Foods and Habits for Healthy, Beautiful Skin

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

Skin is the largest organ in the body. It protects us against bacteria, viruses, environmental contaminants, and injury. Smooth, healthy skin reflects a carefully-tended body whose owner provides it with nutrients and fluids to sustain it, exercise to stimulate it, and enough rest to restore it’s cells.

Although the skincare industry focuses on what we put on our skin, it’s really lifestyle habits and what we put in our bodies that affect our skin most. Sometimes common sense and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, rather than expensive lotions, is best for developing glowing, healthy skin:
  1. Drink plenty of water: To keep your skin supple and smooth, promote better circulation of nourishing blood to all organs, and flush excess sodium and toxins from the body (6-8 glasses daily, or as much as you need to feel and look good and prevent dehydration).
  2. Exercise frequently: Walk, swim, dance, ride a bicycle, work out in a gym or garden, etc., as often as possible.
  3. Get plenty of rest: To restore and repair your body’s cells and tissues.
  4. Avoid smoking: Smoking exposes skin to toxins which accelerate skin’s aging. It also increases the risk of most health problems, since it causes inflammation of the lining of blood vessels (intima), thus increasing the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), vascular damage throughout the body, respiratory disease, and a weakened immune system. Such a habit will only hasten the deterioration of all organs, including your skin.
  5. Limit excessive sun exposure: Wear a broad-brimmed hat, sun-protective, or darker, natural fabrics, long pants and sleeves, and sunglasses with UVA/UVB protection, when you must be out in the sun for extended periods of time.
  6. Avoid tanning salons.
  7. Fresh fruits and vegetables: These provide vitamin C, vitamin A, folate, magnesium, potassium, fiber, water, and many antioxidants which reduce free radicals (molecules with an uneven number of electrons that cause damage to cell membranes, lipids, proteins, and DNA), promote the healing of damaged tissues, help to modulate the skin’s oil production, and reduce the risk of skin-wrinkling in sun-exposed areas. Vitamin C is naturally anti-inflammatory, important for collagen production, and offers protection against sun damage. Carotenoids, the plant-based sources of vitamin A, are antioxidants that also protect skin from sun damage. Many fruits and vegetables naturally contain much water, including citrus fruits, melons, apples, berries, papaya, peaches, pomegranate, cucumbers, green leafy vegetables like bok choy, kale, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, peppers of all colors, tomatoes, etc. Research shows that vitamin A-rich foods (Apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes) may improve psoriasis, since Retin-A, which is derived from vitamin A, and other vitamin A drugs have successfully treated it. Eating vitamin A-rich foods is safer than taking supplements. The body generally absorbs what it needs from a balanced diet of wholesome foods, whereas pills can lead to hyper-supplementation, resulting in excessively dry skin and more serious health problems.
  8. Melons: The high concentration of water in cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, and other melons can actually reduce water retention that leads to puffiness around the eyes. Water helps to flush excess sodium (which contributes to bloating and puffiness) from the body.
  9. Berries: Fruits and vegetables owe their vibrant colors to antioxidants, and berries are a great source. Include blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, etc. in your diet, when in season.
  10. Pineapple: Contains enzymes and vitamin C which help break down the purple pigment in bruises. Bromelain, a herbal pill used to treat bruising, is actually a pineapple extract that many surgeons suggest using after cosmetic surgery. If you bruise easily, eating pineapple, as well as other fruits and vegetables, may help them clear sooner.
  11. Cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower: While eating a wide variety of vegetables is always best for good nutrition, make sure to eat these often, as they are high in vitamins A (a retinoid), C (antioxidant which promotes collagen production)), calcium, and K (helps bruises to heal), other phytonutrients, and fiber.
  12. Avocados: High in monounsaturated fats, with practically no sodium or cholesterol, and containing vitamins C and E (antioxidants which help to reduce damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays). Note that latex allergy may be associated with cross-sensitization to avocado, banana, and kiwi.
  13. Vitamin A-rich foods: The orange color of apricots, cantaloupes, carrots, mangoes, squash, and sweet potatoes is due to high levels of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Vitamin A is an antioxidant which helps to decrease the skin’s oil production. There is also evidence that it may improve psoriasis. Other sources of vitamin A are leafy greens and vitamin A-fortified dairy products.
  14. Calcium and Vitamin D-rich foods: In addition to playing a critical role in mineralization and demineralization of bones and teeth, muscle contraction and relaxation, nerve functioning, blood clotting, blood pressure, and immune defenses, calcium and vitamin D may promote skin hydration and repair, as well. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products, oysters, small fish with bones, calcium-set tofu (bean curd), certain leafy greens, broccoli, and legumes. While vitamin D is synthesized in the body with the help of sunlight, excess sun exposure can increase your risk of actinic nevi, moles, wrinkles, and skin cancer. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified dairy products (kefir, milk, some yogurts), cereals and juices, as well as, egg yolks, fatty fish (herring, sardines, salmon, cod, and their oils), and liver. While only a few minutes of sun exposure a day are necessary to produce vitamin D, even that can be too much for those who are at higher risk for skin cancer. In such cases, the right dietary choices and a daily vitamin D supplement may be best. Select organic dairy products when possible.
  15. Fatty fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids:* Wild Alaskan salmon, Arctic Char, Pacific cod, and tilapia are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that help to reduce the risk of inflammation, depression, heart disease, and vascular problems. The human body cannot produce some essential fatty acids, so including them in the diet can reinforce your skin’s barrier, keep moisture in and irritants out. Since Omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation, they may improve chronic skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, eczema, and rosacea. Ground flax seeds are an additional source of Omega-3 fatty acids, and a better choice than flax seed oil which is too concentrated. Many eggs are now fortified with Omega-3 too.
  16. Whole grains: Provide the body with energy, fiber, and B vitamins. Eat at least three servings a day. The healthiest choices include whole wheat bread, whole-grain cereals, whole-grain crackers, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, barley, millet and popcorn.
  17. Nuts and seeds: Almonds, flaxseeds, sesame, sunflower, etc., are rich in protein, fiber, and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant which helps prevent signs of aging caused by free radicals and may even reduce the risk of dry skin and skin cancer. Studies suggest that vitamin E consumed orally can increase its levels on the skin’s surface and help heal dry skin. Since Vitamin E is fat-soluble and can reach excessive levels with supplementation, it is safer to obtain it from wholesome foods. Cook with vegetable oils, and snack on a handful of almonds each day.
  18. Lean sources of protein: Skin is primarily made up of protein. Fish is an excellent protein source for healthy skin. Other good protein sources include edamame, beans or lentils with whole grains (for complete protein), quinoa, skinless poultry, pork chops, beef tenderloin, and lamb chops.
  19. Limit intake of alcohol to one serving, or avoid it altogether: Drink lots of water if you do have alcohol! Alcohol promotes dehydration and flushing, particularly in those with sensitive skin prone to redness. While red wine is considered more heart-healthy than white wine, since it contains two powerful antioxidants, grape seed extract and resveratrol, alcohol generally promotes the formation of free radicals which attack collagen and elastin and speed skin aging.
  20. Avoid foods containing artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, partially-hydrogenated fats, tropical oils, and other trans fats.
  21. Avoid salty and sugary foods: Salt contributes to bloating and puffiness, in addition to high blood pressure and vascular damage. Sugar can wreak havoc on your system in more ways than one. As far as your skin is concerned, the primary concern is glycation, which occurs when glucose enters the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, glucose bonds with protein molecules, including collagen and elastin. As a result, those vital skin components become inflamed and stiff, and eventually cause skin to sag and wrinkle.
  22. Olive oil: Provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, essential omega-6, and nonessential omega-9 fatty acids, and may even be applied topically to prevent or treat dry skin. Dark-colored olive oils contain more phytochemicals than lighter ones. The use of olive oil in place of other fats in the diet has been correlated with a lower risk of heart and vascular disease. Canola oil is a good alternative.
  23. Herbs and spices: In addition to making food taste better, many are rich in various antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, water, and help to heal and protect skin from free-radical damage. Examples include basil, chives, cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, dill, ginger, oregano, parsley, and rosemary. However, if you have rosacea, certain spices may worsen your symptoms by aggravating flushing and blushing.
  24. Green tea, pomegranate juice: Good sources of antioxidants which reduce free radicals. Green tea is better than black tea, since green tea leaves are steamed very lightly during processing, preserving more polyphenols with antioxidant effects, than black tea leaves which are steamed longer.
  25. Caffeine in moderation: Constricts veins, reduces facial flushing and inflammation (probably because caffeine acts like a diuretic), and may have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties when consumed orally. Since caffeine also dehydrates the body, it should be consumed with lots of water.
  26. Dark chocolate: Cacao in dark chocolate contains high levels of polyphenol antioxidants. Look for high cacao concentrations (high quality chocolates will give a % on the label), because these have less sugar which can actually be bad for your skin. Dark chocolate contains less sugar than typical milk chocolate. It is sugar, rather than chocolate, that appears to exacerbate breakouts.
  27. Avoid touching blemishes: Popping pimples can cause scarring.
  28. Use petroleum jelly to moisturize rough, cracked feet, elbows, hands, dry cuticles, and peeling nails.
  29. Note that some skin care products contain fragrances and chemicals, including endocrine disruptors, which may cause or aggravate skin problems.
  30. Wear protective gloves when washing dishes or using household cleansers and chemicals .
  31. Moisturize after bathing to trap water in the skin: Reapply hand lotion often to prevent dryness and irritation of your skin, especially during cold winter months.
  32. Humidify the air in your home with plants or a humidifier.
*Why are fatty acids so important?
  • They strengthen the skin barrier, which keeps moisture in and irritants out of your skin.
  • They reduce the development of wrinkles and promote moister, firmer skin
  • They help form prostaglandins, hormones that assist cellular functions.
Cholesterol is one of the three components of our skin barrier. It is the fat (lipid) layer which keeps moisture in and irritants out. Vegetarians, people on low-fat or cholesterol-free diets, and those taking cholesterol-lowering drugs are more likely to have dry skin.

Types of fatty acids:
  • Essential fatty acids (EFA’s): The two main categories of EFA’s are Omega-3 and Omega-6. They are essential for good health, but not made by the body. Therefore, they must be obtained from foods or supplements.
  • Nonessential fatty acids: Omega-9 is essential for good health, but is called “nonessential,” since it can be produced by the body.
Food sources of essential and nonessential fatty acids:
  • Omega-3 essential fatty acids (alpha-linolenic [ALA], eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA], and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) : Leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, wheat germ, wheat germ oil, soybean oil, and canola oil.
  • Omega-6 essential fatty acids (Linoleic acid): Nuts and seeds, olive oil, chestnut oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, olives.
  • Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in proper proportions: Flax seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, grape seeds
  • Omega-9 fatty acids (Monounsaturated oleic acid: Reduces risk of heart disease, arteriosclerosis, cancer): Olive oil, olives, avocados. nuts including macadamia, pistachio, peanuts, almonds, sesame, cashew, pecan and hazelnuts.

Many oils used for cooking in the United States are comprised of linoleic acid, which is one reason why our Omega ratios tend to be unhealthy. Soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and cottonseed oil are routinely used in processed foods. Many of these oils are refined. To avoid over-consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids, reduce or eliminate refined oils and processed foods, and read ingredient labels.


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