The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Foods for Your Skin

We can nourish our skin both from the inside and outside. Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and staying hydrated can work wonders not only for our health but also for our skin, and can diminish the need to use lots of fancy (and expensive!) skin products. What you put on your plate may end up being more important than what you put on your skin!

Let’s start with The Bad.

These foods can lead to skin problems such as wrinkles, acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, etc:

  • Saturated fat (found in fatty meats, dairy products) and hydrogenated fat (found in margarine, processed foods) stimulate the production of insulin growth factor and other hormones which in turn stimulate sebaceous glands (oily glands in your skin) and acne-causing hormones.
  • Foods high in sugar disrupt the balance of your body’s proteins, including collagen.  Collagen depletes your skin’s elasticity and increases wrinkles.  In addition, foods with a high glycemic index (sugar, white flour, white rice, white pasta) stimulate insulin production, a trigger for acne development.
  • Salt:  Too much sodium can cause dehydration and fluid retention, especially showing in the bags under your eyes.
  • Weight Fluctuations:  Repeatedly losing and regaining weight can take its toll on your skin, causing sagging, wrinkles and stretch marks. Crash diets are often short in essential vitamins too. Over long periods of time this type of dieting will reflect on your skin
  • There is also some preliminary research* that shows that specific foods within these categories are particularly conducive to acne, including chocolate, greasy foods, soft drinks, and peanuts.

In addition to these foods, free radicals caused by smoking, pollution and sunlight destroy collagen and elastin, the fibers that support skin structure, resulting in wrinkles and other signs of aging. But not to worry! Read on to find out more about what you can do to combat these free radicals!

The Good.


Generally, eating a diet rich in whole foods and limited in processed foods is good both for your body and for your skin! The primary nutritional qualities in food that benefit skin are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities. Fruits and vegetables in particular contain powerful antioxidants that help to protect skin from the cellular damage and signs of aging caused by free radicals.

Her are some guidelines to get all the good skin nutrition you need:

  • Vitamin A and beta-carotene:  If these levels drop even a little below normal, you’re likely to see some skin-related symptoms, including a dry, flaky complexion. That’s because vitamin A is necessary for the maintenance and repair of skin tissue. Fruits and vegetables, specifically those that are orange, red and yellow such as carrots are loaded with vitamin A as are dairy products.
  • Vitamin C:  This vitamin counters the effects of sun exposure, strengthens the capillaries that supply the skin, helps blemishes heal, and reduces the damage from free radicals. The best sources are blackcurrants, blueberries, broccoli, guava, kiwi fruits, oranges, papaya, strawberries and sweet potatoes.
  • Vitamin E:  Like vitamin C, this vitamin helps reduce the harmful effects of sun exposure by protecting skin from oxidative cell damage.  Vitamin E can also help reduce wrinkles and make your skin look and feel smoother.  Foods high in vitamin E include almonds, avocado, hazelnuts, pine nuts and sunflower and corn oils.
  • Low GI carbs such as beans, vegetables and other slow-releasing carbs keep your blood glucose level steady and decrease the production of excess insulin. High GI foods damage collagen and increase wrinkles.
  • Essential Fatty Acids:  Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – the types found in avocados, fish, nuts, seeds and seed oils – provide essential fatty acids which act as a natural moisturizer for your skin, keeping it supple. These fats also fortify the cell membranes, which in turn helps prevent harmful substances from getting in (like the stuff of white heads and black heads) and helps remove waste. In particular, Omega 3 fats are anti-inflammatory, which helps with conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Without an adequate supply of essential fatty acids, the skin produces a more irritating form of sebum or oil, which can result in problems like dryness, redness and acne, so don’t be afraid of these healthy fats! TIP: When choosing oils, go for cold pressed, expeller pressed or extra virgin to get the least chemical processing and the most retained nutrition.
  • Vitamin B complex (especially biotin):  When it comes to skin, the single most important B vitamin is biotin since it forms the basis of skin, nail, and hair cells. Without adequate amounts, you may end up with itchy, scaly skin or even hair loss. Even a mild deficiency causes symptoms. Your body makes plenty of biotin, and the nutrient is also present in many foods, including bananas, eggs, oatmeal, and rice. Folate, another B vitamin, is found in leafy greens and helps protect against skin cancer.
  • Selenium:  If you spend time in the sun, this antioxidant mineral could reduce your chance of burning, lowering your risk of skin cancer. Taken in supplement form or in a cream, it protects skin from sun damage and age spots. The best dietary sources of selenium include brazil nuts, whole-grain cereals, wheat germ, seafood, garlic, turkey and eggs.
  • Zinc:  Another skin-friendly mineral is zinc, important if you have acne. In fact, sometimes acne itself is a symptom of a zinc deficiency.  It is involved in the normal functioning of the sebaceous glands in the skin which produce oil. Food sources of zinc include whole grains, nuts and seeds, oysters, lean meat, and poultry.
  • Alpha-Lipoic Acid:  A powerful antioxidant that is hundreds of times more potent that either vitamin C or E. Alpha-lipoic acid neutralizes skin cell damage caused by free radicals and it may turn out to be a super boost for aging skin. What makes it so special, say skin experts, is its ability to penetrate both oil and water, affecting skin cells from both the inside and the outside of the body. Most other antioxidants can do one but not both. For maximum potency, alpha-lipoic acid typically comes in a supplement pill, but some foods that contain moderate levels are yeast, liver, kidney, spinach, broccoli, and potatoes.
  • Other antioxidants and phytonutrients worth mentioning:
    • Polyphenols are anti-oxidants found in green tea and avocados. They are anti-inflammatory and help prevent damage from sun.
    • Lycopene is a antioxidant found in tomatoes which helps protect against skin cancer.
    • Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and also plums have the highest antioxidant content according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
  • Last but not least…WATER! Skin needs moisture to stay flexible. Even mild dehydration will cause your skin to look dry and tired.  Drink six to eight glasses of water a day – all non-caffeinated fluids count towards your daily allowance, but water is the best.  Herbal teas are good too. Excessive alcohol consumption dehydrates causing the skin to age.

The old adage “you are what you eat” not only applies to our overall health and nutrition, but how our skin looks and feels as well. As the largest organ in the body, our skin can benefit from the same nutrition we get from foods and help us to feel and look good at the same time!

* “Low-Glycemic-Load Diet May Improve Acne in Young Men,” published in the July 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

DSC01005Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.

Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at

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