These days, anti-aging cosmetics can seem more like food than beauty potions: Everything from pomegranate to soy is being infused into creams, cleansers, and serums. But applying products on your skin's surface is no substitute for actually eating the foods that will nurture your skin from the inside out. "Nutrition plays an important part in limiting the aging process and helping to protect against damage from UV rays, the number one cause of lines and wrinkles," says Adam Friedman, M.D., director of dermatologic research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
It goes beyond simple healthy eating: New research has pinpointed specific nutrients that help prevent harm from environmental factors, hydrate your complexion, and keep your skin cells functioning properly. These beauty boosters are front and center in our eating plan (pages 80 — 81). All are easy to incorporate into your meals and also, as it happens, potent disease fighters that are diet-friendly. So while you're eating for a smoother, brighter complexion, you'll be helping to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes — and on the way to dropping up to 10 pounds in four weeks as well.
Now that should give you a happy glow.
VITAMIN C FOODS
Beauty benefit: What would dermatologists find if they were to examine the skin of women over 40 for signs of aging and then look at the results against those women's diets? That's exactly what 101 derms did in a British study of 4,025 women ages 40 to 74. What the docs saw: Women with higher intakes of vitamin C also had fewer wrinkles and less dry skin. It makes sense, because vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can quench free radicals — unstable atoms and molecules in your body that harm cells. "Antioxidants prevent damage to cells and to cell DNA that can interfere with the production of collagen, the main supporting structure for your skin," explains Dr. Friedman.
What to put on your plate: Aim for enough C-rich foods to get 75 mg a day. One orange for breakfast and five strips of yellow pepper in a lunchtime salad will get you there. So will a cup of broccoli with dinner and a bowl of strawberries for dessert. Citrus fruits, red pepper, tomatoes, kale, and melon are good sources of C. For an extra skin boost, try blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, and pomegranate — beyond vitamin C, they contain ellagic acid, which may counter the deleterious effects of UV rays.
BEAUTY BENEFIT In the 101 dermatologists' study, women with lower protein intakes also had a more wrinkled appearance. "Protein provides the building blocks of collagen," says F. William Danby, M.D., adjunct assistant professor of surgery (dermatology) at Dartmouth Medical School. As collagen and other proteins break down, the skin essentially folds into itself, creating wrinkles and lines. Your skin will make collagen whether you dine on marbled steaks or skinless chicken breasts, but the leaner choice can help keep weight down.
WHAT TO PUT ON YOUR PLATE Skinless poultry, egg whites, and fish are good lean-protein choices. When choosing beef or pork, go for lower-fat cuts such as loin and round. Consider tofu, too: The research isn't definitive, but a small Japanese study found that women who consumed soy extract for 12 weeks showed improvement in fine lines around their eyes as well as greater elasticity in their skin.
Beauty benefit: Sea fare like tuna and salmon brings to the table a hefty dose of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help guard against sun damage. In studies of mice, the fats significantly reduced inflammation and other immunological responses to sunlight that degrade collagen and, more worrisomely, can trigger skin cancer. And three British studies showed that omega-3s can protect against sunburn in humans, too. What to put on your plate: Try to get at least two four-ounce servings of omega-3 — rich seafood a week. Besides salmon and tuna (albacore), good choices include mackerel, herring, sardines, and lake trout. If you're not partial to fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, canola oil, pumpkin seeds, and tofu contain a compound (ALA) that the body converts into a similar type of beneficial omega fatty acid — though it takes a lot more ALA to get adequate amounts of these "good" omegas.
Beauty benefit: When you replace the white rice, white-flour breads and cakes, and other refined grains in your diet with whole grains, you immediately reap a benefit. "Refined grains can raise insulin levels, which in turn causes inflammation that damages the skin," says Dr. Friedman. Also, whole grains are a good source of selenium — a mineral that helps protect against injury from UV rays. Beyond the beauty-related payoffs, a 2009 Australian and Dutch study found that higher concentrations of selenium in the blood were associated with about a 60% lower incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers.
What to put on your plate: Grains rich in selenium include brown rice, oatmeal, barley, and whole wheat. Limiting yourself to the recommended three to five servings a day will net you a helpful serving of the mineral without packing on the calories that can add up quickly with high-carb foods. Brazil nuts, beef, eggs, and turkey, as well as tuna, sardines, and salmon, also deliver selenium.
Beauty benefit: The yellow, orange, and red pigments found in fruits and vegetables (as well as some herbs and spices) are carotenoids, antioxidants that destroy free radicals (and are most likely the reason people with high concentrations of carotenoids in their skin are less furrowed than those with low levels). You're probably familiar with one carotenoid, beta-carotene. In addition to staunching free radicals, beta-carotene may help fight aging by increasing production of collagen and GAGs (glycosaminoglycans), which help your skin hold on to water. Lycopene is another carotenoid attracting attention. In a study published last year, researchers found that women who incorporated about two ounces of lycopene-rich tomato paste into their diets every day for 12 weeks sustained less skin damage when exposed to UV light than a control group that ate none.
What to put on your plate: Load up on cooked tomato sauces and tomato paste, your best sources of lycopene. Orange-tinted vegetables and fruits — carrots, cantaloupe, apricots, orange squash, and sweet potatoes — are all good sources of beta-carotene. So are such dark-green vegetables as spinach, kale, chard, and collard greens. (These also supply lutein, another important carotenoid.) For a soupçon more, add a few pinches of parsley, sage, rosemary, or coriander to your food. To increase your absorption of carotenoids, toss vegetables with avocado: One study found that eating salads combined with five ounces of avocado (one small to medium) increases the absorption of another carotenoid, alpha-carotene (7.2 times), as well as beta-carotene (15.3 times), and lutein (5.1 times).