Updated 25 August 2015

What to eat for a healthier skin

When it comes to your skin, you are what you eat.


The skin is the body’s largest organ, and apart from taking a beating from the elements, it has to contend with the toxins we ingest – all of which affecting how your skin looks and feels.

Fortunately, paying close attention to your lifestyle can make all the difference.

Yes, there may be massive advances in the field of cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, but isn’t it good to know you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to look your best?

Read: DIY skin care remedies

According to skin specialists, you can help preserve your skin by watching what you eat and drink, staying out of the sun, and steering clear of tobacco smoke – which won’t break the bank (in fact, you’ll be saving money if you drink less and quit smoking).

Blood-glucose levels important

Getting your diet right is an important step towards a healthy, glowing skin.

“The old saying ‘you are what you eat’ has never been truer,” says Dr Lushen Pillay, a Johannesburg-based dermatologist. According to her, research suggests that a diet high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates can leave skin looking worn out and tired.

Keeping your blood glucose levels in check by following a healthy, low glycaemic index diet is key.

Research from the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC), which was done in collaboration with Unilever, shows that people who have high blood glucose levels tend to look older earlier.

The researchers discovered that the 50- to 70-year-old participants who had high blood glucose levels looked older than those whose blood glucose levels were lower.

Diabetic participants had a tendency toward higher perceived age compared to non-diabetics. And also in non-diabetic participants, higher glucose levels were associated with higher perceived age.

The researchers concluded that exposure to high blood glucose levels may indeed cause premature ageing of the skin. These results confirm how important a well-regulated blood glucose level is for wellbeing and health in this age category, Diana van Heemst of the LUMC team said.

Follow a low-GI diet

The glycaemic index (GI) is a useful a tool for controlling blood glucose levels. This tool is based on the fact that carbohydrate-rich foods don’t all produce the same rise in blood glucose and insulin levels.

Some foods are “high GI”, i.e. they cause an instant spike in blood glucose and insulin levels, while others are “low GI”, which means they have a more gradual effect on blood glucose and insulin levels.

The idea is to aim for a low GI diet, as this keeps blood glucose and insulin levels on an even keel. This, in turn, is associated with many health benefits, including a more youthful-looking skin.

Dr. Ingrid van Heerden, a registered dietician from South Africa, says to lower the GI of a meal, you can do the following:

-    Add vegetables to a starchy meal. For example, eat roasted vegetables with a potato. The fibre in the vegetables lowers the GI of the potato (a high GI food).
-    Cook starches and cool them down to lower their GI. For example, cold porridge has a lower GI than hot porridge, and cold potato salad has a lower GI than hot boiled potatoes.
-    Select foods that are less ripe, for example a firm, yellow banana has a lower GI than a soft, ripe, mushy banana.
-    Add organic acids like vinegar to high starch meals. For example, serve salad with a bit of oil and vinegar to lower the GI of the starch in the meal.
-    Use what’s called the “second-meal effect” to lower the GI of your diet. By eating foods with a low GI at breakfast (high fibre cereal, milk and orange juice), the effect carries over to lunch.
-    Add legumes to meals to lower the GI. Fibre-rich dry beans, peas and lentils, tinned beans, bean soup, and textured vegetable protein will all lower the GI of a meal.
-    Add protein to meals and snacks, as this also lowers the GI of high GI foods.

Read: Skin-care basics for your new baby

Nutrients for a healthier skin

But while a balanced, low GI diet should be part of everyone’s daily routine, the situation is much different in reality – especially among younger people.

A 2014 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has revealed that the country’s teens and young adults consume more soft drinks, burgers and chips than any other age group. These are all nutrient-poor foods that generally have a high GI.

On a typical day in Australia, 1 in 4 teenage males consumes a burger compared with around only 1 in 14 for the whole population. The report also recorded that rates of consumption of fruit and vegetables for teenagers and young adults were relatively low.

Across these age groups, around 40% of males and 50% of females consumed fruit compared with 60% for the whole population.

Sadly, an unhealthy diet early in life could possibly lead to premature ageing.

“Fresh foods and produce that contain vitamins, powerful antioxidants such as flavonoids, beta-carotene and lycopene (which help guard against UV-induced redness), polyphenols (which protect against sun damage) and omega-3 essential fatty acids are beneficial to the skin,” says Dr Ian Webster, a Cape Town-based dermatologist.

Dr Webster notes that omega-3 essential fatty acids provide anti-inflammatory relief in the body. “Inflammation is one of the causes of ageing in general and should be avoided for optimum health,” he says.

Antioxidants are nutrients and enzymes that can help to prevent and repair damage caused to the cells by free radicals (e.g. from smoking or pollution).

“When you eat foods rich in antioxidants, you help prevent the effects of free radicals, which cause oxidation,” says Dr Ronald Prior in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Oxidation is a process that causes damage to the body’s cells. If you’ve seen a peeled apple turn brown, you’ve seen oxidation in action. Antioxidants help counter the process of oxidation, blocking the harmful effects of free radicals.

Vitamin E, which is found in most fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts, is one of the most important antioxidants when it comes to skin health and fighting the effects of free radicals. Additionally, it can absorb the energy from harmful ultraviolet light.

Read: A natural approach to cellulite

Go for these foods

Summer offers the perfect opportunity to eat healthily in order to enhance skin health and wellness. Dr Webster recommends the following nutrient-rich foods for a healthy skin:

•    Water (spring or filtered), which is much better than sweetened and fizzy drinks
•    Bright green vegetables such as spinach, kale, watercress and asparagus, all of which are rich in antioxidants
•    Bright red and orange fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, red peppers, mangoes, watermelon, which contain lycopene or beta carotene, two powerful antioxidants
•    Fresh salmon, tuna and calamari, which are good sources of omega-3 and protein
•    Chicken and lean beef are other healthy sources of protein, which help to lower the GI of meals.
•    Eggs are an excellent source of protein and omega-3 essential fatty acids.
•    Nuts and seeds – another great source of omega-3 essential fatty acids
•    Almond milk, which contains vitamin E that helps to combat free radicals. Almond milk also contains vitamin B12, which helps to hydrate and nourish the skin.
•    Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and mixed berries, which contain high levels of antioxidants
•    Healthy fats such as virgin olive oil, coconut oil, grape seed oil, avocados and avocado oil

Read More:

Your lifestyle and your skin

How Kim Kardashian covers up her psoriasis

5 steps to blemish-free healthy skin

Image: Natural homemade fruit facial from Shutterstock


Doctor Lushen Pillay, Dermatologist; Looking older: the effect of higher blood sugar levels (LUMC/Unilever Study); Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar; Doctor Ian Webster; Dr Ingrid van Heerden, Health24The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 9th edition, June 2004. Ronald L. Prior


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