Undoubtedly, the best thing you can do to protect your skin is to slather on sunscreen every day. But what you put inside your body is equally as important to maintain healthy skin.
"The right diet can help give our skin the building blocks it needs for optimal functioning," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "But the wrong diet can actually promote inflammation and contribute to premature aging."
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Read on to learn how your daily meal plan affects your body's largest organ and which foods to limit for a flawless, healthy glow.
How Your Diet Affects Your Skin
While one individual food can't make or break your skin, the pattern of foods you put on your plate can support — or impair — your skin's health.
Here's why: "Components in food have the capability to 'turn on' or 'turn off' certain gene expressions," say Christina Mandolfo, RDN, and Meg Hagar, RDN. "Here, we're talking about the genetic predispositions that make people more prone to things like acne, eczema or psoriasis [i.e., inflammation in the skin]," Mandolfo and Hagar say.
And eating a standard American diet pattern that's full of processed carbs, refined sugars and saturated fats can promote those inflammatory processes, they say.
Over time, a diet high in sugar and unhealthy fats will also likely negatively affect your gut, which has a direct connection to the skin via the gut-skin axis (a bi-directional line of communication between the cells in the gut and the cells on the surface of our skin), Mandolfo and Hagar explain.
"Research shows us that if there is inflammation in the gut (caused by imbalances in bacteria, perhaps, by following a standard American diet), this sends a signal to the immune cells in the skin and causes them to respond in an inflammatory way, resulting in things like redness, swelling, clogged pores or even dryness (all seen in conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis)," Mandolfo and Hagar say.
13 Foods to Limit for Healthy Skin
An occasional candy bar won't bring on a breakout. But if you treat every week like it's Halloween, this sugary habit can sabotage skin health.
That's because eating candy can spike your blood sugar. And when this happens, your body releases higher levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which subsequently activates oil glands, Dr. Zeichner says.
Thing is, if your oil glands go into overdrive, you're more prone to get pimples.
"Milk and dairy products also stimulate the release of the hormone IGF-1," Mandolfo and Hagar say. This could explain why dairy aggravates acne for some people.
"We're not quite sure yet why it doesn't affect everyone, but research, at this time, seems to conclude that specific dairy products are bigger triggers for acne (such as skim milk versus plain yogurt, for example) than others," they say.
Indeed, "cow's milk, particularly skim milk, is associated with acne breakouts," Dr. Zeichner says. But the mechanism of causation is still subject to debate. "It's unclear whether it's due to hormones transferred to the milk from the lactating cow or whether it's because of the high sugar level found in skim milk."
Adding another layer to this dairy dilemma: Many people have mild allergies and food sensitivities to milk and dairy products, Mandolfo and Hagar say. And these can complicate skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
3. Red Meat
Though red meat is an excellent source of protein and iron, it also tends to be high in saturated fat, Dr. Zeichner says. Not only can eating excess saturated fat contribute to high cholesterol, but it can also mess with your skin.
That's because "high amounts of saturated fats are thought to increase the production of IGF-1 and therefore promote inflammation," Mandolfo and Hagar say. And, as we know, inflammation instigates skin issues such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.
4. Sugary Cereals
While cereals are often marketed as a "healthy" food, many serve up as much sugar per serving as a candy bar.
Excess sugar can trigger a tendency for acne and add years to your skin's appearance. "There is research to support that consumption of too much sugar can disrupt the collagen balance in the body," Mandolfo and Hagar say.
Here's why that matters: "Collagen — a protein found in skin and connective tissue — is responsible for the skin's strength and elasticity," Mandolfo and Hagar say.
That means when collagen is compromised by too much sugar, your skin will become less plump and supple.
5. Processed Meats
In addition to their high saturated fat content, processed meats are also high in salt.
"Salty foods can promote dehydration, which can zap the moisture and life out of your skin," Mandolfo and Hagar say. "And when your skin becomes dry, the body produces more oil to moisturize it naturally, which can aggravate acne-prone skin even more," they say.
High salt levels can also lead to bloating and fluid retention, which may contribute to puffiness under the eyes, Dr. Zeichner says.
What's worse, processed meats contain compounds called nitrites, which are associated with the development of certain cancers, Dr. Zeichner says.
6. Sweetened Drinks
Skin-sabotaging sugar is not only lurking in your food but also in your beverages (think: soda, juices and energy drinks). In fact, sweetened drinks are the primary source of added sugars in the American diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
These sugary beverages not only produce a domino effect that activates oil glands and exacerbates acne, but they can also age your skin.
Here's why: When blood sugar levels are high, sugar molecules attach to collagen fibers in a process known as glycation, Dr. Zeichner says. "This hardens the collagen, causing it to break and ultimately translates to premature wrinkling of the skin," he explains.
Not to mention, frequently sipping on sweetened stuff is also linked with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities and gout, a type of arthritis, per the CDC.
7. Refined Oils
Cooking with oils such as corn oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, soybean oil or sunflower oil — which are considered refined oils — could be ruining your skin.
That's because refined oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which can trigger inflammation in the body (including in the skin), Mandolfo and Hagar say. A September 2018 study in Open Heart found a link between omega-6-rich oils and chronic low-grade inflammation.
Plus, refined oils are absent of many skin-supporting antioxidants, which are removed in the refinement process, Dr. Zeichner says.
8. Processed Desserts and Pastries
Desserts and pastries produce the same blood sugar-boosting effect on the skin as candy and sweetened beverages.
"When blood sugar spikes, it causes a cascade of events that eventually lead to triggering the oil glands in the skin to produce more oil," Mandolfo and Hagar say. "This is one of the reasons why these foods are a very common trigger for acne."
9. Fried Foods
While anything deep-fried tastes heavenly, fried fare is not your skin's friend.
Fried foods are often fried in refined oils (like vegetable or seed oils), meaning they contain inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, Mandolfo and Hagar say.
And the high saturated fat content in these foods is related to health problems including high cholesterol, obesity, coronary artery disease and metabolic syndrome (which is associated with psoriasis), Dr. Zeichner says.
10. Flavored Yogurt
While plain yogurt is not largely linked to acne breakouts, flavored varieties can inflame your skin.
"Flavored yogurt typically has added sugars and sweeteners in it that spike blood sugar," Mandolfo and Hagar say. And when your blood glucose levels go through the roof, your body will release more IGF-1, stimulating your oil glands.
11. White Bread
White bread is considered a refined carbohydrate. That means it's broken down, digested and absorbed quickly, causing your blood sugar to skyrocket, Mandolfo and Hagar say.
These raised blood sugar levels drive acne breakouts and contribute to the glycation of collagen, which is a process that causes collagen fibers to harden and crack, Dr. Zeichner says.
Alcohol can hinder your skin health in several ways.
Firstly, your body interprets alcohol as a toxin. "It promotes inflammation in the body and therefore may trigger an inflammatory response in the skin," Mandolfo and Hagar say.
Making matters worse, many people mix alcohol with juice or soda. These sweetened mixers spike your blood sugar and increase your body's production of IGF-1, which subsequently stimulates your oil glands.
To top it off, "alcohol is dehydrating and has been shown to deplete antioxidant levels in the skin," Dr. Zeichner says.
13. White Rice
Similar to white bread, white rice is a refined grain and has a high glycemic index (in other words, it can cause your blood sugar to climb sharply). And again, this blood sugar spike triggers a sequence of events that eventually activates your acne-producing oil glands.
High-glycemic foods like white rice are also linked with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
What to Eat for Healthy Skin
"A balanced diet can provide your body with the nutrients it needs to fight inflammation and oxidation and to repair the skin," Mandolfo and Hagar say.
OK, but which diet offers the best balance of nutrients?
"Most experts believe that the Mediterranean diet is best for the skin," Dr. Zeichner says. ICYDK, the Mediterranean diet prioritizes healthy fats and plants — including fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains — while it limits red meat, refined sugars and processed foods.
Mandolfo and Hagar agree that this diet pattern is stellar for skin health. Consistently eating anti-inflammatory fats, fiber and antioxidants — which are all plentiful in the Mediterranean diet — can help "turn off" some of the inflammatory processes in your skin, they explain.