Healthy skin starts from within. Follow these six simple diet habits to get your glow on.
There are several healthy habits that contribute to a radiant skin, including getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, stress management, and regularly getting your heart rate up. But the most impactful lifestyle change you can make to transform your skin from is what and how you eat. Here are six simple habits to help you get that natural glow, from the inside out.
Produce, produce, produce!
Hands down, fruits and veggies are the most important ingredient for healthy, glowing skin. In one study, scientists tracked the diets of 35 people, took photos of them, and asked others to rate the pics. The volunteers who ate an average of 2.9 more portions of fruits and vegetables each day were rated as healthier looking, and those who downed an extra 3.3 portions daily were rated as more attractive. A similar UK study found that photos of subjects who ate a fruit and veggie rich diet were rated as more attractive than those with suntans! Scientists say antioxidants are the key, because they improve circulation, and alter skin pigment. Those thought to have the greatest impact are lycopene, which gives tomatoes their red color and watermelon its pink hue, and beta-carotene, found in carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, broccoli, and leafy greens. Polyphenols, which cause blood to rush to the skin surface, also play a role. They’re found in dark grapes, cherries, plums, apples, blackberries, and blueberries. Bonus: antioxidants also act like natural bodyguards, to fend off compounds that harm skin, including pollution, cigarette smoke, and skin damagers produced by stress and sun exposure.
Include “good” fat in every meal
When I first started out as a nutritionist, fat-free diets were trendy. I had tons of clients with dry, flaky, cracked skin, who were shocked to learn that the culprit was a lack of foods they thought of as “bad” and “fattening.” Today most of my clients know that not all fats are created equal, but many don’t realize the skin enhancing benefits of consuming enough good fat. Here’s the deal: cells in the top layer of your skin only live about 30 days, and while you don’t feel or see it happening, you shed up to 40,000 skin cells every minute (yup minute) of the day. Because fat is a structural component of skin, you need enough fat in your diet to construct new healthy layers. In addition, healthy fats help you absorb more antioxidants—up to 13 times more according to some research. To strike the right balance, I recommend including a moderate amount of primarily monounsaturated fat in every meal, like a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, half of a ripe avocado, or a quarter cup of nuts or nut butter.
Eat to fight age-promoters
Nasty substances called advanced glycation endproducts or AGEs are produced when food is cooked to high temperatures using dry heat, like roasting, baking, broiling, and grilling. Studies have found that AGEs lower the body’s ability to control inflammation, a known trigger of premature aging, so minimizing your intake is a smart strategy for maintaining youthful skin. To slash them, whip up more “naked” veggie dishes, like summer slaw, marinated cucumbers, and sliced vine-ripened tomatoes dressed with fresh basil and balsamic (acidic ingredients, including citrus juice and vinegar have also been shown to reduce AGEs). And when you do cook, use lower temperatures, even if it takes a little longer. One study found that scrambled eggs cooked over medium-low heat contained about half the AGE levels of those prepared over high heat.
If you’ve ever looked in the mirror the morning after knocking back a few, you know how alcohol can wreak havoc on your skin. In addition to its toxic effects, beer, wine and liquor interfere with sleep, and lead to water retention (i.e. puffy eyes and face). As for coffee versus tea, an eight ounce cup of brewed java packs 100-200 mg of caffeine, compared to just 20-40 in the same sized serving of green tea. If you’re thinking “heck no” to the idea of giving up your morning cup of Joe or weekend glass of wine, moderate instead. After one cup of coffee, switch to green tea or water, and for every 12-ounce beer (bottle or can), 5-ounce wine (a little smaller than a single serve yogurt container), or 1.5-ounce serving of distilled spirits (shot glass), drink a full glass of H2O.
Choose collagen-building foods
The first time I heard the term “smartphone face” (sagging caused by constantly looking down) I had to laugh out loud, because I’m totally guilty of this habit myself. Fortunately, a healthy diet can help defy gravity, at least a bit. One study led by researchers at Manchester and Newcastle Universities found that consuming a combo of cooked tomatoes and olive oil led to much higher levels of pro-collagen, a molecule that gives skin its structure and keeps it firm. Other foods known to support collagen and improve skin stability include citrus fruits, peppers, tea, and berries.
Reach for foods that fight UV rays (including chocolate!)
Aside from smoking, sun damage is the most egregious skin damager, but certain foods can help fight its effects. In one recent study, a group of women added hot cocoa with either a high or low flavonoid content to their daily breakfasts. After exposing the ladies’ to UV light, researchers found that the skin of those who drank the flavonoid-rich cocoa experienced up to 25% less reddening, compared to no change in the low flavonoid group. In addition, after 12 weeks, the skin of the flavonoid-rich drinkers was 16% denser, 11% thicker, 13% moister, 30% less rough, and 42% less scaly than at the start of the experiment. Other foods scientifically shown to fight sun damage include green leafy vegetables, and fatty fish like salmon and sardines. Both work by reducing inflammation and inhibiting the DNA damage that leads to sunburns.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health‘s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.