Surely the best food for your skin is just food, right … fresh food?
Yes, says naturopath Lisa Guy, but some foods have special magic powers that transform your skin from blotchy and flawed to beautiful and flawless. Someone who knows that is Cameron Diaz, who went from fast-food junkie with acne to clear-skinned advocate for a healthy diet.
Well, Guy, the founder of Bodhi Organics, doesn’t say that exactly.
What she does say is this: “While all wholesome, natural foods play a role in promoting healthy skin, there are certain foods that contain high levels of important skin-nourishing nutrients like omega-3 fats, vitamins C, E and A, sulphur and antioxidants, which make them a particularly good choice for improving your skin’s health and reducing premature ageing.”
So, Diaz aside, it’s not just a matter of: if you’ve got great genes you can eat whatever you want and the rest of us are stuffed? “Genetics of course plays its part,” Guy admits.
And skincare? “What we put on our skin is also important,” she says. “Soaps and washes have a big influence on the skin’s surface pH, and increasing the skin’s pH makes it more alkaline and therefore more vulnerable to skin irritation and infections, including acne.”
But, she adds, “Eating a good, wholesome, nutrient-rich diet is paramount to promoting good health and radiant, youthful-looking skin.”
This means there is hope for all of us.
I asked a number of experts in different fields about the best foods to Cameron Diaz our diets and our skin. Here’s what they had to say (and they all have depressingly good complexions).
Jacqueline Alwill – nutritionist, wholefoods cook and mother – threw me a swifty with her top choice, because it’s not just the health properties that make her choose chamomile tea.
“Its calming, hydrating properties make it not only great for skin but also as part of a night-time ritual to help relax the body into sleep,” Alwill says. “And a good night’s rest is the best way to glowing skin.
“If I’m need of something extra after dinner, I’ll either make a pot of chamomile tea or, if there’s some left from a pot the night before, I’ll blend it into a smoothie with almond butter, cherries – a great source of melatonin to help induce that beauty sleep – and vanilla.”
We will get to solid edible things shortly, but let’s sing the praises of another drink first. Lisa Guy knows it’s cheating but she nominates green tea as the number-one skin “food” because “it’s rich in polyphenols – especially EGCG”.
EGCG is short for epigallocatechin gallate, the most powerful antioxidant in green tea. In addition to its abundant health benefits, EGCG helps to fight free radicals, which in turn helps to fight premature ageing of the skin. “It also slows down collagen and elastin breakdown in the skin, which keeps it looking more youthful.”
Naturopath and “herb nerd” Reece Carter is also a big fan of green tea, not just for its inside-out benefits but because the polyphenols it contains have antibacterial properties. So, if you let the tea cool down, you can use a cotton bud to dab it onto blemishes and clear up your skin externally.
Salmon, trout, tuna – all the experts I speak with are fanatical about fatty, oily fish, and all list salmon among their top three beauty foods (though they say tuna should not be eaten more than twice a week).
“Wild salmon is a rich source of omega-3s and anti-inflammatories, and it soothes the skin,” says naturopath and herbalist Anthia Koullouros. “I enjoy it once a week.”
We need good levels of omega-3s to keep the skin soft and supple. This is because omega-3s make up part of the cell membrane, says Carter, adding:
“They also decrease redness in general.”
Says Alwill, “These fatty fishes are also rich in zinc, a mineral that’s vital for hundreds of biochemical pathways in the body, including those that restore skin damage and maintain normal function of the sebaceous glands.”
Less is not only more when it comes to beautifying externally, the same maxim works internally, too – at least with the humble Brazil nut.
“You only need two or three a day to get high levels of selenium, which helps the body generate its own antioxidant, glutathione,” Carter explains. “Brazil nuts also have plenty of zinc, which is good for general skin health as well as for healing wounds.”
Broth and gelatin
The vegetarians among us, myself included, are making life more difficult for our skin, according to Koullouros. “Beef gelatin is rich in collagen, which supplies amino acids, glycine and proline, all of which are important for healthy-looking skin. Bone stock broths are also rich in collagen. I drink broths every day.”
So does Alwill. “Broth is a fancy way of saying stock, and chicken soup has long been regarded as a remedy for so many ailments,” she explains.
“But I love it for skin because the slow-cooking of the chicken bones releases the collagen into the water. This collagen increases the stores in our body, feeding it to the skin cells and giving skin that gorgeous lift we all yearn for.”
Which explains why people inject the stuff. But yo, try eating it instead!
Berries and pomegranate
Both are really high in an antioxidant even the experts have difficulty pronouncing: anthocyanin, which also produces the deep red colour of pomegranates and many berries. “It helps protect the skin from free-radical damage,” Guy explains. “And the vitamin C boosts the collagen in the skin.”
Carter recommends all kinds of berries and also loves their combination of vitamin C and antioxidants. “You get the double whammy,” he says.
Alwill bathes in the stuff. Well, almost. “I’m not going to lie here, I often put the olive oil I use in my food directly on to my skin, too,” she says. “That’s the beauty of natural ingredients. The vitamin E present in olive oil supports the repair of dry and damaged skin when ingested or applied topically. It’s also delicious, which is a bonus.”
She adds that an indirect benefit is that healthy fats such as olive oil (extra virgin only if you want the full health benefits) help to stabilise blood-glucose levels.
What has this got to do with skin? “It means we’re not reaching for sugar-rich and carb-rich snacks between meals, which can be detrimental to our skin.”
From the mustard family, brassicas include radishes, turnips, swedes, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbage. Oh, and that hipster ingredient that’s great for our skin, if not our taste buds: kale. No wonder it’s become ubiquitous in everything from our smoothies to our dinner bowls
“Brassicas contain sulphur, which is really important for producing collagen, which helps tone and structure,” Guy explains, adding that fermenting these vegetables – think kim chi and sauerkraut – helps to turbo-charge this effect.
Micro herbs and flowers are not just a trend in our food scene, they are a trend in our skin scene. If you’re plucking flowers and herbs from the garden and adding them to your plates, it might pretty up the food pictures on your Instagram feed (because that’s all that matters right, along with skin-airbrushing apps!) as well as your skin.
“Organic herbs such as parsley, coriander, basil, mint, oregano, thyme and sage have traditionally been used because they’re rich sources of chlorophyll, beta-carotene and minerals, and because they have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties,” says Koullouros. “They’re excellent for skin health. I use a handful in meals twice a day.”
Carter adds that freshly picked marigolds, or the slightly more obscure burdock root, can make a tasty, skin-friendly tea. “It’s wonderful for boosting the lymphatic system and circulation just under the skin.”
Two things please me about the experts’ food choices. The first is that they are, for the most part, ordinary foods with names we can pronounce (I was semi-expecting a show of naturopathic one-upmanship, a battle involving exotic roots from the Himalayas or various forms of marine plasma). And the second is that they’re affordable and readily available.
This is epitomised by the humble carrot, one of Guy’s favourite skin foods. “Carrots are high in beta-carotene, which turns to vitamin A,” she explains.
Vitamin A is the skin’s “superfood”, as it stimulates collagen and elastin, as well as normalising blood flow to reduce the appearance of redness and increase the speed at which wounds heal.
But don’t go bananas on the carrots: a couple a day are enough to benefit your complexion and eating too many can have an adverse effect on your skin. “I’ve had some orange clients,” Guy admits.