The Anti-Wrinkle Diet: The Science Behind Whole Foods for Better Skin Health
Updated: Aug 18
Research in the field of diet and dermatology has exploded within the last decade. While dermatologists have long known about the link between dietary factors and skin changes, we're now starting to understand how these are actually connected on a molecular level.
I've been a dermatologist for over 20 years, and every year I see more research published on this area. Truly, the scientific research supporting the link between certain foods and better skin is just fascinating.
I've written about this topic in medical journals, including this article on an anti-wrinkle diet, written for physicians. I'm also the author of a book on this subject, Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet.
In this post, I'm going to provide an overview of the foods and eating patterns that make for an anti-wrinkle diet, as well as review the science behind why these foods are so beneficial for your skin health.
Is this new information?
Not at all. We've actually known for decades that our internal health and our skin health are closely related.
One of the warning signs of diabetes is a darkening of the skin of the neck. This is known as acanthosis nigricans, and it indicates that the body isn't responding to insulin as well as it should (known as insulin resistance). When dermatologists diagnose acanthosis nigricans, we counsel our patients that skin creams or laser treatments are not very effective. This noticeable skin darkening is due to internal causes, and dietary changes are the key treatment.
It's also well-known that persons with diabetes have impaired wound healing. Their skin doesn't heal as well, due to changes in blood vessels and collagen.
Those same changes can accelerate the skin aging process.
So while the information isn't new, it's being studied much more intensively than ever before. Researchers have made great strides in uncovering some of the molecular mechanisms that link diet and the skin.
Why does our skin age?
Some of the skin aging process has to do with what are known as intrinsic factors, such as the passage of time and our genetic makeup. Much of skin aging, though, is due to external factors.
The one that most of us are familiar with is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sun exposure. We've all seen actors on the big screen with this kind of skin aging – leathery, rough, deeply creased skin.
Smoking is another big factor. Think of a smoker you know: smoker's lines are those deep creases around the mouth, and they're notoriously difficult to treat.
Physical forces can also impact our skin-think of smile lines and frown lines. Of course, one of the biggest physical factors affecting our skin is that of gravity. Your skin eventually starts to sag and jowl because the collagen framework of your skin can no longer fight gravity as well.
When I started thinking about these factors, it made me wonder if there was any way to protect against these effects. Were there any foods that could protect against the damaging effects of UV radiation? Was there any way to strengthen the collagen so that it could better withstand the forces of gravity?
It turns out that yes, dietary changes can actually protect you from some of the forces that accelerate aging of the skin.
Diet, it turns out, is an important component of preventive dermatology.
What are the visible signs of aging? (read more here)
Are there any foods that can combat these visible signs of skin aging? Yes.
Our dietary choices have a large impact on our overall health and wellness. They have a large impact on our skin health as well.
It's very easy to lose sight of this when the magazine ads promote all sorts of quick fixes for our aging skin. Try this cream. Use this serum. Subject yourself to this injection. Try this laser treatment. While many anti-aging treatments are effective, you do need to recognize that many of them are quick fixes.
We can't just focus on the quick fixes. It's very, very important to think about prevention. We need to focus on preventing further skin damage and skin aging.
That means sun protection, and it ALSO means the right foods. Or, as I like to say, eat your way to better skin.
Eat Your Way to Better Skin
What are the keys to this approach?
Eat power. Specifically, eat more foods that provide power. Certain foods contain the types of powerful nutrients that promote youthful skin. These include nutrients such as dietary antioxidants, power fats, and power carbs.
Stop sugar spikes. We know that elevated levels of blood sugar can damage the collagen in our skin, ultimately leading to a loss of elasticity and wrinkling, sagging skin.
Stop skin sabotage. Limit added sugars in your diet, and replace processed refined carbohydrates with power carbs such as whole grains, beans, and lentils. Also avoid trans fats as well as deep-fried foods that contain collagen-damaging substances.
1. EAT POWER
What do I mean by "eat power"? This means eating foods that are rich in powerful nutrients.
These are 6 categories of foods that have been shown to help the skin.
1. Foods that are naturally high in antioxidants: this includes such foods as herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables, and green tea.
2. Power carbs: food such as whole grains, beans, and lentils that contain carbohydrates wrapped up in a package with antioxidants, fiber, and protein.
3. Power fats: this includes certain MUFAs and PUFAs.
4. Anti-glycation foods: multiple herbs and spices have been shown to protect our collagen by fighting the process of glycation
5. Probiotic foods: Foods that contain live, active cultures of "good" bacteria
6. Prebiotic foods: Foods that naturally promote the growth of good bacteria in our gut. The fiber found in certain vegetables can be a powerful prebiotic.
How do these powerful nutrients help the skin? (read more here)
2. STOP SUGAR SPIKES
Foods that cause sugar spikes can lead to sugar sag, so focus on foods that help to stabilize blood sugar levels.
Foods that cause a spike in the level of sugar in your blood stream can also cause collagen damage. This is due to a process known as glycation.
In this process, elevated levels of sugar can attach to proteins in the skin to form harmful molecules. These molecules are called advanced glycation end products, which researchers call (very fittingly) AGEs. The proteins in the skin that are most impacted are collagen and elastin fibers.
The process of glycation results in cross-linking of these fibers, which means they become more brittle. Our bodies also lose the ability to repair collagen that's been glycated. This ultimately results in a loss of elasticity, or the ability of skin to bounce back. This in turn accelerates sagging and wrinkling of the skin. In a vicious cycle, this process accelerates as we age. This process is also more common in skin that's exposed to UV radiation.
To protect your youthful collagen, then, it's very important to stop sugar spikes. In fact, studies have shown that strictly controlling blood sugar levels over a four-month period can result in a reduction of glycated collagen formation by 25%.
For more on the science behind sugar sag, read here.
How can you stop sugar spikes?
The main recommendation is to focus on unprocessed foods and foods naturally high in fiber. This acts to slow down harmful sugar spikes, since the fiber in vegetables and whole grains acts to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.
Eating carbohydrates in the presence of protein and fiber and fat can also help slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream. That's why power carbs such as whole grains, beans, and lentils are so helpful-they naturally contain fiber and protein that acts to slow down sugar release.
Avoiding foods with high added sugars is an obvious way to combat sugar spikes. While most of us know that cakes and cookies are obvious sources of added sugars, it's sometimes surprising to see the sugar content of so-called "healthy" iced teas or "green" juices.
Avoiding refined carbohydrates is also important, since refined carbohydrates are digested quickly and promote the quick release of blood sugar into the bloodstream. That means limiting our consumption of foods like white bread, white pasta, and white rice. To produce these foods, manufacturers start with whole foods and then process them to strip away some very powerful nutrients, including fiber and antioxidants and protein. (Why would they REMOVE these nutrients? Doing so makes the food last longer on a shelf. Also, since so many Americans have become used to processed foods like these, manufacturers continue to sell them this way.)
3. STOP SKIN SABOTAGE
AGEs that you eat can age your skin.
I've discussed blood sugar spikes as a trigger of collagen damage, due to the production of AGEs. Interestingly, you can actually consume AGEs in your diet, which also leads to skin damage. Foods that have been deep-fried, or grilled at high temperatures, have been shown to contain preformed AGEs.
For more on how to stop skin sabotage, read here.
Putting It Into Practice: Translating the Science to the Dinner Plate
This introduction to the topic of an anti-wrinkle diet has focused on the molecular mechanisms behind the dietary recommendations.
What about the dietary recommendations?
I don't believe there's one perfect skin food, and I definitely don't believe there's a perfect skin supplement. There is, though, a recommended pattern of eating, and it focuses on minimally or unprocessed foods over the highly processed foods that so many Americans rely upon. This diet is for the long-term, and it relies on a hefty dose of vegetables, along with a variety of foods that provide powerful nutrients.
This is the type of dietary pattern that's supported by the research behind the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet, and it's the same type of diet we recommend to promote skin health.
For more details on these dietary recommendations, read here.
For more on the science, please see this medical journal article I wrote on "The Anti-Wrinkle Diet: Nutritional Strategies to Combat Oxidation, Inflammation, and Glycation"