Food that makes you look younger: fact or fiction?
Throw away that expensive facial serum: glowing skin could be yours just by heading to the kitchen… Really? Berries and citrus fruit are ‘proven complexion perfecters’, and for stronger, glossier hair, an avocado a day will ‘help the follicles work more efficiently’.
If only life, ageless beauty (and health) were that simple, says a sceptical Sue Quinn.
Health and wellness websites are brimming with promises like these; that you can ‘get the glow’ by incorporating various ‘superfoods’ into your diet. Of course, what you eat and your appearance are connected: a well-balanced diet
will boost your chances of looking healthy. But claims that particular foods or diets can be magic bullets in your beauty arsenal are wrong and sometimes dangerous, according to dermatologists.
“I often hear that what you put in your mouth is going to have an effect on your skin, but the human body just doesn’t work that way,” says Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible (Penguin Life £14.99). “Food has to pass through the gut and some of it gets to our skin and some of it doesn’t. Diet is just a small part of the puzzle, along with sleep, alcohol, smoking, skincare and prescription treatments.”
Dr Mahto says there’s “a small amount of evidence” that some foods might have a role to play in managing chronic skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. For example, foods with anti-inflammatory properties, particularly those rich in omega 3 fats such as oily fish, seeds and nuts, might help some people when eaten as part of a wider treatment programme. It’s a different story, however, for people who aren’t nutritionally deficient.
Foods rich in vitamin C regularly appear on lists of those that are claimed to be ‘skin-perfecting’. This probably stems from the fact that our bodies need vitamin C to produce collagen, the protein that gives skin its structure. But healthy people who aren’t deficient have nothing to gain by eating copious amounts of it. “Eating lots of vitamin C isn’t going to give you loads of collagen because the body takes what it needs, and you pee out the rest,” Dr Mahto says.
The same applies to foods rich in vitamin A. While this nutrient can play a role in treating acne, the science is complex: vitamin A takes different forms and doses need to be high to be effective. “You would never be able to get enough of it in your diet to treat acne effectively.”
The collagen conundrum
Sadly, we can’t change the fact that collagen production decreases with age. After our mid-20s, levels fall by about 1 per cent per year and, for women, more rapidly after the menopause, resulting in fine lines, wrinkles and sagging skin. Dr Mahto says apart from including plenty of protein in your diet, there is nothing you can eat to encourage your body to produce more collagen. And she’s highly sceptical of drinks that claim to do this.
You can, however, reduce the risk of damaging your collagen by cutting back on sugary foods, including fruit, if you eat excessive amounts. Dr Mahto explains that when we eat lots of sweet foods, the sugar molecules bind to collagen, leading to an accumulation of proteins called advanced glycation end-products. These prevent collagen functioning properly. “I’m not saying cut out sugar altogether, but there’s evidence that sugar will cause accelerated ageing of your skin,” Dr Mahto says. She adds that ‘sugar’ includes so-called unrefined syrups such as honey and agave, as well as fruit.
And what about acne?
The connection between chocolate and acne has been hotly debated for decades. Until the 1960s, doctors believed chocolate caused spots, but an influential 1969 study appeared to debunk the link. Now, scientists have changed their minds again.
“There is emerging evidence that sugar and foods with a high glycaemic index (those that raise blood glucose levels quickly) can drive acne in a small select group of people,” Dr Mahto says. Again, she doesn’t advise cutting out sugar completely. “But if you eat a lot of sugar, think about cutting down.”
Dr Mahto says the links between dairy and acne are weaker than those for sugar, so she advises against excluding foods like milk, cheese and yogurt from your diet unless advised by a doctor to do so. “I have a group of patients who are gluten free and dairy free and sugar free and you wonder what they’re eating,” Dr Mahto says. “I tell them it’s not going to fix their skin. I always find it slightly worrying in a condition that’s already causing anxiety – and we know that people with acne are more likely to have mental health issues – that they’re then trying to cut everything out of their diet. It’s dangerous territory.”
"Deficiencies can cause problems, but overconsuming nutrients may also cause problems"
Get the gloss?
Thinning hair can be caused by nutritional deficiencies, particularly iron, vitamin D and zinc, says Dr Sharon Wong, consultant dermatologist and hair specialist at London Bridge Hospital. It’s a particular problem among young women with heavy periods and increasing numbers of vegans and vegetarians, she says. It’s important to have blood tests to check for deficiencies; if your levels are low (ferritin levels indicate whether iron stores are adequate and should be above 70 for healthy hair), boosting your dietary intake may help.
But people with no deficiencies won’t benefit from eating more of a particular nutrient. “It’s important to remember that deficiencies can cause problems, but overconsuming nutrients won’t make your hair healthier and may cause problems,” Dr Wong says. “It’s not one nutrient or ‘superfood’ that creates healthy hair. General healthy eating is the gold standard; you need a well rounded, balanced diet.”
“The glossy, shiny manes of celebrities have more to do with the products they put on their hair than what they eat,” Dr Wong says. “Hair is shiny because of its light-reflecting properties, which can be enhanced with oils and conditioners. These smooth out the cuticles that form the protective layer of each hair, making it easier to reflect the light. A daily avocado smoothie won’t produce the same effect,” she says.
Dr Wong says there is some evidence that people with weak or brittle nails might benefit from boosting their intake of biotin (vitamin B7), which encourages the production of protein for nail growth. Good sources are eggs, raw almonds, cheese and green leafy veg.
The bottom line
There’s no robust scientific evidence that eating lots of particular nutrients will improve the appearance of your hair, skin or nails – unless you have a deficiency. Likewise, eliminating certain foods from your diet without seeking medical advice may cause health problems. ‘Beauty foods’ is a marketing term; a well-balanced healthy diet is the ultimate key for looking your best.
Eat your way to healthy skin
A healthy diet should include the following foods to boost your chances of having healthy skin, according to Dr Anjali Mahto
- Oily fish: salmon, mackerel and herring
- Fruit and vegetables: citrus fruits, tomatoes, sweet potato, dark leafy greens and yellow vegetables, spinach and avocado
- Nuts and seeds: sunflower seeds and walnuts
True or false?
Bingeing on foods rich in vitamin C will lead to more beautiful skin: FALSE
Eliminating dairy from your diet (without medical advice) is worth trying to treat acne: FALSE
Cutting back on sugary foods such as honey, syrups & fruit may reduce the risk of collagen damage: TRUE
Eating avocado leads to glossier hair: FALSE