Want Clearer Skin? These Are the Best Foods to Eat—and the Worst
As the saying goes, you are what you eat—and this holds particularly true when it comes to your complexion. Here experts weigh in on the best—and worst—foods for your skin.
It’s no surprise that your diet plays a large role in your overall health and well-being, and as your largest organ, your skin is equally affected. Because it’s your only visible organ, it offers a clear visual: “The skin is the best reflection of what is happening internally in the body,” explains Jennifer T. Haley, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Scottsdale, AZ, and Park City, UT.
Eat a healthy diet and you’ll notice the results in terms of your overall well-being and waistline and in your skin, too. Granted, while no one diet or way of eating fits all, there are a few universal "good guys" and "bad guys" when it comes to food and skin.
Here's what to add more of to your plate…and what to pass on.
Fat has long been a bad word in the diet world, but it’s an essential part of a healthy skin diet. “The skin is made up of lipid bilayers. You have a layer of fat, a layer of water, and then another layer of fat. If you don’t have enough fat to hold the water in, your skin won’t have that nice, supple, vibrant appearance,” Dr. Haley says. But, no, that’s not a free pass to load up on French fries. Not all fat is created equal.
The kind of fat you want more of is healthy omega fatty acids. (So, if you’re following a keto or paleo diet, make sure you’re not just eating bacon all day, every day.) Specifically, Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are absolutely essential to get from your diet since the body doesn’t naturally produce them, explains nutritionist Gabriela Peacock, founder of GP Nutrition. Good sources include olive oil, avocado, fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds. Dr. Haley suggests eating 10 nuts (walnuts are an especially good pick) before a meal: “Not only do you get the benefits of the healthy fats themselves, but they also help the body better absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, other essential nutrients for the skin,” she explains.
“Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of muscle and skin that help to repair and rebuild both,” explains Peacock. Making sure you have enough protein in your diet can help ensure that your skin is more effectively able to turn over its cells, says Dr. Haley, leaving it firmer, stronger, and healthier. While lean meats are a top protein source, people who prefer to follow a vegan and vegetarian diet can also get protein from nuts, seeds, lentils, and beans, says Peacock. And if you eat fish, load up on wild salmon. It contains those good-for-your skin fatty acids, plus also astaxanthin (say that three times fast). “This comes from the krill that the salmon eat and is what gives the fish its bright pink color,” explains Dr. Haley. “When you eat the salmon, this astaxanthin imparts that same type of healthy, rosy glow to your skin.” One caveat: Make sure it’s wild salmon, since farm-raised salmon doesn’t contain astaxanthin.
Colorful Fruits & Veggies
Taste the rainbow. The brighter and more colorful the fruits and veggies on your plate, the larger the array of various phytonutrients and phytochemicals you’re getting, says Dr. Haley. “All of these bright colors are made from photosynthesis, where the veggies take energy from the sun. They give the mitochondria—the powerhouses of your skin cells—this same type of energy, making your complexion look vibrant and healthy,” she adds. You really can’t go wrong with any type of fruit or veggie, though for added benefit pick ones high in vitamin C. “This is a hugely important vitamin for skin health, since it promotes the production of collagen,” explains Peacock. (As a quick reminder, collagen is the protein responsible for firm, youthful skin. More collagen equals fewer wrinkles.) Red peppers, kiwi, strawberries, and Brussels sprouts are all high in this superstar vitamin.
Sugar is by far skin’s number one worst enemy because it creates advanced glycation end products, appropriately dubbed AGEs, says Dr. Haley. When you get something sugary, the sugar floats around in the blood, binding to the proteins in the skin and creating these AGEs, she says. Collagen is the most prominent protein in the skin; when sugar binds to it, it becomes stiff and hard rather than elastic and supple. The result? Fine lines and wrinkles. Not to mention that sugar also throws off the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, leading to possible issues such as breakouts, adds Peacock. It’s important to note that it’s not just the sugar in a candy bar or cupcake that’s problematic for your skin. The body breaks down any kind of refined carbohydrate—white bread, crackers, chips—into sugar. If you are eating something sugary, Dr. Haley suggests pairing it with a fiber-rich food to help slow the absorption of sugar.
While the occasional drink or two isn’t going to do you any harm, excessive and regular drinking can take a major toll on your skin. It all goes back to your liver, the organ responsible for detoxification. “When your liver is overloaded from cleaning out all the toxins in alcohol, everything gets backed up,” says Dr. Haley. In the skin this can manifest as a dull and sallow tone, as well as excess puffiness, since lymphatic drainage slows down when the liver isn’t working well. Not to mention that alcohol is also dehydrating, leaving your complexion looking and feeling dry, and that many alcoholic drinks are also high in sugar. When you are drinking, be sure to alternate drinks with a glass of water, or opt for drinks like wine spritzers, which are slightly diluted, suggests Haley.
Both Dr. Haley and Peacock point out that dairy induces inflammation, which is no good for your entire body, but particularly the skin. “Dairy consumption has also been linked to acne, both because of the inflammatory connection and for hormonal reasons,” adds Dr. Haley. Both experts agree that it’s best to limit dairy consumption as much as possible; Peacock suggests keeping it to one serving a day or only eating it every other day, while Dr. Haley is a fan of alternate “milks” such as almond, oat, or coconut.