An unhealthful diet, and even the way you cook your food, can contribute to factors that accelerate skin aging.

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ON NUTRITION

When it comes to the effects of what you eat on your health, you can’t see what’s happening to your cells and organs, but you can look at your face.

If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then your skin is the mirror of your nutrition status. Healthy skin reflects overall health, and poor nutrition can contribute to factors that accelerate skin aging as well as age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Inflammation and oxidation

These two factors not only wreak havoc on your health, but they damage collagen and elastin, the proteins that give skin and connective tissues (like tendons and ligaments) elasticity and strength. If you want to age well on the outside and the inside, it’s important to protect against the cascade of events that leads to chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, and nutrition plays a major role.

Your body constantly produces free radicals, which can damage your DNA and cells. At normal levels, free radicals help your body function. In excess, free radicals lead to oxidative stress, which contributes to premature skin aging by destroying collagen and elastin. Sun damage, excessive alcohol intake and cigarette smoke can increase free radicals and oxidative stress, while eating foods rich in antioxidants can help prevent oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals.

Many antioxidants and phytonutrients may help protect against UV rays, especially vitamins A, C, D and E and the carotenoids, which include beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein. Increasing the level of antioxidants, including carotenoids, in the skin helps neutralize free radicals before they can cause damage. Studies have found that people with high levels of carotenoids in their skin look young for their age, with fewer wrinkles and furrows and less skin roughness. The yellow-to-red carotenoid pigments in fruits and vegetables also contribute to healthy skin color.

How AGEs can age you

Our modern diet is littered with processed, fried and sugary foods that contribute to accelerated aging from glycation, the linking of sugars (glucose and fructose) to amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to form advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. In youthful-looking skin, collagen and elastin, both proteins, are flexible and repairable. When sugars in the skin bond to collagen and elastin, they become stiff and unrepairable. Even worse, AGEs also can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress.

Our body can form AGEs, or they can come into our body already formed. Dry, high-heat cooking methods form AGEs — think of the skin of a roasted chicken, the golden crust on bread or grill marks on meat. Reduce incoming AGEs by eating a diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and using moist cooking methods such as poaching, steaming, stewing and boiling. Cooking and marinating with herbs and spices, including cinnamon, cloves, oregano, allspice, ginger and garlic, can also inhibit AGE formation.

Stocking your food pharmacy

Time and exposure to the elements can deplete collagen and elastin, but so can a poor diet. One of the best strategies against premature skin aging is eating lots of vegetables and fruits because this increases the level of carotenoids and other antioxidants in the skin.

If you are already eating an antioxidant-rich diet, you might wonder if more is better. While the manufacturers of antioxidant supplements would love to sell you on the promise of better skin, the truth is that the evidence for taking isolated nutrients in supplement form is inconclusive, and going overboard on antioxidants can actually contribute to oxidation. The healthiest and safest way to get the antioxidants and other nutrients you need to promote healthy, attractive skin is to get them from food. Here are some of the best sources:

• Vitamin C. Fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits.

• Vitamin E. Dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, avocados.

• Beta-carotene. Orange fruits and vegetables.

• Lycopene. Tomatoes, watermelons, pink grapefruit, papayas and guavas.

• Astaxanthin. Microalgae and the fish that eat them, salmon in particular.

• Lutein. Green, leafy vegetables.

Other skin-protecting nutrients include selenium (Brazil nuts), zinc (sesame and pumpkin seeds), green tea polyphenols, proanthocyanidins and resveratrol (grapes), silymarin (artichokes), genistein (soy), and curcumin (turmeric). Getting adequate vitamin D helps maintain the bones that your skin drapes over, and may help protect skin cells from UV damage.

Kale, Carrot and Avocado Salad with Pumpkin Seeds

Serves 4-6

Kale is rich in lutein, carrots are rich in beta-carotene, avocado is rich in vitamin E and healthy fats, and pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc. Together, they contribute to healthy skin texture and color — while satisfying your taste buds.

1 bunch lacinato (Tuscan) kale, washed, stemmed, and chopped or thinly sliced

1 tablespoon olive oil or avocado oil

½ teaspoon sea salt

2 cups shredded carrots

½ small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 small or ½ large avocado

2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice

¼ cup pumpkin seeds

1. In a large bowl, massage the kale with the oil and sea salt for about 1 minute, or until the oil is coating the leaves and they begin to soften. Add the grated carrots and sliced onion and toss.

2. Scoop the avocado flesh into a small bowl, add the lemon or lime juice and mash with a fork. Transfer the mixture to the large bowl along with the pumpkin seeds and mix together, using your hands or a spoon. Let the salad rest for about 10 minutes before serving.