By Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.
How many jars and tubes of skin care products are hiding out in your medicine cabinet? Probably more than you'd like to admit. Well, you're not alone. After all, who's not on the lookout for that one magical product guaranteed to produce flawless skin? But the truth is, the answer may not be in a bottle at all. It may lie in what you eat. You try to feed your body the right foods to keep it healthy on the inside, so it only makes sense that you need to nourish it properly to keep it in great shape on the outside.
Skin is in a constant state of renewal with new cells regularly nudging their way to the surface. But as we age, old cells aren't replaced as quickly as they once were. Couple this with exposure to sun and the elements, and you've got a recipe for dull, lifeless skin. To speed up cell regeneration and fight the damaging effects of the environment, you've got to feed your skin the right foods.
Free radicals are a good complexion's worst enemies. Generated by the environment, ultraviolet light and even our own bodies, these minute particles invade cells causing permanent injury. When it comes to neutralizing them, vitamin E is a major player, and avocados contain more vitamin E than any other fruit.
To help us effectively absorb the avocado's vitamin E, nature has conveniently packaged it along with a healthy dose of monounsaturated fat. If that weren't enough, the avocado is also a prime source of the antioxidant glutathione, responsible for deterring the development of skin cancer, as well as staving off premature aging.
Green tea is showing up in skin care products everywhere and with good reason. It's loaded with plant chemicals known as polyphenols that inhibit inflammation associated with exposure to ultraviolet light, as well as preventing the growth of cancerous cells.
Just how does it do this?
Chronic exposure of ultraviolet light to skin induces oxidative stress, which is involved in the activation of certain enzymes that degrade collagen and elastin fibers of the skin," says Santosh Katiyar, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Center for Aging. "These components provide tensile strength to the skin. When they are weakened, skin becomes thin and loose, and ultimately, wrinkles are formed." It is the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of green tea polyphenols, believes Katiyar, which can protect the skin from these insults.
Sweet potatoes are an all-around nutritional powerhouse. Not only are they packed with vitamins C and E, they are one of nature's greatest sources of beta-carotene. According to a study published in the European Journal of Dermatology, beta-carotene's ability to absorb light may protect skin by minimizing sunburn. Once digested, beta-carotene does double duty by converting to vitamin A, a nutrient which plays a major role in promoting healthy skin. Vitamin A is critical to maintaining skin integrity in addition to warding off wrinkle-causing oxidative stress. Without it, skin becomes rough, dry and scaly.
Of 40 fruits and vegetables analyzed for their antioxidant activity by the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, the blueberry received top honors. Blueberries are loaded with anthocyanins, naturally-occurring pigments credited with stomping out free radical activity. They are also great sources of the phytochemical ellagic acid, which inactivates cancer-causing chemicals. What's more, blueberries are high in vitamin C, which is instrumental for the synthesis of collagen, one of skin's major structural proteins.
While fat has gotten a bad rap, certain fats are crucial for maintaining a glowing complexion. One of those fats is the omega-3 fatty acid, a type of fat most of us don't get enough of. That can have a big impact on skin's appearance, because omega-3s contain the essential fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which helps keep skin smooth and pliable. Flaxseed is the best source of plant omega-3 fats around with a whopping 58 percent of its fat content coming from ALA.
Not only are tomatoes rich in collagen-building vitamin C, they also contain the plant chemical lycopene, which may help reduce damage from the sun's rays. In a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that daily supplementation of about 3 tablespoons of tomato paste mixed with olive oil decreased sun-related harm to skin in volunteers by 40 percent compared to those who ingested olive oil alone.
Lead Investigator Dr. Wilhelm Stahl of the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany attributes this to the presence of lycopene, the pigment that gives tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruits their ruby red color. "Lycopene is a very active antioxidant, and light-induced formation of free radicals is thought to play a role in the pathogenesis of sunburn," says Dr. Stahl, who believes lycopene exerts its action by neutralizing free radicals.
When it comes to fat, there are two kinds that we need, but can't make — linoleic and linolenic acids. Leave these out of your diet, and your skin will show it, becoming dry and flaky. While most of us eat plenty of linoleic acid, it is a lot harder to get enough linolenic acid.
That's where walnuts come in. They are packed with beta-carotene and vitamin E, as well as a healthy dose of alpha linolenic acid, helping to keep skin soft, smooth and supple. Walnuts also contain zinc, which plays a pivotal role in healing wounded skin, as well as lending a helping hand to skin-saving vitamin A.
That tuna sandwich you ate for lunch may be doing more for your complexion than you think. Tuna is one of the richest sources of selenium, a trace mineral recognized for its antioxidant properties. Selenium is a critical component of the enzyme glutathione peroxidase, which teams up with vitamin E to block the formation of destructive free radicals. If that weren't enough, tuna also reduces inflammation by supplying a hefty dose of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
In a study of the relationship between diet and skin aging, Australian researchers found that individuals whose diets were rich in certain foods had the most youthful looking skin — and olive oil was high on the list. Why? It seems that olive oil's high monounsaturated fat content keeps skin cells in tip-top shape by preventing injury to the outer shell of skin cells known as the cell membrane. Couple that with generous proportions of vitamin E, polyphenols and beta-carotene, and you've got a winner.
And a Few to Forgo
Saturated fat — Steering clear of meat, butter and whole milk may provide a distinct edge in the battle against wrinkles. In a study in last year's Journal of the American College of Nutrition, experts found that people who ate more of these foods showed the signs of age faster than those whose diets contained lots of olive oil, vegetables and legumes.
Sweets — Not only are they trouble for your waistline, highly-processed sweets may also rob you of that youthful glow. That, say researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology, is because fructose, the mainstay of high fructose corn syrup, may hasten the aging process.
Alcohol — Alcohol is an instant skin dehydrator, decreasing levels of hormones responsible for regulating the amount of water your body holds on to. For plump, moist skin, say no thanks to that cocktail and stick with water instead.
The above information does not refer to Palmolive products.