposure to UV light. The paste’s rich supply of lycopene, an antioxidant carotenoid, helps the body round up skin-damaging free radicals (Journal of Nutrition, 2001, vol. 131, no. 5). Put the squeeze on fresh red and pink fruits, such as watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, blood oranges, and tomatoes. Even in winter, you’re covered: Cooked and canned tomatoes provide even more lycopene than fresh tomatoes.
Your overall diet, not any one food or food group, has the biggest effect on skin quality. Australian researchers found that 453 subjects who routinely ate whole, natural foods, such as vegetables, olive oil, fish, and legumes, had far fewer wrinkles than those who ate fatty milk products, meat, butter, soft drinks, potatoes, and processed breads (Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2001, vol. 20, no. 1). Day-to-day healthy eating provides the best protection for a lifetime. “It just makes good sense,” says Neil Sadick, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell Medical College in New York. “A healthy diet is as important to the skin as protective measures like applying sunscreen.”