You already know that filling your diet with power foods—like dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, citrus—can help beat chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. But did you know that certain foods can also work wonders on your skin?
“There’s a growing body of research showing that diet really does affect your complexion,” says Jessica Wu, MD, a dermatologist in Los Angeles and author of Feed Your Face. “What you eat can affect your hormone balance, cause acne, and create or lessen inflammation, which is associated with skin aging.”
When researchers in a 2012 study in PLOS ONE analyzed the diets of 1264 women, they found that a higher consumption of olive oil (more than 8.4 grams or 2 teaspoons a day) was associated with 31% fewer signs of aging compared to people who ate less than 3.8 grams (about 1 teaspoon). Olive oil beat out the other oils tested, including sunflower and peanut. Why? About 75% of the fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids, which may play a role in the youth boost. The antioxidant polyphenols in olive oil could also quench damaging free radicals.
People who ate 5 tablespoons of tomato paste daily, along with almost a tablespoon of olive oil for 12 weeks, had 33% more protection from sunburn compared to a control group that ate just olive oil, according to a 2008 UK study. The antioxidant lycopene (levels of which are higher in cooked, processed tomatoes) improves skin’s natural SPF. (Though Dr. Wu warns that it’s not a replacement for sunscreen! Here's how to find the best sunscreen for you.)
The sweet treat is rich in cocoa flavanols, plant compounds with antioxidant properties, which help hydrate skin and improve circulation. Women who consumed a high flavanol cocoa powder drink daily for 12 weeks experienced less skin roughness and scaliness compared to a control group. They consumed the equivalent of 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate, but that’s far too many calories for most women, says Lisa Drayer, MA, RD, author of The Beauty Diet. She suggests sticking to a 1-ounce portion, or 150 calories, to reap the good skin benefits without the weight gain.
A whole grain oatmeal is a better pick for breakfast over a bagel and jelly. That’s because the latter offers a double whammy for skin: refined, sugary carbs that prompt your body to make insulin and increase the production of hormones known as androgens. “Elevated androgens cause sebaceous glands in the skin to secrete more oil that gets trapped inside pores, causing pimples,” says Drayer. Instead of brown sugar, add natural sweetness to your oatmeal with chopped fruit. (Give this blueberry-almond oatmeal recipe a try.)
One serving (3.5 ounces) of these little swimmers contains 1.5 grams of omega-3fatty acids, making it one of the best sources of the fat. Fatty fish is particularly rich in the type of omega-3 called DHA, an anti-inflammatory. “Inflammation is now known as the root cause of acne,” says Dr. Wu. Packing your diet with these omega-3s (also found in salmon) can help keep your skin clear.
In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2011, people who drank a beverage containing green tea polyphenols daily for 12 weeks had skin that was more elastic and smooth, and had one-quarter less sun damage when exposed to UV light compared to a control group. The brew’s catechins like EGCG (antioxidants) boost blood flow and oxygen to the skin, which delivers key nutrients to keep your complexion healthy, say researchers. Brew the perfect cup every time with these simple steps.
It’s one of the best sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, nutrients that absorb and neutralize the free radicals created by UV light—including the wavelengths that actually get through sunscreen and reach your skin, according to research in Clinics in Dermatology. Plus, just one cup gives you 134% and 133% of your daily value for skin-firming vitamin C and A, respectively. (Take your kale to a new level with chef Sam Talbot's crunchy kale chips recipe.)