Serving Up Healthy Skin

Serving Up Healthy Skin

Sharon Palmer, R.D.
If consumers were to believe some advertisers, they’d be slathering on vitamin creams and popping dietary supplements to magically erase wrinkles, blemishes and blotches. However, many discover that the supplement that they splurged on didn’t seem to make a difference in their image, thus concluding that nutrition has little impact on skin. But health professionals have long known that a nutritionally vacuous diet produces a dismal outlook for a healthy visage.

Perhaps the secret for eating one’s way to a peachy complexion is not that mystical. Consuming a nutritionally balanced diet with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, seeds, grains, nuts, quality protein sources, a moderate intake of plant-based fats, and limited refined carbohydrates is reflected in a healthy appearance. Even though a healthful diet may not be packaged with a glamorous label, the relationship between nutrients and skin function has been a long, happy one.

Skin-deep nutrients
Many experts agree that the most damaging factor to skin is exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays and the resulting free radicals. Beta-carotenes are touted as a natural protector from the damage of solar radiation and as an antioxidant, rounding up free radicals in the body. Studies have shown the protective effects of beta-carotene against skin photo damage. Beta-carotene forms vitamin A, a carotenoid found in deep yellow, orange and red foods — such as peaches, apricots, mangos, cantaloupes, carrots, red and yellow peppers, and sweet potatoes — and some green vegetables — such as broccoli, kale and spinach. Vitamin E, an antioxidant found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, wheat germ and leafy green vegetables, also counteracts free radicals.

In addition to its collagen-producing benefits, wound-healing functions and infection-protection abilities, vitamin C is also an important antioxidant for skin. Found in fresh fruits and vegetables, it may be destroyed by high temperatures or oxidation.

Classic symptoms of vitamin B2, niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 deficiencies are visible in skin disorders. These vitamins are primarily found in milk products; beef; poultry; fish; organ meats; enriched and whole-grain products; green, leafy vegetables; legumes; and nuts.

Digging into minerals also uncovers nutrients relevant to skin integrity. Zinc promotes cell production, tissue growth and repair, and is found in beef, wheat germ, crab, bran, tofu, sunflower seeds, black-eyed peas, almonds, milk, peanut butter, tuna, eggs, and whole-wheat bread. Selenium — found in seafood, liver, kidney and other meats — is another important antioxidant.

A plentiful intake of water, 8 to 12 cups per day, seems to be essential to moisten the skin, as dehydration is readily visible in the skin’s appearance. Caffeinated products serve as diuretics, thus counteracting water’s positive effects.

Face to face with nutrition
The world’s fascination with youth and beauty has brought some new dietary issues to the skin’s surface. To pinpoint foods associated with wrinkling, researchers from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, recently looked at cross-sectional food intakes in 453 adults aged 70 years and over in such countries as Australia, Greece and Sweden. The results strongly suggested that certain foods — such as monounsaturated fats, olive oil and olives, fish, reduced-fat milk and milk products, eggs, nuts, legumes, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, fruits, tea, and water — were associated with less skin wrinkling. Foods that were associated with more wrinkling included saturated fats, meats (especially fatty, processed meats), full-fat dairy products, soft drinks, cordials, cakes, pastries, desserts, potatoes, butter and margarine.

Other links between nutrition and skin are being explored. Animal studies point to green-tea polyphenols as an inhibitor of chemical carcinogens or UV-radiation-induced skin tumors. At the Colorado State University, Fort Collins, researchers theorize that highly processed breads and cereals are responsible for acne. Further research may tighten the connection between skin and these foods.

Beauty pills for the taking
With all of the data pouring in on nutrients that work from the inside out, it’s no surprise that the cosmetic industry plans to cash in on new cosmetic foods. The Laboratoires Inneov, a joint venture between L’Oreal and Nestle, is launching cosmetic nutritional supplements in March 2003 in certain European markets. Inneov Firmness, a formula of Lacto-Lycopene™ (with vitamin C and soy isoflavones), is targeted at women over 40 concerned with loss of cutaneous firmness. The clinical efficiency of the product was established through a double-blind clinical study.

But popping supplements to “cure” skin ailments concerns some nutrition experts. Cynthia Sass, M.A., R.D., L.D./N, national media spokesperson for The American Dietetic Association, Chicago, says, “I am concerned that adding skin performance to the list of reasons to use a dietary supplement will augment the potential misuse of supplements by consumers.”

With approximately 29,000 dietary supplements already on the market and 1,000 new supplements added each year, folks may not make safe decisions about choosing products. If consumers begin using dietary supplements for skincare purposes, they may inadvertently contraindicate prescribed medications, combine supplements resulting in a deleterious effect, or simply use ineffective products at a hefty price. Of particular concern is establishing safe levels of ingredients. For example, Sass notes the lack of information about the safety of soy-isoflavone supplements in high quantities. Excessive use of compounds in isolated, concentrated form is a real concern to the medical field that cries out for more thorough human testing to establish safety before the marketing campaign begins.

“A varied, balanced diet exposes your body to a variety of food chemicals, which is likely to result in neither too much nor too little of a particular nutrient or chemical, and will probably negate the need for supplements,” says Sass. Perhaps the best road to peachy skin is biting into the fruit itself.

Sharon Palmer is a registered dietitian with a 16-year career in healthcare food and nutrition management. She now focuses her interest in the world of journalism by working as a freelance writer, freelance editor, cookbook contributor and culinary instructor.

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