Can You Eat Your Way to Good Skin?

It turns out the best place to get glowing, radiant skin isn’t the cosmetic counter or plastic surgeon’s office, but the kitchen.
Photograph by Morgan Maassen

by Anne Marie O’Connor

Whether you want to look more youthful or to ban breakouts, a healthy diet can help your skin look its best. “The foods we eat serve as the nutritional foundation for our skin, so one of the most important things you can do to keep a youthful appearance is to eat a diet rich in beauty foods,’” says Lisa Drayer, MA, RD, nutritionist and author of The Beauty Diet: Looking Great Has Never Been So Delicious.

Because many of these foods are in season now, “with the warmer weather upon us, there is no better time to include delicious, fresh beauty foods on your plate,” she points out. (Luckily, those same foods are also waistline-friendly.) Here’s how to eat your way to gorgeous skin.

The goal: Prevent fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin tone by neutralizing free radicals.

“Free radicals are electrically charged molecules produced by sun exposure, air pollution and other toxins that attack the healthy cells of your body,” explains Drayer. They result in all the telltale signs of aging–fine lines, wrinkles, uneven pigmentation.

The food fixes:

  • Eat beta-carotene-rich fruits and vegetables. This vitamin helps fight free radicals that contribute to skin aging, says Drayer. “It gets converted to vitamin A in the body, which helps to keep skin smooth.” Many of the best sources of beta-carotene are in season right now–sweet potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, cantaloupe and apricots.
  • Drink green tea. “Green tea is the only tea that contains a significant amount of the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG),” says Drayer. “EGCG rids the body of cell-damaging free radicals, and research has suggested that green tea may help protect against solar UVB light–induced skin disorders, including photoaging, melanoma, and nonmelanoma skin cancers.” It’s also delicious iced.
  • Cut back on cocktails. “Alcohol in excess can dehydrate your skin,” says Drayer. “It also causes inflammation, which manifests as puffiness, redness and that weathered look.” So even though it’s rosé season, drink in moderation, which means one drink a day for women and two for men.

The goal: ban breakouts

While no one food causes breakouts in everyone, a 2013 review in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found a link between acne and high-glycemic diets (high-glycemic foods like cookies, white bread and doughnuts raise blood sugar levels more quickly than low-glycemic ones, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans).

The food fixes:

  • Avoid junk food and soda. “When you eat too many refined, sugary carbs, your body makes more insulin, which increases production of the hormones known as androgens,” she explains. “High levels of androgens cause sebaceous glands in the skin to secrete more oil, which then becomes trapped inside the pores and leads to pimples. Limit your intake of these added sugars to no more than 10 percent of your total calories (that’s 150 calories on a 1,500 calorie diet).”
  • Up your omega-3 intake. ”Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your to diet helps combat inflammation that can lead to acne,” says Drayer. “Fatty fish, like salmon, herring, sardines, and trout are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.”
  • Reduce your intake of vegetable oils. An imbalance in your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids (in vegetable oils such as soy, safflower, corn and peanut) and foods made with or fried in them, including commercial salad dressings, cookies, crackers as well as many fast food items, is another culprit behind breakouts. “Such an imbalance can cause inflammation, leading to blocked pores that cause an overproduction of oil, according to researchers,” she says.

The goal: enhance skin’s ability to protect itself from UV rays.

Yes, you still need to wear sunscreen, but some foods have a protective effect against sun damage will up your UV defense.

The food fixes:

  • Dig into the salsa and Caprese salad. A 2011 study in the Journal of British Dermatology found that women who ate a quarter cup of tomato paste in olive oil every day for three months were more protected against sunburn than those who consumed olive oil alone. Experts believe lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, help protect against UV rays, explains Drayer. Farm-stand tomatoes—at the peak of ripeness right now–make it easy to boost your lycopene intake.
  • Select foods with selenium. Selenium protects skin against sun exposure and helps it retain its elasticity, says Drayer. Best sources include Brazil nuts, canned tuna, oysters, turkey, chicken, beef and eggs.