Does Food Impact How Your Skin Ages?
All you need to do is think back to the last time you felt bloated or lethargic after a big meal to recognize the link between what we eat and our overall health. So, it makes sense that skin — the body’s largest organ — is also affected by the nutrients it receives. “It may sound like a simple premise, but we literally are what we eat,” explains Jennifer Hanway, a board certified holistic nutritionist. “Everything we consume (food, drink, supplements), is used by our body to grow and repair our cells and as cofactors for all our metabolic processes.”
For better or worse, the skin is no exception to this. “The appearance of our skin is a visual barometer for how healthy we are on the inside,” she says. The concept of beauty from the inside out is nothing new, but have you ever stopped to consider that the key to a more youthful complexion may be in your pantry? We’ve written before about the best foods for healthy skin, the role diet can play in acne, and how sugar sabotages your skin, and now it’s time to explore how food impacts the way your skin ages.
How Skin Ages
To fully understand the role of nutrition in the aging process, it’s important to first consider how skin matures. There are three main layers of skin:
- Epidermis: Starting from the top is the epidermis, which contains melanocytes (i.e. pigment-producing cells).
- Dermis: Next comes the dermis, where you will find the fibroblasts for collagen and elastin production. Collagen and elastin are two critical proteins for skin structure. Collagen provides the latticework on which the body builds its tissues, while elastin gives the skin its elastic, snap back abilities.
- Hypodermis: Finally, the hypodermis contains connective tissue and fat tissue.
The Anatomy of Aging Skin:
But it is believed that both intrinsic and extrinsic factors play a role in that degradation process. Intrinsic aging includes genetic factors and hormonal changes, while extrinsic aging is attributed to photoaging (caused by ultraviolet light), stress, pollution, and, yes, nutrition.
The Relationship Between Diet & Skin Aging
A well-balanced diet is key to overall health and, in turn, is key to skin health. “The diet plays a significant role in a person's overall health, specifically skin health,” says Adriana Lombardi, MD, a board certified dermatologist at the Skin Cancer & Cosmetic Surgery Center of New Jersey. “A poor diet can cause systemic inflammation, which can be reflected in various skin disorders.”
Hanway agrees. “If we have poor gut health and/or a diet that is low in nutrients, our skin will suffer,” she says. The reason? It is not one of the main priorities for survival. “Our body will prioritize nutrients for essential functions, such as organ health, and minimize uptake to our hair, skin, and nails,” Hanway explains. “So, if we are not absorbing or consuming adequate nutrients it will show in dull, dry skin that loses its elasticity.”
It should come as no surprise then that Hanway often looks at her clients’ complexions as a window into their lifestyle and nutrition. “When I meet with a client, I’m secretly scoping out their skin for signs of inflammation, dryness, premature aging, etc., as this can give me so much guidance on what is happening underneath the surface,” she shares.
The Best Diet for Youthful Skin
Now that we understand the relationship between nutrition and skin aging, it’s time to talk about what you can do about it. Hanway has three dietary principles she shares with clients to maximize skin health:
- Skip Sugar: We hate to break it to you, but you need to limit your intake of sugar and high carbohydrate foods. Both can cause glycation of the skin, which is one of the biggest enemies of a youthful complexion. During glycation, sugar molecules attach to collagen and elastin proteins, inhibiting the skin’s ability to efficiently repair itself. The result? “It will become less elastic and resilient,” she notes.
- Forgo Fats: Not all fats are created equal, and Hanway recommends minimizing the intake of inflammatory fats (think: canola and seed oils). “These literally change the structure of the lipid bilayer (the cell wall), resulting in a more rigid structure,” she explains. “In regards to our skin, this will show in a loss of plumpness and volume.”
- Prioritize Protein: Hanway says to increase your protein portions because amino acids — the components of protein once it is digested — are the building blocks of skin. “If we are not eating enough protein, then we are not giving our skin the raw materials it needs to repair and grow,” she adds.
So, how does this translate into what you do (or don’t) eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? “I strongly recommend reducing the amount of processed food a client is consuming and increasing the amount of protein and vegetables and low sugar fruits they are eating,” Hanway shares. Morgan Rabach, MD, a board certified dermatologist at LM Medical in New York City, has a similar approach. She advocates for raw, minimally processed, and/or low glycemic foods that decrease inflammation, and she says to look out for vitamins A, B, C, and E.
Both as part of your diet and topical skincare routine, the antioxidants can help repair compromised skin and ward off future damage. “We know that consuming high levels of anti-inflammatory agents can actually protect the skin from free radicals and sun damage,” Dr. Lombardi explains. For the uninitiated, excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays can lead to premature aging, thinning of the skin, and skin cancer. “A poor diet does not offer antioxidant protection and can, in fact, lead to increased inflammation, dehydration, and premature aging of the skin,” she cautions.
How to Structure Your Meals
What does an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich meal plan look like? “Diets rich in leafy greens, whole grains, omega-3, and lean chicken or fish are ideal,” Dr. Lombardi shares. And don't forget to stay hydrated. “Drinking enough water is also important for skin health,” she says. “If you are dehydrated, it can be reflected in the skin appearance with more visible signs of aging.”
When it comes to building a meal, Hanway suggests:
- 20 to 30 grams of protein
- 2 to 4 cups of vegetables (focus on leafy greens and brightly colored vegetables)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of healthy fats
As she explains, there are certain foods that “confer specific skin benefits,” and those include grass fed beef, wild caught salmon, avocado, walnuts, sesame seeds, leafy green vegetables, and probiotic-rich foods (think: yogurt and sauerkraut). “Probiotic-rich foods help gut health and minimize free radical damage,” she says. “Improving gut health is important, as this can a) help reduce inflammation and b) ensure we absorb the much needed nutrients in our diet.” And that’s not all. You can even indulge in a sweet treat in the form of 100 percent dark chocolate. “It is a great source of glow-boosting phytonutrients,” Hanway notes.
When in doubt, opt for food that is as unprocessed as possible. “A poor diet can cause systemic inflammation which can be reflected in various skin disorders,” Dr. Lombardi says. “Foods I typically recommend avoiding for overall skin health include any processed foods (typically in bags or boxes), foods containing refined sugars, products with dairy, processed meats, and foods high in sodium.” Similarly, Hanway says she sees a “huge difference” when clients minimize dairy and alcohol. The former “can cause issues with inflammation resulting in acne, eczema and rosacea,” while the latter “can increase skin aging, dehydrate the skin, and slow down detoxification and cellular renewal,” she says.
The Role of Supplements
As we’ve previously discussed, supplements can enhance skincare routines. They are by no means a replacement for a healthy diet (Dr. Rabach maintains that “the best way to get vitamins is to eat minimally processed whole foods, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains”) — but there are some nutrients that you may benefit from ingesting in supplement form. “Vitamins have been formulated to help supplement diet with the goal of increasing antioxidant levels,” Dr. Lombardi shares. “The higher levels of antioxidants in circulation, the less free radical damage from exogenous factors.” Hanway recommends a daily intake of antioxidants in the form of 100 milligrams of liposomal vitamin C, in addition to 10 grams of collagen powder and a high-strength fish oil, to clients “who are looking to slow down the aging of their skin.”
Even the healthiest diet in the world is not going to completely stop or reverse the aging process, but eating well can stave off premature aging, keep the quality of the skin looking younger longer, and complement any professional treatments you may be getting. “In-office cosmetic procedures all have a goal to maintain a youthful appearance,” Dr. Lombardi notes. “Practicing a good diet, decreasing stress with exercise, and maintaining hydration with adequate water intake all help to slow the aging process and prolong effects of in-office procedures.” Best of all, these lifestyle changes are more than just skin deep — they will also improve your overall health and wellbeing.