Skin health might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about food, but your diet may play a role in acne, skin cancer, and the development of wrinkles. None of those are fun!
You may already know which foods you want to avoid, but avoiding food isn't fun, either. So we chatted with dermatologist Dr. Arielle Nagler to sort out what foods can help keep your skin healthy and looking good.
The first piece of advice that Dr. Nagler emphasized was going for oats, whole wheat, brown rice, and other whole grains. These are known as low-glycemic index foods that don't make your blood sugar spike abruptly, in contrast to high-glycemic index foods, like white flour, sugar, or high-fructose corn syrup.
Alas, those tasty things also constitute the main dietary determinant of acne. To look into this sad truth, a group of scientists got a group of guys in the acne-plagued age range of 15 to 25 to eat a carb-rich diet, with the experimental group getting their carbohydrates from primarily low-glycemic index sources. Twelve weeks later, the scientists literally counted their zits and judged how bad they were. When they analyzed the results of this undoubtedly embarrassing data-collection process, they saw that the guys who ate low GI foods had twice the decrease in the number of zits as those in the control group.
Carrots (and anything else with beta-carotene)
The antioxidant beta-carotene is, as its name suggests, found in high amounts in carrots, as well as a number of other orange and leafy green vegetables. Once in your body, beta-carotene can be converted to retinol (a form of vitamin A), which has some potential to protect your skin from sun damage. Sun damage, as you know, can result in wrinkles or, scarier, skin cancer.
But don't overdo it, Dr. Nagler warns: there's controversy about the effect of beta-carotene, and as she explains, "High levels of consumption can cause oranging of the skin." Yikes... because vitamin A is a fat-soluble (versus water-soluble) vitamin, it doesn't easily get flushed out of the body when there's too much. "In moderation you may have a glow," Dr. Nagler explains, "but in excess you may look down to find you have orange palms... which is pretty shocking."
Oranges (and anything else with vitamin C)
While oranges are the poster child for vitamin C, you can get loads of it in a bunch of different foods, from kiwi to red bell peppers. Like other antioxidants, vitamin C works against sun damage. "Also, vitamin C is required for the synthesis of collagen," Dr. Nagler notes. "Collagen and elastin maintain the skin's structure and resilience, but UVA [radiation] causes the degradation of collagen and elastin, probably due to reactive oxygen species, which modify the collagen."
Finally, a fat! "Olive oil, which has a high concentration of monounsaturated fats, has been shown to decrease photoaging in some patients," says Dr. Nagler. And when she says "photoaging," that's skin damage due to light, not an Instagram filter. Olive oil is highly protective against wrinkles, second only to vegetables in general -- and if you ate enough of those, you'd probably live forever, but what's the point of living forever if you can only eat vegetables?
Another of olive oil's benefits is that it qualitatively might help your skin look younger overall. Researchers judged the wrinkles and spots on almost 3,000 people's faces (not sure whether it would've been worse to be the participants or the researchers in that situation...) and asked them to report on what they ate, finally concluding that people who had more monounsaturated fats in their diets (from olive oil, other plant oils, nuts, and seeds) had more youthful skin. Not to mention olive oil's handy role as a moisturizer from your kitchen, if you don't happen to find one in your bathroom cabinet.
Fish -- especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as Dr. Nagler suggests -- are excellent sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Your body metabolizes these healthy fats to turn them into useable compounds with unpronounceable names like “docosahexaenoic." The important thing is that getting these fats in your diet leads to a bunch of skin benefits, including reduced inflammation and sun damage. Dr. Nagler also notes that there’s some potential that omega-3 may reduce the risk of some skin cancers.
Coffee with coconut creamer
It's not an addiction; it's cancer prevention, and you can stop whenever you want. Coffee's been found to reduce the risk of melanoma, provided you drink more than four cups of caffeinated coffee a day, which shouldn't be too difficult if you have a desk job. However, as Dr. Nagler points out, the milk some people like to splash in that coffee is considered to be pretty prominent in aggravating acne. Meanwhile, non-dairy milk substitutes can be loaded with additives that your skin also won't be happy about. “For people who are concerned with acne, replace traditional milk products with things like almond milk or coconut milk,” Dr. Nagler recommends.
And there you have it: get wired on four cups of coffee with coconut creamer for cancer-free, clear skin.
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Marina Komarovsky is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and she wishes that sweet potato fries were skin-healthy, but knows that's unfortunately not the case. For more on health and nutrition, follow her tweets: @MariKomarovsky.