The effect of diet on human health has become a source of debate, and perhaps even an obsession in the US. Many beg to know “what foods or diet is best” … to improve overall health, prevent disease, achieve a certain aesthetic look, or optimize athletic performance? But, how does your diet affect the body’s largest organ – your skin?
Numerous factors affect skin health, including genetics, hormones, aging, stress, sleep, and exposure to alcohol, smoking or the sun. Some of these you cannot influence, however, what you eat (or don’t eat) may be one of the most important factors you can influence in modulating the health of your skin.
Most well-known is the impact of malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies on disorders of the skin. For example, malnutrition due to an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, is often observed by significant changes to the skin, i.e. dry, red, itchy and/or inflamed skin, lanugo-like body hair, acne, petechiae (tiny purple, red, or brown spots on the skin), and in some cases, a yellowish discoloration of palms and soles of feet referred to as carotenoderma. It’s well documented that certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies, due to under-eating or malabsorption, are also associated with various dermatological changes, such as the clinical manifestation of pellagra with niacin deficiency, or hyperpigmentation of the skin due to vitamin B12 deficiency.
A more frequent, and perhaps controversial, question is whether there is a relationship between diet and relatively common skin conditions, such as acne. The link between frequent dairy or milk consumption and acne is often referenced, but to date there is insufficient evidence with no high-quality randomized controlled studies to recommend milk restriction as a treatment for patients with acne (Burris, et al. 2013). The evidence seems to be more convincing for a possible connection between the quality and quantity of carbohydrate consumption and acne. Still, by today’s standards, nutritional studies that isolate a food-triggered influence on acne are reportedly costly and difficult to control, thus making it challenging to develop well-defined, evidence based nutritional recommendations (Fiedler et al, 2017).
Best Foods for Healthy Skin
Foods rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants are chemicals found in foods that fight unstable molecules, called free radicals, that can cause damage to cells in the body. A diet rich in antioxidants is important for the whole body, but antioxidants have an important role in skin health by protecting cells against UV-induced damage which may prevent or reduce dry, wrinkled skin. Beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamins A, C and E are specific nutrients that have antioxidant properties, while vitamin C also helps to make a protein, called collagen that keeps skin strong.
Good food sources include: A variety of colorful fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants. Specific foods sources of beta-carotene and vitamin A include carrots, sweet potatoes, red and yellow bell peppers. Foods rich in vitamin C include bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, and tomatoes (also a good source of lycopene); and, foods providing vitamin E include avocados, nuts, seeds, and spinach.
Foods high in Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3’s provide important building blocks for each cell membrane in the body. Our body is not able to make these essential fatty acids, so they need to be supplied to the body from the foods we eat. Flexible, healthy cells rich in omega-3 fatty acids enable nutrients to move easily into, and waste easily out of cells while helping to reduce inflammation in the body, reducing redness, maintaining skin moisture, and may also help improve the clinical symptoms of psoriasis.
Good food sources include: Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines; nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts; and, plant oils, such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil and canola oil.
Fluids and Hydration. Staying well-hydrated by drinking plenty of unsweetened beverages throughout the day is good for the entire body. So, will excessive water intake have an even better effect on hydration and skin health? The “more is better” philosophy, as it relates to skin and hydration, was explored by Wolf, at al. who concluded that in otherwise healthy individuals, there doesn’t appear to be an improved benefit. However, as often recommended, further research is needed to provide definitive evidence (Wolf et al, 2010).
Final Thoughts. Although nutrition may be one of the most important factors involved in promoting healthy skin, the link between diet and disease is not always as simple as a single food or nutrient triggering a particular sign that disease is present. For example, dietary restriction or the stress/anxiety induced by worrying that a certain food is “causing” a skin problem may actually be more problematic than any single food item. An individual’s overall dietary pattern (i.e. adequate calories with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats) together with lifestyle (i.e., regular physical activity, stress management, not smoking, quality sleep, and low alcohol consumption) take advantage of the additive and synergistic nature of these behaviors to promote healthy outcomes, including healthier skin.
Foods & beverages to prioritize in your meals and snacks:
Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, kale, peppers, zucchini, cauliflower, carrots, beets, etc.
Fruit: berries, grapefruit, oranges, apples, cherries, bananas, pears, grapes, peaches, etc.
Whole grains and starchy vegetables: Sweet potato, quinoa, butternut squash, brown rice, oats, buckwheat, etc.
Healthy fats: whole eggs, olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters, coconut oil, etc.
Plant-based dairy alternatives: cashew milk, almond milk, coconut milk, coconut yogurt, etc.
High-quality protein: salmon, tofu, chicken, turkey, eggs, shellfish, etc.
Legumes: chickpeas, black beans, lentils, kidney beans, etc.
Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, parsley, garlic, ginger, cayenne, etc.
Unsweetened beverages: water, sparkling water, green tea, hibiscus tea, lemon water, etc.