Top 5 Diet Tips for Healthy Skin
Let the foods that you eat during the day help your physiology control your skin problems. It's science and skin is your body's biggest organ. It reflects the quality of the 'fuel' you put into it. Build a healthy complexion that glows with vitality by eating the highest positive impact foods for skin health and avoid foods that cause skin problems like acne or psoriasis. It's easy.
I've been closely following nutrition science and dietary trends for 50 years as a scientist and I've been treating patients for over 35 years as a physician. It's easy to see the connection between diet and skin health when you start looking for it. Medical research is now substantiating these observations and it's an empowering time!
We are what we eat; eat the right foods for healthy skin and watch the almost immediate impact that it has on your complexion. Trust me, the results are huge! Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
In this article I am summarizing the most important diet tips to help you achieve and maintain healthy skin. I've written numerous blog articles about the connection between diet and skin health since 2008 and I'm distilling it all for you here.
Dermatologist Dr. Bailey's Top 5 Diet Tips for Healthy Skin
Doctors now know a lot about both the nutrients in food and how your overall diet impacts your body's physiology. Beyond the important role your food choices play in supplying you with vitamins and antioxidants, what you eat will either control or fuel inflammation. Inflammation leads to health problems such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, autoimmune problems, cancer - and skin problems! In addition, there are also specific foods that adversely impact some skin problems such as acne, eczema, rosacea and more.
What you eat matters for your complexion.
The good news is that a diet that fights inflammation has some easy to remember general concepts that you can put into practice right away.
Skin problems such as acne, psoriasis, rosacea, and skin-aging are all driven by your body’s physiology towards or away from inflammation. This is powerful because skin is your body’s biggest and most highly visible organ, and it reflects your internal physiology – for better or worse. Degenerative changes are also driven by oxidative, free-radical-induced damage. The physiology of inflammation and the mechanism of oxidative damage are both dependent on diet choices that you make.
Make choices that discourage inflammation and oxidative damage, and expect to see your complexion also reflect a healthy vitality. - Dermatologist Dr. Bailey
Don't try to memorize which berry or nut to eat. Instead, take a big-picture view of what's healthy and tweak your daily food intake to fight inflammation and free radical damage. It's easy with my top 5 diet tips.
Tip#1: Eat the Rainbow of Fresh Produce
Those produce colors are powerful indicators of phytonutrients - things you want a variety of in your cells. Make the majority of what goes into your mouth during the day a rainbow of produce. Yes, that may be bright red ketchup, but it should also be leafy greens, bright orange carrots, yellow bananas and the entire rainbow.
Eat mostly fresh veggies and fruit.
Each day, fill up your tummy with fresh produce. Eat them raw or cooked, and let them crowd out the urge for junk foods with a tummy full of produce! Why?
Produce is filled with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body must have for optimal health and to fight inflammation.
For example, antioxidants like beta carotene (yellow/orange color in fruit and veggies) help your skin to resist sun damage and other, free-radical mediated insults like stress, pollution, etc.
Beta carotene is also the most important dietary source of Vitamin A, which is also critical for healthy skin.
I personally aim for at least one generous serving of beta carotene rich foods every day because I love how it warms the tone of my skin. The warm beta carotene glow is scientifically proven to be more attractive than the ashy brown color of a suntan!
Some of my easy super easy ways to eat beta carotene are color coded as orange and deep green:
Orange: I keep at least one yellow/orange veggie around ready to eat:
I keep washed fresh carrots for quick munching during the day or while cooking dinner.
- When all else fails, I grab a container of fresh unsweetened carrot juice when I'm shopping - it's got a lot of natural sugar and no fiber so I prefer to eat carrots but..... it works!
- I keep a sweet potato ready to roast or cut up cubes of pumpkin and/or winter squash to toss with olive oil and roast for dinner (I cut up enough for 3 days at a time). Pro-tip: You absorb beta carotene from food best when you pair it with olive oil.
- Sweet orange fruit such as apricots, cantaloupes, papaya, mangoes, nectarines, and peaches are delicious and I put them on yogurt or enjoy alone when in season.
Green: I eat a ton of dark green – and trendy – veggies.
I keep kale, broccoli, spinach and/or collards (bonus for calcium) in the fridge where they last a week for me. I wash them so they are ready for:
- A massaged kale salad (Recipe: olive oil/balsamic vinegar/maple syrup/salt plus sliced onion, raisins then thinly sliced kale massaged until saturated. I top with feta and roasted nuts. Sometimes I add cooked quinoa. Super easy and super yummy)
- A quick garlic and greens sauté in olive oil or steamed broccoli for dinner.
I always have left overs for lunch the next day so it's a two-fer. Other greens have tons of beta carotene including watercress, cilantro, parsley and others.
Fun fact about greens: chlorophyll masks the orange color, but they are rich in orange beta carotene! Dr. B
Lycopene is another great antioxidant that's easy to eat
Yep, the red of lycopene is familiar to us all in the form of ketchup. It's so well loved that even the veggie fussy can't resist. That red color is even more impactful for health in the form of fresh tomatoes, tomato sauce and it's also in papaya, watermelon and many other reddish produce. Why love lycopene? It’s proven to protect your skin from free radical damage. Click here to learn how to get the most cancer fighting benefit out of your homemade tomato sauce.
Polyphenol antioxidants are another group of super heroes as antioxidants.
You get them from plants. There are several thousand types of polyphenols (curcumin from turmeric, resveratrol from grapes, etc.), and you want as many as possible to have them all fighting the good fight against aging and disease, including with your skin.
Pro-tip: How your food is prepared either preserves or destroys polyphenols – and fresh and raw is best. Simply snack on raw produce, or eat salads each day. - Dr. B
You also get polyphenols in green tea (don’t boil it), coffee, red wine, dried beans, blueberries and chocolate – thank goodness – and these all come from plants!
Green tea polyphenols have particular benefit to skin. They help reduce damage from UV rays and inflammation. They also work to reduce UV-induced skin cancer formation (called tumorigenesis). In addition to drinking steeped green tea, you can super load your skin with the right type of green tea polyphenol antioxidant by topically applying a medical-grade product. I've been using the proprietary formulation of EGCG green tea antioxidants now found in my Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy for years in my practice on thousands of sun damaged Californians (including myself). It works. This is one product that I never travel without or run out of because it's that impactful.
Click here to learn more about Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy and why it's part of almost every skin care routine I create for my patients.
Fruits and veggies also are rich in vitamins, including Vitamin C, which is important for wound healing and collagen formation.
Performing "double duty," Vitamin C is also an important antioxidant to help defend your skin from UV damage. Rich sources include citrus, kiwi, parsley, etc. The list goes on and on, and you’ve heard it all before. What’s important is that they come from fresh produce. It’s also important to know that these antioxidants and vitamins work best when you sustain high levels in your skin, meaning keeping your tummy full of the rainbow of produce daily.
Eat abundantly from the rainbow of veggies and fruits. Be naturally-antioxidant and vitamin-infused. Your complexion will have the warm beta-carotene glow, fend off skin problems and stand up well to stressors. Consider using a medical-grade product in your skin care routine to load supraphysiologic levels of proven antioxidants into the most precious cutaneous real estate of your face.
Tip #2: Eat Good Fats NOT Bad Fats
Favor good fats over bad.
Your body depends on your diet for the critically important, essential fatty acids that it can’t make but needs in order to slow aging, fight inflammation and maintain healthy skin.
These are the Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fats are found in olive oil, fish (like salmon, albacore tuna and other fatty fish), nuts (especially walnuts), flax and chia seeds, and leafy greens. They are a bonanza of anti-inflammatory goodness to fight many of today’s big diseases like heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and more.
I'm a big fan of flax seeds for the Omega-3 fatty acids and I've written about them in the past. For years, I've freshly ground 1/8 cup or more and thrown it on my breakfast of yogurt/fruit/nuts every morning. I dedicate a small coffee grinder to grind only flax seeds to make it easy for myself. The added bonus is that flax seeds are rich in fiber to enhance the gut microbiome of friendly health promoting microbes that call us home.
The essential omega fatty acids also promote skin health when topically applied to your skin. In fact, your skin can't make some of the essential omega fatty acids that it needs such as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Your skin needs to obtain it topically or from your diet. GLA is proven to help quiet inflammation and strengthen skin barrier. Borage oil is rich in GLA and I formulated my Omega Enriched Face Booster Oil to blend it with other well absorbed organic botanical oils. This popular face oil can be applied alone or a few drops can be added to your daily moisturizer to capture the benefits of these botanical oils.
Fats have gotten a bad rap in the past.
Know that good fats are good for you! In fact, good fats, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, help maintain healthy cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Omega 6 fats are also important but in moderation. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in sunflower and safflower oil and some grains. They are also present in meat and animal-based foods. Again, a little is necessary, but too much omega-6 in your diet is pro-inflammatory.
Olive oil is a fat that deserves special mention.
Studies have shown that people who regularly include olive oil in their diet have fewer wrinkles. We are not sure why, but olive oil is rich in polyphenols and squalane. Squalane is 'squirreled-away' in your skin and aids in fighting free-radical damage and skin dryness. Interestingly, olive oil is not a good choice for topical application as it is known to reduce skin barrier integrity.
We grow enough olive trees in our California garden to harvest the olives and supply our household with a year's worth of oil. We use it abundantly and I can tell you that many savory soups and dishes are enhanced by a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (and a squirt of lemon!)
You can have healthier skin eating fats; you just need to choose the good ones! Dr. B
Tip #3: Go Low Glycemic for Healthy Skin!
Foods raise your blood sugar. Many scientific studies have shown that chronic high blood sugar, and repeated spikes of high blood sugar, promote disease (including acne) and many of the degenerative changes we associate with aging (including skin collagen loss).
Some foods raise blood sugar higher and faster than others. This leads to inflammation and both acute and chronic disease. These are called high-glycemic index foods. Elevated blood sugar also leads to glycation injury to tissues and skin and a process called glycative stress. This is especially relevant for your skin's collagen because excess sugar leads to collagen protein damage with loss of collagen and skin suppleness. You want to limit your consumption of high glycemic foods to reduce inflammation and glycation injury so that your skin stays healthy, firm, supple, and acne free!
How fast a food raises your blood sugar depends on a combination of factors.
This includes whether the blood sugar causing component (called a carbohydrate) is "trapped" in other things like fiber, protein, fats, and other nutrients. The measure of how fast a food raised blood sugar is called the glycemic index (GI).
High glycemic index foods break down fast during digestion and rapidly raise blood sugar.
Examples are foods containing lots of simple sugars (glucose, high fructose corn syrup, etc.), and refined carbs (like white flour or rice, corn flakes, maltodextrins, etc.). These give you a sugar rush. You know what those foods are... cookies, candy, rich desserts, energy drinks, sugared "juices" etc. I've limited high glycemic foods for so long that I get an almost immediate raging headache when I indulge in them.
Medium glycemic index foods break down more slowly.
They have less rapidly available carbs. Examples include not intact whole wheat, unpeeled boiled potatoes, dried fruits, bananas, corn, and sweet potatoes.
Low glycemic index foods are the slowest to digest and provide a slow, steady and healthy blood-sugar-level.
They include beans, seeds, nuts, most intact (coarse) whole grains, veggies, and whole fruits.
It helps to understand that the more fiber in a food, the slower the digestion and the lower the GI. - Dr. B
Meats and animal protein are also low glycemic even though they are not high in fiber. If you are not a vegetarian, you want to eat animal proteins in moderation because of their 'bad' fats. Ideally, you want to aim for animal protein that is unprocessed and lean.
This photo of bean and beef stew is a classic low glycemic plant slanted dish with meat included in moderation - it looks amazing to me and it's the sort of dish that I love (note the beta carotene rich carrots)! Adding a little 'good' oil (such as olive oil) or vinegar will slow digestion even further and lower the glycemic index of a meal. I would probably drizzle olive oil and add a squirt of lemon to that stew in this picture.
It's encouraging to know that low glycemic foods often help keep you feeling full longer in a good way because the digestive process is slowed. You don't get the high blood sugar spike then drop that leads to craving. When you make smart low glycemic food choices, your body feels stable, it's easier to resist binge eating, it helps you maintain a healthy body weight and fend off inflammation and skin problems.
Diabetes as an example of how high glycemic levels lead to overall health damage
You can see how important the glycemic index is to health by knowing a little about diabetes and why it is such a devastating disease when uncontrolled. The cycle of high-blood-sugar spikes in diabetes lead to damage of important body proteins, blocked arteries, kidney disease, blindness, etc.
On a lesser scale, even without diabetes, high GI foods lead to biochemical changes in your body that break down protein tissues (glycation induced injury) and fuel inflammation. Many skin problems like psoriasis, rosacea, dandruff, acne, and even skin-aging are worsened when your physiology is pro-inflammatory. Some are also worsened by a high glycemic diet.
The bottom line is that high glycemic foods are known to accelerate skin aging and collagen loss, worsen acne and lead to overall physiologic inflammation. Eat low glycemic for healthy, vital, youthful, clear skin! Dr. B
Tip #4: Eat probiotic foods daily
Steward your gut microbiome like your life, happiness and health depend on it - because it does. I've been saying this for over 40 years and now scientific studies have linked intestinal dysbiosis (an unhealthy gut microbiome) to a host of common and dreaded diseases. It's almost counterintuitive but diseases like depression, obesity, asthma, rosacea, and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are more common in people who have certain 'bad' gut microbes and less common in people with 'good' microbes. Dysbiosis is proinflammatory among other thing and erodes health. Stay tuned to this topic because the list of diseases related to unhealthy gut ecology is going to grow.
The gut-skin axis
The health of your intestinal microbiome is now connected to an ability to fend off many common skin problems including eczema, psoriasis, acne and more. This list will grow! The reasons are complex and being elucidated as I write these words. The human intestinal microbiome is an area of exciting scientific study. What you need to know is that it matters and your daily diet can build a healthy gut, which in turn supports healthy skin.
What are the good microbes to have in your gut?
They are the ones that humans have been using to ferment food for generations. It's why the fermented food movement is gaining popularity. I recommend eating a helping of fermented food daily such as yogurt, kefir, barrel fermented pickles or sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchee etc. I've been making my own kefir for over 20 years. I know my culture is alive because I see it work. Make sure any fermented food product that you buy says 'contains live cultures' because some processing methods such as high heat or sterilization kill the very cultures you are trying to obtain.
I also don't recommend probiotic supplements over fermented foods; you never know if those little cultures are really alive unless you see them ferment the food. That said, probiotic supplements are better than no probiotic microbes going into your gut. The choice is yours, just manage to get some daily.
Pro-tip: Eating whole foods including fiber rich beans and veggies are 'prebiotics' and help to steward your healthy guy microbiome. It's a three-fer to eat whole foods - antioxidants and vitamins for you, low glycemic stable blood sugar without cravings, and healthy prebiotics for your little intestinal microbiome. Dr. B
Tip #5: Eat real foods in abundance and shun the processed stuff.
The majority of what goes into your body should feed vitality. We all know that the foods you eat have an impact on your overall health including how your skin looks. Keep it real because there is no dietary bypass of processed supplements that will compensate for poor dietary choices.
I created a pyramid to help me sort out my daily dietary choices on the fly - yep, I keep my pyramid in mind as I make lunch, grab a snack or plan dinner. Here's how it works:
Think of your diet as a pyramid with the broadest and largest proportion of foods at the bottom supporting the smaller and smaller layers at the top.
- Produce is the bottom of the pyramid - that rainbow of produce filled with antioxidants, phytonutrients and fiber. Note that veggies outnumber fruit proportionally.
- Moving up from there you have whole grains and beans.,
- Next are the good fats/lean animal proteins/nuts.
- Those 'treats' fit in the tiny top of the pyramid (for me that's a glass of red wine or a square of high cocoa chocolate).
Focus on the simplicity of a healthy diet and think in terms of proportions.
- Eat mostly fresh and raw or minimally cooked veggies and fruits – peels included when possible.
- Include beans, course whole grains, nuts, seeds, healthy omega-3 oils (like salmon and olive oil) and lean proteins in your diet filled with fresh produce.
- Limit sugary high GI refined foods and 'bad' fats. Eat them as 'treats' and on top of a tummy filled with the good stuff.
Yes, it takes intention and preparation to carry out your plan to maintain healthy daily food choices and resist the overabundant quick junk foods and the mouthwatering aromas of buttery or greasy, rich foods. Complexion challenging foods are everywhere.
Can you just "cheat," eat whatever you want, take supplements, and still get great skin and optimal health?
Sorry, the answer is no. Mother nature is not easily fooled. The complex components of real foods are what your body needs. For example, your body will readily absorb the beta carotene in an avocado because it’s accompanied by healthy plant fats, including omega-3’s. That avocado is also a rich source of B vitamins, vitamin C, K, etc. Studies have shown that beta carotene supplements just don't work the same way - or at all for skin health. Nope, sorry, real wins out over processed every time when it comes to food.
Real food is what your body wants. In return, it will give you great skin. There is no dietary bypass, miracle supplement or superfood.
The "secret"’ to a healthy skin diet is a continuous supply of fresh veggies and fruit, whole foods rich in good fats and fiber, vitamins and antioxidants that infuse your skin - and an overall diet that has a low to moderate glycemic index. - Dermatologist Dr. Bailey
Next steps: How to set yourself up for success and keep it simple.
Plan ahead before you are hungry. If your pantry and fridge aren’t ready to support this healthy diet, go shopping! Here are some of my favorite quick hacks to eat a rainbow of produce, good fats and low GI foods:
- Slice carrots and apples for snacking throughout the day.
- Carry a small container of nuts when you’re out.
- Carry another small container of dried figs (added benefit of being high in bioavailable calcium) and other dried fruits to fend off a sweet tooth.
- Keep lettuce and greens washed and ready in the fridge along with grated cabbage and carrots for a quick salad (I toss with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice or vinegar and a pinch of salt.)
- Pre-chop veggies so they are easy to cook in the evening.
- Make - and learn to love - leftovers. Put them in containers when you clean up after dinner so they are easy to grab for lunch.
Note that each dinner plate is ideally 1/3 salad, 1/3 cooked veggies and 1/3 lean protein/bean and/or a coarse grain.
- Pack dinner leftovers for lunch.
- Smash a half avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and dip coarse grain or seed crackers in it.
- Sandwich lovers can build a sandwich full of veggies along with some lean protein on a single slice of course, whole grain bread topped with a leaf of lettuce.
- Try a small helping of unsweetened yogurt, sliced fresh fruit, ground flax seeds and some nuts.
- Boil oats or another coarse grain and add a small dollop of yogurt topped with fruit and nuts.
Don't forget that beverages count!
Don't let all your good efforts be sabotaged by a sugary nutrition deficient beverage. Nope, just don't. Stock beverages that satisfy thirst and that help you wean off sugar. My tips:
Hot or cold green tea.
Green tea's polyphenol antioxidants are epic for overall health, including skin health. Those little dry leaves are magically prepared in a way that preserves antioxidant benefits. Remember, don't boil green tea, steep it in water that's just under boiling. Make it to taste and keep some in the fridge during hot weather. It has a low amount of caffeine and I'm sensitive so I don't drink green tea after about 2pm, but I love it before that.
If you need to sweeten it, use agave syrup, it's lower glycemic. I like soy milk in my hot green tea. Sometimes I make warm matcha with cinnamon, agave and soy milk.
Avoid cold sweet tea, soda pop with sugar and energy drinks because they are high glycemic pro-inflammatory physiology destroyers. Just don't consume them on a daily basis. If you must, consider them the occasional treat.
Other beverage ideas:
Fizzy water without sweetener.
My favorite is Pellegrino but here are so many choices.
Hot beverages MINUS the sugar and whip cream
Creamy, sugary, hot, decadent, caffeine filled yummy drinks are everywhere - how did these 400+ calorie drinks ever become popular! The amount of sugar and cream in today's coffee drinks qualify them to be hot milkshakes - and they are giant! One of those a day adds up to trouble for your physiology. Notice the craving and notice how many folks say 'yes' to them. The sugary mocha pumpkin spice or whatever lattes topped with whip cream are treats, not daily staples masquerading as a simple coffee.
Remember, beverages count. Enjoy hot beverages minus the sugar and cream. They are still cozy, yummy and something to look forward to once you get that craving worked out.
To recap, my top 5 tips for healthy skin are:
- Eat the rainbow of fresh produce.
- Eat good fats not bad fats.
- Go low glycemic with your diet.
- Eat a helping of a probiotic rich food daily.
- Eat real foods and shun processed foods.
I've given you the details and a lot to think about. Know that the impact on your complexion and overall health will be huge - it's proven by science!
Want to learn more about diet tips from the dermatologist for great skin, including recipes?
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