As scientists do more and more research, they’re discovering that your best complexion really does depend on what you do – and don’t – eat. Here’s how to make nutrition your most powerful beauty product.
Lately, the pros in lab coats have been taking another look at how eating affects one’s skin, and the results are overturning decadesold advice.
“When I was doing my training, all of my textbooks said food had no effect on acne,” says Dr Whitney Bowe, a US-based dermatologist, who wasn’t so convinced.
A few years ago, after poring over tons of studies on nutrition and skin, Dr Bowe and her colleagues determined that there was enough evidence to suggest that certain foods do, in fact, make skin react, and they started publishing their discoveries.
For instance, several studies showed that consuming milk, especially the fat-free kind, was associated with an increase in blemishes. The science as to why is still being unravelled, though theories blame hormones and specific milk proteins.
And that’s just one diet-skin link. Get the latest intel and you can structure meals to bring out your best complexion.
Your skin can get carb-stressed
There’s growing evidence that the blood sugar spike you get from refined carbohydrates is messing with your skin’s firmness, making it more wrinkly.
“When you eat foods that are high in sugar, the sugar breaks down into glucose molecules. Those molecules in your bloodstream attach themselves to the collagen and elastin fibres in your skin and make them less flexible,” explains dermatologist Dr Jessica Wu, author of Feed Your Face: Younger, Smoother Skin and a Beautiful Body in 28 Delicious Days.
“This glycation process also interferes with your skin’s ability to form new, strong collagen and elastic tissue.” On the surface, the net effect eventually plays out as an increase in lines and sagging.
In a recent report in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, Dr Bowe and her team called out these same refined carbohydrates as the leading dietary contributors to acne.
Essentially, foods such as white pasta, white bread, French fries, pretzels, chips, and sugary snacks have what is called a high glycaemic index (HGI), which sets off a rapid surge in blood sugar and insulin levels.
“This leads to a cascade of responses, including the elevation of insulin-like growth factor 1, a hormone that then causes an increase in oil production, plugging follicles,” Dr Bowe explains.
The study found that when people ditched HGI foods and adopted a low-glycaemic meal plan, their acne improved significantly over a 10- to 12-week period.
The research is so compelling that many dermatologists have made a low-carb diet part of their anti-acne prescription.
Dr Eric Schweiger, another US-based dermatologist, gives his pimple-prone patients a food pyramid he developed based on these findings. At the top : the aforementioned HGI foods we should eat sparingly, such as sweets and breads. The remaining two-thirds are full of low-glycaemic vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. “Eliminating foods that release glucose too quickly can help you get clear skin,” Dr Schweiger says.
You need to feed on antioxidants
You’ve heard about free radicals – the oxidised molecules unleashed by UV rays, pollution, and other environmental factors , that wreak havoc on healthy cells and cause surface skin to age.
Derms have known for a while now that your defence against these molecules is to pump up the antioxidants within the skin’s uppermost layer by applying products containing vitamins such as A, C and E, which break down the troublemakers before they can do damage.
But experts are unearthing something new about these crucial antioxidants: It seems acne sufferers naturally tend to have lower levels of them in their bodies. “It’s as if they’re using up their skin’s stockpile of antioxidants to fight off the inflammation from acne,” Dr Bowe says. This means that if you’re experiencing breakouts, your shield against other skin damage is down.
While topical serums should remain a step in your skincare, building more resilient skin and ageing better depends on eating more of the good stuff . Preliminary findings suggest that ingesting antioxidants can replenish skin’s natural reserves and increase resistance to breakouts.
Furthermore, studies show that a diet of antioxidant-rich produce, anti-inflammatory fish, and healthy fats can help protect skin against wrinkle- and cancercausing UV damage.
Start by eating vitamin C–rich foods daily, suggests Lisa Drayer, dietitian and author of The Beauty Diet: Looking Great Has Never Been So Delicious. “A healthy intake of this antioxidant is linked to fewer lines and wrinkles.”
Citrus fruits are packed with vitamin C as are peppers, strawberries, kiwis, and broccoli. Other super antioxidants proven to boost UV protection are lycopene (found in tomatoes), beta-carotene (in sweet potatoes), cocoa flavanols (in dark chocolate), and coffee.
“A recently-published study proved that four or more cups of caffeinated coffee a day could reduce your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 20 per cent,” notes US-based dermatologist Dr Joshua Zeichner.
Protein builds a clearer, smoother complexion
The science here has always been unequivocal: “Amino acids from proteins serve as the building blocks for structures within the skin, including collagen, so protein is essential for keeping skin healthy,” says Dr Bowe. No need to go paleo or adopt a protein diet; all it takes for an active person is 0.5g of protein daily for 0.5kg of body weight.
Experts say most of us are hitting our daily dose – one serving of a lean option like chicken contains 26g of protein – but that there are added skin perks if you pick fish as a regular source.
A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that people who ate fish had less acne. Dermatologists suspect that the real hero is the omega-3 fatty acid content. “Omega- 3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and skin, and acne is an inflammatory condition,” says Dr Zeichner. Not a fish lover? Get your omega-3 fix from protein sources such as walnuts.
So, which diet to follow?
Simply put, to nourish your skin from the inside out, you need to eat a balanced diet that’s full of fish, produce, whole grains, and healthy fats – and short on refined carbs.
That last point is non-negotiable if you don’t want to undermine a clear-skin regimen. Beyond the assault that high blood sugar makes on your collagen, researchers believe that a poor diet full of low-fibre comfort foods can slow digestion and promote unhealthy bacteria, which then leads to a leaky gut lining.
This causes inflammation in the body, which worsens inflammatory skin conditions like acne, rosacea and eczema.
Stick to fish- and veggie-laden Mediterranean and Asian diets, for example, and you’ll check off all the right boxes for a great complexion.
An Asian diet can also net you a few bonus nutrients, such as soya (it contains the antioxidant genistein, which may reverse existing sun damage, according to Dr Zeichner) and fermented foods like miso and kombucha, which are rich in probiotics.
A clinical review in the journal Gut Pathogens shows that probiotics – good bacteria – can help heal the gut and calm skin too.
And the final must for healthy skin: Drink up. “Water is crucial for proper skin cell functioning,” Dr Zeichner says. “If cells are dehydrated, your skin can’t do its job of turning over new cells, creating collagen, and repairing damage.”