If ever there was a time to start consciously eating foods that benefit your skin, summer is it. As the weather warms up, so many sweet and juice fruits and vegetables come into season, farmers markets seem to sprout up in every town and city, and grocery stores start stocking fresher, local produce.
There’s some debate about what kind of role — if it plays one at all — that diet plays in skin. But a number of studies have found that an increase of certain dietary nutrients appear related to overall skin quality.
For example, a cross-cultural study looking at skin aging and diet found that elderly people with less skin wrinkling in a sun exposed site tended to eat a diet rich in vegetables, olive oil, monounsaturated fat, and legumes, and tended to eat fewer dairy products, butter, margarine, and sugar (Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2001).
And some researchers argue that diet might be the #1 environmental cause of skin conditions such as acne (Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, 2005).
Include Dynamic Duo Vitamin C + E: Skin
Foods with vitamin C: Cantaloupe, citrus fruits (like oranges and lemons), kiwi fruit, mango, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, leafy greens (like spinach and cabbage), green and red peppers, and tomatoes (MedlinePlus)
Foods with vitamin E: Wheat germ, almonds, sunflower oil, safflower oil, hazelnuts, peanuts, corn oil, spinach, broccoli, soybean oil, kiwi fruit, mango, spinach, tomato (National Institutes of Health)
It seems it’s that wherever one of these vitamins go, the other is bound to follow. If ever there were a pair of vitamins that seemed meant for one another, it would be E and C. While they both work well on their own, the pair works synergistically, making them better in combination (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1995; Pakistan Journal of Physiology, 2011).
Studies have shown that dietary vitamin C and E can have some UV-protective effects, resulting in less UV-damage and photoaging (British Journal of Dermatology, 2010). In fact, they’ve found that people with a high level of these antioxidants in their tissue had less premature skin aging (Experimental Dermatology, 2011). In fact, in a study of skin aging in women, low levels of vitamin C were significantly associate with skin aging (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006).
And at the same time they help boost the body’s UV protection, these diet-derived vitamins also give skin a warm glow in just a few weeks (PLOS ONE, 2012).
Don’t Forget Vitamin A (and Did You Know it Works Better with Vitamin E too?)
While vitamins C and E seem to be everywhere together, vitamin E and A also have a synergistic effect on each other, working together better than they do alone (Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 1992).
Good news for acne sufferers: A 2006 study comparing the blood plasma levels of vitamin E and A in participants with and without acne found that acne sufferers tended to have lower concentrations of the vitamins. Decreasing vitamin A levels were tied to acne severity, and those with the lowest concentration of both vitamin A and E have the most severe acne. But the good news was that when patients with acne were administered vitamin E and A, their condition improved (Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 2006).
And vitamin A might be chemopreventative for melanoma.
There have been some conflicting results about whether or not vitamin A protects against skin cancer. But, recently, a large cohort study including 69,635 men and women found that there was a correlation between dietary or supplemental vitamin A and a lower melanoma risk, particularly for women (Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 2012). But there are several limitations, including not knowing the dose-relationship and the possibility that those who take supplemental vitamin A might have other behaviors that lower their risk of melanoma.
Foods with vitamin A: Leafy greens, orange and yellow vegetables (like carrots and squash), cantaloupe, apricots, mangos, broccoli, liver and other organ meats, eggs, fortified foods (like milk and breakfast cereals), cod, salmon (MedlinePlus)
Eating More Omega-3 Fatty Acids Could Help Inflammation and Acne
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase threshold for UVB-induced erythema and reduces the levels of PGE2, a pro-inflammatory, and immunosuppressive (Cancer Detection and Prevention, 2006). In this way, it appears to reduce the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer as well as several other types of cancer (The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2006).
And there’s some discussion that omega-3 fatty acid might help those with acne. Some researchers think that an imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, along with a high glycemic diet, could be problematic in western diets. They propose that a balance of the fatty acids and a low glycemic intake could reduce proinflammatory eicosanoids (Archives of Dermatology, 2003; Archives of Dermatology,2003; International Journal of Dermatology, 209).
[Read More: Spotlight On: Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids]
It’s true that in hunter-gatherer groups, where acne is much less prevalent, people eat lower glycemic diet and have about a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid, while westerners tend to have a higher glycemic diet and a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.
Foods with omega-3: fish, leafy vegetables (like kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts), nuts (particularly walnuts), vegetable oils (like canola, soybean, and flax) (Harvard School of Public Health)
What Should You Eat?
There are plenty of foods that contain these nutrients. In particular, fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, and vegetable oils seem to be a good bet. Fortunately, summer seems to be a great time to find these things. The nifty thing about the combinations of vitamins that work well together is that many of our cuisines already pair these foods. Adding fats to certain vitamins helps the body absorb them better (and keeps you feeling full longer). So, eating a salad piled high with veggies along with a fat (think fish, nuts, or dressing) can help the body better absorb the vitamins.
While the salad bar is an easy way to make this happen, you can also fit them in with something like a salmon burger piled with veggies on a whole-wheat bun with kale and baked sweet potato fries on the side. Remember, there’s not one diet for everyone, and different people process foods differently, so what you and a friend eat to get vitamins might not look alike.
It’s tempting to think that supplements are the whole answer, but they aren’t always. While some supplements can help you get enough of the nutrients you’re missing in your diet, some can do more harm than good if you go overboard. It’s possible to get too much of certain nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin D with supplements (FDA, Harvard School of Public Health). So, it’s better to get certain vitamins from what you eat, instead of supplements. And remember, supplements are not the same thing as medications, and you should not substitute them for medications you need.
Since so many much-loved fruits and vegetables are coming into season, it’s a great time to think about getting in the habit of eating more fruits and vegetables (and continuing it into the other seasons, of course). Studies suggest that diet can have an effect on the skin, and that eating to get the nutrients the body needs could result in a more glowing complexion.
Contributing author: Natalie Bell