Under Your Skin with Dr. G: The Best Foods to Eat for Healthy, Vibrant Skin

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We asked a dermatologist what foods should be on our grocery list

The phrase, ‘you are what you eat,’ has been ringing in our head since the turn of the New Year. But how much does last night’s dinner actually impact your skin? We asked our go-to dermatologist, Dr. Beth Goldstein: “The best way to get the full benefit of nutrients for your skin and body are through eating whole foods,” she told us. “Not by taking a pill.”

Dr. Goldstein, Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Dermatology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells us which foods contribute to healthy, vibrant skin and even help protect from skin cancer. In case you missed it, Dr. Goldstein recently shared why it’s so important to wear sunscreen — even during these cold winter months.

Katie Couric Media: How does the old saying, ‘you are what you eat’ apply to skin?  

Dr. Beth Goldstein: There is a clear association between our diets and our skin health. Our skin is our body’s largest organ, so more often than not, it shows decline or disease when our health fails. This decline shows up in many ways. For instance, when your diet is lacking in certain nutrients, such as zinc, iron or Vitamins A, C, D, B6 or B12, you might experience rashes, sores or hair loss.  On the other hand, eating a balanced diet that is rich in antioxidants may help with improved skin, from fewer wrinkles to reduced sun damage. 

What should people know about vitamins and their impact on skin health? 

One myth about our diet and skin health centers around the impacts of the nutrient biotin on hair and nail growth. While many people take biotin supplements for hair and nail health, too much biotin can interfere with vital blood tests, can sometimes cause nausea, and the evidence is not strong that any skin benefits occur in healthy people.  Excessive intake of some vitamins, such as vitamin A, can cause dry lips, skin and hair loss, along with systemic effects such as change in vision, bone pain and liver damage.

How can your diet contribute to skin aging? 

We all know that the number one contributor to skin aging is photoaging — specifically, 90% of all skin aging is associated with sun exposure. 

That being said, a recent study of Dutch women showed that women who ate mostly plant-based diets, including, fruits, legumes and limited refined sugar or dairy, had fewer wrinkles vs. those who ate a diet heavy in red meat, deep fried foods and processed snacks (while controlling for sun exposure, weight and smoking). 

Diets with excess sugar or those with diabetes may have a disease process called glycation, resulting in the breakdown in our elastin and collagen. Ultimately, this may lead to loss of skin elasticity, wrinkles, and impact the supporting collagen that is essential to our blood vessels.  

What are the nutrients that foster healthy skin?

The best way to get the full benefit of nutrients for your skin and body are through eating whole foods, not by taking a pill.

Here are a few key nutrients you might consider eating regularly to foster healthier skin include:

Vitamin A helps normalize the maturation of skin, can help with skin rejuvenation, and reduce the effects of ultraviolet damage – one great example is eating carrots daily (⅔ cup).

Vitamin B covers a broad range of important skin nutrients. It’s a strong antioxidant and wound healant that helps to reduce inflammation and serves as a great anti-aging nutrient.

Vitamin C helps reduce damage from the sun, is a key nutrient in immune function and wound healing, and helps maintain innate hydrating properties of the skin. An orange or a serving of fresh, cooked broccoli is a great source of Vitamin C.  

Vitamin D helps improve your skin’s immune system, which may help in healing wounds and reduce inflammation. One serving of salmon (3.5 ounces) is a great source of vitamin D.  

Vitamin E helps protect against ultraviolet damage and reduce harmful effects of inflammation. Sprinkling 2 ounces of sunflower seeds on a salad will provide good amounts of Vitamin E.

Zinc minimizes inflammation and protects against infection. My favorite way to get extra zinc is 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate (2 prunes also works equally well, but it’s not my favorite).

Copper helps to stimulate collagen and reduces damage as an antioxidant. One ounce of almonds or cashews provides good amounts of copper.

Selenium is a strong antioxidant Selenium can be found in brazil nuts and in fortified pasta.

What are some foods everyone should add to their grocery list for healthy skin? 

I highly recommend Dr. Rajani Katta’s information and her wonderful, simple recipes. I have listed below her top recommendations. All of the products and foods below have many of the key ingredients for skin health:

  • Green Tea
  • Most vegetables, including tomatoes, red peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, artichokes, asparagus, leafy greens, onions, jicama, garlic
  • Many spices, such as basil, ginger, cumin, turmeric, cloves
  • Fruits (my favorites): berries, avocado, pomegranate, grapes, bananas, apples, watermelon
  • Grains: whole wheat, oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa
  • Legumes: lentils, beans, chickpeas, soybeans
  • Nuts/Seeds: almonds, walnuts, pecans, flax seed, chia seeds
  • Yogurt
  • Best sources of “good fat” includes olives, olive oil, avocado, avocado oil, salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, mackerel

What about foods that can help treat acne? 

The best foods for clear skin tend to involve diets that focus on lower glycemic load foods. 

Eliminating pizza from a teenager’s diet may be a tough recommendation to follow, so it’s important for teens to know the facts about foods that can aggravate acne. Interesting, according to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, some forms of milk, such as skim milk, have been linked with acne, perhaps because of hormones or altered fat absorption. Another study showed that subjects with acne had lower levels of Vitamin D. While this is not a cause- and-effect research, these findings emphasize that proper nutrition is important.

For most people, diet alone does not cause acne, and even a perfect diet certainly will not usually cure acne, but a proper diet does play positive role in helping keep it under control. 

Can your diet help to prevent skin cancer?

For skin health and skin cancer prevention, 1000 units per day of Vitamin D has always been my ‘go-to’ recommended supplement for people that are diligent in their sun protection. That’s because some adults are not necessarily getting adequate amounts in their diet alone.

Interestingly, new research has shown that the best vitamin for the skin, if you are at high risk for skin cancer, is Vitamin B 3 in the form of nicotinamide (not niacin). High risk patients were given this particular form of Vitamin B at 500 mg twice daily for 12 months, and those participants saw a 23% reduction in new non-melanoma skin cancers and precancers. It is important to note the benefits only lasted as long as they continued taking the supplement.  

Antioxidants can also work to help reduce the damage from ultraviolet damage by capturing the free radicals and reducing other processes that are damaging to the skin and may lead to skin cancer. The best studied supplements are beta carotene (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes) and selenium (plants grown in soil, some meats and fish). 

Dr. Beth G. Goldstein is an Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Dermatology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She performs Mohs (skin cancer surgery) in her private practice located across the Research Triangle in North Carolina. She is an editor on several topics in UpToDate, a leading evidence-based clinical decision support resource used by clinicians worldwide, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Mohs Surgery and most recently launched a skin protection product to help more men wear sunscreen on a daily basis.