Virginia Woolf may have been ahead of her time when she famously quipped, “One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well.” But there’s one thing she forgot: Without the right food, your skin may not age well either.
As a person gets older, skin begins to lose its ability to fight off unstable oxygen molecules known as free radicals, and a lifelong accumulation of damage begins to show up on our face in the form of wrinkles, loss of elasticity and a dull uneven skin texture, according to New York City-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman. While much of this intrinsic aging is inevitable, extrinsic factors like sun exposure and diet play a huge role in how fast — and aggressively — this process plays out.
“Certain foods cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which triggers a cascade of inflammation,” says dermatologist and certified nutritionist Nicholas Perricone, who popularized the now widely accepted theory that inflammation is one of the driving forces of the aging process. In his Meriden, Connecticut-based practice, Perricone puts all his patients on a low sugar, anti-inflammatory diet, which is rich in essential fatty acids and free radical-scavenging antioxidants. “Our skin is a perfect barometer for what is going on inside us,” he says. “Within just a few days of changing their diet, I can see a marked aesthetic difference in dark circles, fine lines and skin radiance.”
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Here are 7 powerhouse superfoods to add to your grocery list if you want to eat your way to younger skin.
Superfood No. 1: Wild salmon
High in protein and loaded with skin-plumping essential fatty acids and the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin, this fatty fish is one of Perricone’s favorite anti-inflammatory foods. In addition to helping neutralize free radicals, those volatile molecules that accelerate inflammation (and thus the aging process), salmon is a good source of readily absorbable protein. Protein is broken down into amino acids, which provide the building blocks for all cellular repair. “I’ve had so many female patients come into my office and say, ‘Why am I not aging as well as my partner?’ says Perricone. “After speaking with literally hundreds of patients, it became clear to me that many of these women were consuming about half as much protein as their male partners.” Experts say you should aim for 2-3 servings per week (3-4 oz. per serving). And make sure to always choose wild salmon; farmed salmon is often contaminated with PCBs, a “probable carcinogen” according to the EPA.
Superfood No. 2: Blueberries and other low-sugar berries
Blueberries and many other berries contain wrinkle-fighting antioxidants known as anthocyanins, flavonoids that researchers believe may help suppress the growth of tumor cells and regulate blood sugar (preventing glycation, a process that makes collagen and elastic fibers in skin become stiff and lose its firm supple nature). Blueberries also contain vitamin C, which helps boost radiance and aids in collagen synthesis. In addition, researchers believe the phytochemicals in blueberries may positively affect our gut microbiome, which plays a key role in maintaining the health of our skin (not to mention our brains and virtually every other system in our body).
Superfood No. 3: Beans and legumes
A great source of animal-free protein and essential micronutrients, just one-half cup of beans is equal to 1 ounce of animal protein. Beans also provide our bodies with valuable prebiotics, insoluble fiber that helps support gastrointestinal microflora, key gatekeepers of skin health. If the balance of good versus bad bacteria in your belly gets out of whack, it can lead to wrinkles, acne, sun spots and rosacea, says Santa Monica, California-based dermatologist Ava Shamban. Avoid canned beans, which are high in sodium and can make skin look puffy. If you are short on time and need to use canned beans, make sure to drain and thoroughly rinse them before cooking. “This can cut the amount of sodium by around 40 percent, says New York City-based physician and certified nutritionist Jeffrey Morrison.
Superfood No. 4: Full fat plain Greek yogurt
High in protein (as much as 17 grams per cup versus 9 in regular yogurt) and teaming with gut-friendly bacteria, full fat Greek yogurt helps keep blood sugar steady — and your microbiome in balance. Of course, not all yogurt contains live cultures (some bacteria gets killed off during processing), so always check the label before you buy it. Also, avoid sweetened versions as they can trigger spikes in blood sugar (and accompanying inflammation). Shamban recommends sweetening yogurt with cinnamon, which adds “a ton of antioxidants” and virtually no calories. If you don’t like plain yogurt, probiotics can also be found in kefir (again, avoid sugar) and fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso and kombucha.
Superfood No. 5: Tomatoes
Lycopene, the carotenoid that gives tomatoes their bright red color, may help ward off UV-induced damage like sun spots and wrinkles, according to Shamban. And yes, tomato sauce counts. Our bodies actually absorb lycopene more easily from cooked tomatoes than fresh ones, says Perricone. Keep in mind: Though all processed tomato products contain high levels of lycopene, many also contain a lot of sodium (tomato juice) and/or sugar (ketchup), so read labels carefully.
Superfood No. 6: Dark green leafy vegetables
Spinach, kale, arugula, bok choy, swiss chard: Nutrient dense and low in calories (one cup of spinach contains just seven calories) dark green leafy vegetables are loaded with detoxifying fiber and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. In addition to helping to protect skin from UV damage, antioxidant lutein and zeaxanthin help keep eyes bright and clear (while preventing age-related problems like macular degeneration and cataracts). According to a 2019 study in Food Chemistry, eating uncooked chopped spinach provides higher amounts of lutein than cooked methods. The best way to release lutein from the leaves is to slice it into strips in a salad or chop it up in a blender (try mixing it up in a blender with fresh lemon juice, celery, one-half green apple and ginger).
Superfood No. 7: Nuts and seeds
Experts say you’ll get the most bang for your nutritional buck with walnuts and almonds. Both contain high levels of vitamin E, which helps keep skin supple and hydrated and may offer some protection from UV rays. Walnuts and flax seeds also boast skin softening alpha linoleic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. Recent studies link dietary α-Linolenic acid (ALA) with reduced systemic inflammation, which helps protect your heart, brain — and yes — your skin, too. Nuts are a good source of potassium, which may help reduce facial bloat caused by excess sodium.
Amy Synnott is an award-winning writer and former Executive Editor of Elle. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, InStyle, The NewYork Post and Women's Health, among other publications.