Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Reader's Question: I keep hearing that your diet can affect your skin. Is this true? If I cut out sugar and processed foods, can I really reduce my wrinkles?
Sue's Response: Sugar is an easy target. We know what it does to teeth. So when doctors claim that there are concrete links between sugar consumption and wrinkles, we're quick to jump on the bandwagon and forego the pleasure of dessert in exchange for smooth, line-free skin.
But is it really that simple? Is the secret to perfect skin just a matter of eating right and avoiding certain foods?
Skin isn't just a nice packaging detail. It's the largest human organ. It makes sense that our dietary habits do affect our skin, but there's no cure-all menu for eating your way to perfect skin. While a pristine complexion doesn't hinge entirely on what you eat and what you avoid, there are some nutrients (and non-nutrients) that do affect your skin simply by affecting your body.
Healthy fats - Not all fats were created equal. While you don't want to start eating every cream-filled doughnut in sight, certain kinds of fats can do some good. Skin needs essential fatty acids in order to work properly and it's been proven that omega-3 fatty acids (found primarily in fish, but also in flaxseed and olive oils and walnuts) can boost our skin health.
Iron - It's no secret that iron is essential. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in humans. Since it carries oxygen from the lungs to all areas of the body, an insufficient amount of iron can often cause fatigue and increased paleness in the skin. Red meat, beans, fortified cereals and spinach are some examples of iron-rich foods.
Water - This may seem like a no-brainer, but a recent survey led by an independent research group concluded that only 34% of Americans drink enough water. Compared to the 75% who are aware of the recommended amount of water intake per day, this number is shockingly low. 10% of Americans even admit that they drink no water at all. In addition to keeping our bodies functioning properly, drinking enough water can improve skin's appearance. When our bodies are well-hydrated, they perspire more efficiently, leaving skin clean and unclogged. Doctors advise drinking 8-10 glasses a day and more if you exercise or the weather is extremely hot.
Caffeine - While 34% of us don't drink enough water, the same study shows that the average American drinks six servings of caffeinated beverages (such as coffee and soda) on a daily basis. Caffeine leaches water out of our bodies and makes it more difficult for us to maintain an adequate hydration level. Dehydrated skin can often flake and appear sallow. However, a new study from Rutgers University shows that a combination of caffeine and exercise can help destroy precancerous cells. Given this news, it's not immediately necessary to cut out coffee completely, but doctors do recommend a limit of three cups (actual cups, not Starbucks cups) per day.
Alcohol - That one glass of wine at dinner may not seem to affect you, but avoid drinking more than that. Like caffeine, alcohol dehydrates the body and makes it difficult for skin to maintain sufficient levels of hydration. In addition, alcohol causes blood vessels in the skin to dilate, creating a feeling of warmth that can aggravate a variety of skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis and acne.
Sugars - Today, many doctors believe that sugar can cause wrinkles. How? Some researchers claim that excess sugar reacts with proteins in the skin, resulting in a breakdown of collagen. This triggers wrinkles since collagen is responsible for keeping our skin firm and elastic. While some doctors emphasize that this research is inconclusive, staying away from sugar and processed foods won't hurt. Stick with fruits, whole-grain breads and pastas. You can lower the possibility of sugar-induced wrinkles and keep your waistline and teeth happy.