Nutrition & Skin Disease
Foods for Healthy Skin: You Are What You Eat
What you put on your plate is even more important than what you put on your skin.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
Want truly fabulous skin -- glowing, vibrant, and, yes, younger-looking skin? Make sure you're putting foods for healthy skin on your plate.
"Everything you eat becomes a part of not only your inner being, but the outer fabric of your body as well. The healthier the foods are that you consume, the better your skin will look," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a clinical nutritionist at NYU Medical Center in New York City.
The reverse is true as well, Heller tells WebMD. The less attention we pay to what goes in our mouth, the more problems we may see cropping up with our skin.
"You could have sallow skin, dry skin, older-looking skin. It's not going to happen overnight, but starve your skin long enough, and it's going to show," she says.
What's more, some health experts believe that when your diet is missing certain foods for healthy skin, other, even more serious skin problems can result.
Elaine Linker, PhD, biochemist and co-founder of DDF Skin Care, says a number of conditions, such as acne, can cause you to suddenly break out. And some chronic skin conditions, such as eczema, may be linked to diet.
What Are Foods for Healthy Skin?
Most experts say eating a balanced diet is the best way to get your share of good food for healthy skin. Still, a number of specific skin treats are more likely than others to give a boost of glowing good health to your complexion. Here's what experts told WebMD are the most important:
Low-Fat Dairy Products. One the most important components of skin health is vitamin A. One of the best places to get it is low-fat dairy products. In fact, experts say that the health of our skin cells is dependent on dietary vitamin A.
Nutrition expert Liz Lipski, PhD, CCN, says it's doubly important to eat A-rich dairy foods if you have either diabetes or a thyroid condition.
"Many people who have these problems can't convert the beta carotene to vitamin A, which is the form found in many foods that we normally associate with this vitamin, such as carrots," says Lipski, the founder and Director of InnovativeHealing.com and the author of Digestive Wellness.
The A in dairy products, she says is "true A," so everyone's skin can use it.
Lipski says low-fat yogurt is not only high in vitamin A, but also acidophilus, the "live" bacteria that is good for intestinal health. Turns out, it may also have an impact on the skin.
"Anything that helps keep digestion normal, any live bacteria or enzymes, is also going to be reflected in healthy-looking skin," says Lipski.
Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and plums. The common link between these four foods is their high antioxidant content. In a study recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, these four fruits weighed in with the highest "total antioxidant capacity" of any food. The benefits of these foods for healthy skin are plentiful.
"Free radicals -- like the kind formed from sun exposure -- damage the membrane of skin cells, potentially allowing damage to the DNA of that cell," says Heller. The antioxidants and other phytochemicals in these fruits can protect the cell, she says, so there is less chance for damage.
"When you help protect the cells from damage and disintegration, you also guard against premature aging. In this respect, these fruits may very well help keep your skin younger looking longer," says Heller.
According to the new study, other fruits and vegetables with a "high antioxidant capacity" include artichokes, beans (the study cited black, red, and pinto), prunes, and pecans.
Salmon, Walnuts, Canola Oil, and Flax Seed. These seemingly unrelated foods all deliver essential fatty acids, and thus are key foods for healthy skin.
"Essential fatty acids are responsible for healthy cell membranes, which is not only what act as barriers to harmful things but also as the passageway for nutrients to cross in and out and for waste products to get in and out of the cell," says Ann Yelmokas McDermott, PhD, a nutritionist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
Because it is the cell membrane that also holds water in, the stronger that barrier is the better your cells can hold moisture. And that means plumper, younger looking skin.
Also, says Heller, the same inflammatory process that can harm our arteries and cause heart disease can harm skin cells. Essential fatty acids can offer protection to both.
The best-known essential fatty acids are omega 3 and omega 6, which must be in balance for good health (and good skin). Though we all seem to get enough omega 6, Heller says many people lack omega 3s. Fish, walnut, and flax seed oil are among the best sources.
Healthy Oils. These contain more than essential fatty acids. Eating good-quality oils helps keep skin lubricated and keeps it looking and feeling healthier overall, Lipski tells WebMD.
Which oils are the right oils for healthy skin? Lipski says those labeled cold pressed, expeller processed, or extra virgin are the ones to look for.
"When an oil is commercially processed, the first thing they do is add solvents and raise them to really high temperatures, then put it though five or six processes. Important nutrients are lost," says Lipski.
By comparison, she says when oils are prepared by the cold-press or expeller process, or, in the case of olive oil, are extra virgin, preparation involves only pressing, heating, and bottling.
"You get all the nutrients that are not only good for your skin, but good for your body," says Lipski.
Since any fat, even a healthy one, is high in calories, experts remind us that we don't need more than about two tablespoons a day.
Whole-wheat bread, muffins, and cereals; turkey, tuna and brazil nuts. The mineral selenium connects all these foods for healthy skin. Experts say selenium plays a key role in the health of skin cells. Some studies show that even skin damaged by the sun may suffer fewer consequences if selenium levels are high.
For instance, in two clinical trials, researchers at Edinburgh University showed that when levels of selenium were high, skin cells were less likely to suffer the kind of oxidative damage that can increase the risk of cancer. The results were published in 2003 in both the British Journal of Dermatology and the journal Clinical and Experimental Dermatology. And a group of French researchers found that oral doses of selenium, along with copper, vitamin E and vitamin A could prevent sunburn cell formation in human skin.
What's more, Lipsky says that filling up on whole-grain products leaves less room for the "white" foods that are a worse choice for skin health. These include white-flour items (bread, cake and pasta), sugar, and white rice. All can affect insulin levels and cause inflammation that may ultimately be linked to skin break outs.
Green Tea. This beverage deserves a category all its own in any article about foods for healthy skin. The skin-health properties in this beneficial drink just can't be beat.
"It has anti-inflammatory properties, and it's protective to the cell membrane. It may even help prevent or reduce the risk of skin cancer," says Lipski.
Indeed, a study published recently in the Archives of Dermatology shows that whether taken orally or applied to the skin, green tea can reduce the risk of damage from ultraviolet light (such as the burning rays of the sun), and thus reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Heller adds that the polyphenols in green tea have anti-inflammatory properties that may also be beneficial to skin health overall.
Water. While the exact amount you should drink each day varies, no one disputes the role good hydration plays in keeping skin looking healthy and even young. When that hydration comes from pure, clean water -- not liquids such as soda or even soup -- experts say skin cells rejoice.
"It is my belief that our skin needs at least a half gallon of good clean water -- that's about eight glasses -- every day," says Lipski.
While any good, clean water will keep your body and your skin hydrated, Lipski says hard water, the kind high in minerals, is especially good. Using water softeners to de-mineralize drinking water may reduce some of the potentially helpful effects.
"A water softener may help your plumbing, but it's hard water that is better for your health," she says.
In addition to keeping cells hydrated, water helps cells move nutrients in and toxins out, which Lipski says automatically leaves skin looking better.
She adds that when we're properly hydrated, we also sweat more efficiently. Doing so helps keep skin clean and clear as well.