Maybe you can't completely avoid the ravages of time, but you can ward
off the signs of damage on your skin by eating the right foods.
By her own admission—and most other people’s too—Dawn Spencer looks great for her age. At 67, she’s got the smooth skin and animated demeanor of a person decades younger. With hair past her shoulders and a weight that hovers around 114 pounds, she is sometimes mistaken for a woman in her 40s. While most people her age retire, she works full-time as an administrator, volunteers for the local humane society and community library, and skis or swims nearly every weekend. When asked why she looks so young for her age, Dawn points to the one constant in her life: a healthy diet.
When it comes to protecting skin externally from the signs of aging, most of us know the drill: Slather on sunscreen and moisturizer, and steer clear of tanning beds. What some of us don’t consider is that wrinkles also generate from within the body when exposure to free radicals, oxygen fragments that attack cell membranes, damage healthy cells. These harmful compounds wreak internal havoc, contributing to degenerative diseases and the facial lines we dread.
Free radicals are activated by a range of environmental pollutants, including car exhaust, chemicals released from carpet and paint, smoking and, primarily, overexposure to the sun. Many of these destructive molecules are also generated from a source you may not suspect: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most foods are beset with chemicals that trigger free radicals, including antibiotic residues found in meat, milk and cheese, and the herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and preservatives used in processed foods and produce that is not grown organically.
While it’s impossible to elude free radical damage entirely, avoiding these types of foods and choosing a healthy diet may put the brakes on aging. Dawn can’t trace her unlined skin to genetics, but she can attribute it to lifestyle. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Dawn thrives on a diet of organic whole grains, vegetables, fruits and soy products, and ate deep-sea fish for many years. “Somehow I knew my diet would pay off,” she says.
The correlation between free radicals and aging is well-established, and skin is especially susceptible to free radical damage. What you see in the mirror as aging skin is actually damaged collagen and elastin, the fibrous proteins that give skin its youthful appearance, which inevitably leads to wrinkles, brown spots, flabby skin, droopy eyelids and chin lines.
While a healthy diet can’t guarantee you’ll look 28 when you’re 50, chances are you’ll look and feel better, since people who consume diets loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables have lower disease rates, more energy and less risk for weight gain than those who skip these foods. The right diet fights aging on two levels: first, by preventing the damage that comes from consuming processed and non-organic foods and, second, by fighting the free radical damage that stems from other environmental sources. That’s because fresh, healthy foods are rich in antioxidants, the nemesis of everything free radical.
Acting as a go-between, antioxidants interact with and soothe angry free radicals, convincing them to lay off your cell membranes. They do this by binding with these unstable oxygen molecules and providing the missing electron they seek. Commonly known as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, C and E, antioxidants are found in whole grains, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, nuts, healthy oils including olive oil, and some fish, meat and poultry.
“If our food affects our internal health, then it stands to reason that it affects our external health, too—our skin,” says Andrea Beaman, HHC, AADP (Holistic Health Counselor, American Association of Drugless Practitioners). “The skin is not separate from the rest of the body, so what affects us on the inside, affects us on the outside. It’s common sense.”
In a study that encompassed citizens from sun-drenched Australia all the way to sun-deprived Sweden, researchers confirmed that smokers, non-smokers and dark- and fair-skinned people alike who loaded their plates with wholesome foods but passed on confections were less prone to wrinkling. The study, published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition, concludes that foods high in antioxidants naturally stave off free radical damage.
Prunes, or dried plums, topped the list, with a higher concentration of protective antioxidants than any other fruit. A high intake of meat, dairy, butter and sugar products appeared to accelerate lines, furrows and sagging skin, while those who dined primarily on vegetables, legumes, olive oil, nuts, fish, fruits, apples and tea had fewer wrinkles and less sun-damaged skin.
Though our bodies generate their own antioxidant enzymes they subside over time, explaining our need for antioxidant-containing foods. A diet lacking these nutrients can weaken our immune system, resulting in aging, wrinkled skin and a breakdown in the ability to fend off illnesses, including cancer and heart disease. Consequently, both the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society recommend a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods.
“If we live and eat healthily, we can control to a certain extent how we age,” says Michelle Meyer, a holistic health counselor based in New York City. “Foods rich in beta-carotene and vitamins C and E restore health to the tissues.” These include apricots, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, garlic, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, yellow squash, berries, avocado, cantaloupe, grapefruit, lemons, mangos and onions. For those with a sweet tooth, take note: Dark chocolate has been found to be high in anti- oxidants too—just don’t overindulge. Meyer also suggests at least two liters of water a day to keep skin hydrated and to flush toxins away. “Any deficiency will lead to unbalanced skin, which will lead to premature breakdown and premature aging.”
If good skin is an inside job, Beaman thinks she has one of the secrets to a smooth epidermis: organic foods. At her practice, Holistic Health Counseling, also in New York City, Beaman urges all her clients to go organic. “Chemicals, pesticides and nitrates create excess free radicals in the body. Free radicals are a normal function in the body, but an overproduction can cause damage to tissues and cells and burden the immune system,” explains Beaman. “This weakens the body as a whole, creates stress and accelerates the aging process.”
As living plants absorb nutrients from the soil, they also take up pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, introducing toxins into the body that contribute to free radical formation and the appearance of wrinkles. Foods grown without these toxins are naturally high in antioxidants that assist your body in fighting off free radicals brought on by other sources. As Cherie Calbom, MS, author of The Wrinkle Cleanse (Avery), likes to say, “You might say organic produce is not only good for your health—it’s good for your face.”
In fact, research proves that organic fruits and vegetables are far superior at battling free radical damage than conventionally grown produce; a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reveals that, on average, organic produce contains 29% more magnesium, 27% more vitamin C and 21% more iron than traditional produce. What’s more, all 21 minerals were found to be significantly higher in organic produce as well.
“Organic food is imperative to overall good health and that includes the health of the skin,” says Beaman, a supporter of zinc-rich poppy, sunflower, pumpkin and caraway seeds, and the bioflavonoids (a type of antioxidant) found in blueberries, cherries, ginger and the white part of citrus fruits. “Organic whole foods do not contain chemicals, pesticides or nitrates and will not contribute to the free radical frenzy that has been implicated in premature aging.”
Some Like It Raw
Many proponents of the raw food diet say that uncooked food can fend off time’s claws, since cooking destroys some of the vitamins, enzymes, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals present in fruits and vegetables. One exception, however, is lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, which is better absorbed by the body when prepared as sauce or ketchup.
Eating some plant-based foods uncooked, including sprouts, herbs, nuts, seeds, lettuce, avocado, berries and other fruits, or preparing fresh juice each day, will supply the body with much-needed enzymes and nutrients, including antioxidants. Fans of raw foods, also known as living foods, say that a diet of almost exclusively raw foods and juices cleanses the body and provides a surplus of energy. “Raw foods will put a sparkle in your eye, add luster to your hair and a youthful freshness to your skin like nothing else can do,” says Calbom.
No matter how much raw food you integrate into your diet, removing as many processed foods as possible is also essential to good health and glowing skin. Not only do processed foods contain high levels of sodium, sugar, fat, preservatives and artificial colors and flavor, but the nutrient density of processed and packaged foods is anemic at best.
Heralded for its heart-healthy actions, fish is sometimes called a beauty food since it offers high concentrations of polyunsaturated fats called omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). All fish contain these fats, but deep-sea, cold-water fish, such as salmon, sea bass, tuna, trout, mackerel, herring and sardines, are particularly rich sources because of their diet: plankton packed with omega-3s.
Research indicates that fish may combat wrinkles since omega-3 oils are said to plump up the skin in addition to offering an array of other health benefits. Avoid farm-raised fish, which is a lesser source of EFAs and is often treated with artificial colors and antibiotics, and is higher in pesticides than wild fish.
Since fish sustainability is fragile, it’s important to be wary of culinary trends that can potentially wipe out certain species, and to be alert to EPA suggestions for fish consumption among children and women of child-bearing age, since many fish contain environmental pollutants. The American Heart Association Dietary Guidelines suggest two servings of fatty fish per week, in addition to EFA-rich soybean, canola, walnut and flaxseed oils, along with whole walnuts and flaxseeds.
Dietary adjustments can’t stop the aging process, but changes can certainly slow it down considerably. Wrinkle cure or not, a diet high in whole foods and organic fruits and vegetables is a wholesome way to approach health, weight loss and longevity, even if the initial motivation is driven by a desire to look better.
Everyone wants to age gracefully, and it’s empowering to know that looking and feeling young is more within your control than you think. Besides, our years, and our lines, make us the fully developed, complex creatures we are today.