While these realities can be upsetting, “the best part of the art of living is to know how to grow old gracefully,” said American philosopher Eric Hoffer—and by this, he did not mean fighting aging skin with chemical creams, Botox injections, and other unnatural, invasive treatments. A healthier approach to growing old is to exercise and eat right.
And eating right is even more important to aging right than previously presumed. New research shows that a diet rich in certain nutrients may prevent and reverse skin aging more effectively than expensive treatments. A study of more than 4,000 women found a strong correlation between aging skin and poor dietary habits, such as getting too few vitamins. Women with above-average intakes of vitamin C and linoleic acid—an omega-6 fatty acid found in plant-based oils—who ate fewer fats and carbohydrates were more likely to have healthier, youthful skin.
“I absolutely believe that how we eat affects our skin and how we age,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, a Florida-based nutritionist. “A diet full of healthy, whole foods provides important nutrients and antioxidants to slow the effects of aging and enable cell repair.”
Stock up on the following foods to help your skin stay smooth, supple, and young—no matter your age.
Kiwis have one of the highest vitamin C concentrations of any fruit, with 76 mg in a single kiwi. “Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that quenches free radicals, which cause skin damage,” says Sara Braxton Ferrigno, a San Francisco–based nutrition consultant. Vitamin C is also crucial to the production of collagen, a protein that helps maintain skin firmness and prevent sagging. Although the antioxidant is included in many topical creams, some studies say that vitamin C is better absorbed through food that also has citrus flavonoids and other nutrients, like vitamins A and E.
How much to eat: Ferrigno recommends eating two organic kiwis per day (approximately 1 cup).
Berries, particularly raspberries, cranberries, and strawberries, are excellent sources of ellagic acid, an antioxidant that helps protect skin against sun damage. Although UV radiation can cause melanoma, sun exposure also leads to fine lines, discoloration, and age spots. According to research from Korea, ellagic acid protects skin against UV damage by blocking the production of MMP, or matrix metalloproteinase—enzymes that destroy collagen. Ellagic acid has also been shown to reduce inflammation, which hinders skin’s elasticity and can cause redness, puffiness, blistering, and fine lines. All berries are rich in polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that protect the skin from free-radical damage, says Tara Gidus, RD, of Orlando, Florida.
How much to eat: Consume a variety of berries throughout the week, aiming to eat a 1/2 cup or more per day.
3. White Tea
White tea is sky-high in antioxidants, fights cancer, boosts heart health, and protects skin. Scientists in London discovered that white tea blocked enzymes that break down collagen and elastin—a protein that makes skin elastic and prevents sagging—better than 23 other herbs and plant extracts. “Because white tea is the least processed of all teas, it has a higher level of antioxidants,” says Pittsburgh’s Rita Singer, RD. White, red, black, and green teas are also high in polyphenols, she adds.
How much to drink: Singer recommends at least 2 cups of white tea daily, but some studies suggests sipping as many as 4 to 6 cups a day for optimum benefits.
4. Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed oil contains omega-3 and -6 essential fatty acids, both of which decrease skin roughness and scaling, says one new study. Researchers subjected healthy women to controlled skin irritation while administering 2.2 grams of flaxseed or borage oil, or a placebo pill. Participants who took either oil experienced a significant decrease in skin roughness and scaling, while the placebo group reported no difference.
“In addition to helping regulate inflammation, omega-3 fatty acids build the membranes that surround cells,” says Ferrigno. “By eating balanced amounts of essential fatty acids, you help your body produce flexible cells that keep skin moist, supple, and healthy in tone and texture.” Since the standard Western diet is already rich in omega-6s, choose flaxseed, which has 8 grams of omega-3s per tablespoon and a good amount of monounsaturated fat, which also reduces the appearance of fine lines.
How much to eat: Get 1 to 2 tablespoons of flaxseed oil a day by drizzling small amounts over steamed vegetables, soups, or salads. “Be sure to add flaxseed oil after cooking so that you don’t zap its fragile fats,” warns Ferrigno.
Spinach has one of the most impressive nutritional profiles of any vegetable, with more than 80 distinct nutrients. One cup of fresh spinach provides almost 200 percent of your daily vitamin K, which inhibits calcification, says Cees Vermeer, PhD, a biochemistry professor at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Not only can calcification cause hardening of the arteries, it also limits skin elasticity, leading to wrinkles. Because the body cannot store vitamin K for long periods of time or in large doses, benefits are best obtained through food. Spinach, along with other dark, leafy greens, is also a rich source of skin-enriching vitamins A, C, and E.
How much to eat: Gidus recommends 1 cup of spinach at least three times weekly. Vitamin K is fat soluble, so eat your greens with a little olive oil to help absorb the nutrient.
6. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate can help skin maintain a youthful appearance, says Gerbstadt. Recent research found that chocolate’s flavonols, or plant pigments that act like antioxidants, help protect skin from harmful UV light. Participants who consumed 20 grams of flavonol-rich dark chocolate daily for 12 weeks showed a notable improvement in skin resistance to UV light. Additional research also found that people who regularly drank hot cocoa made from dark cocoa powder for three months increased skin tolerance to UV light and reduced reddening by as much as 25 percent.
How much to eat: Gerbstadt suggests nibbling on 1 ounce of dark chocolate a day or mixing 2 tablespoons of unsweetened dark cocoa powder in 8 ounces of hot regular or nondairy milk.
Tomatoes are one of the best sources of lycopene—a plant pigment with strong antioxidant properties. Noted for improving cholesterol and protecting against heart disease, lycopene also stabilizes a volatile form of molecular oxygen produced by UV radiation that causes skin to age, says Gidus. Because lycopene is better absorbed when heated, tomatoes’ nutritional value increases when they’re cooked. “Lycopene is also fat soluble, so ingesting it with small amounts of fat will aid absorption,” explains Gidus.
How much to eat: Aim to eat a cup of cooked tomatoes with olive oil several times per week. Increase your intake by adding tomato paste to soups or using stewed tomatoes to make sauces.
Carrots and other bright-orange foods, such as sweet potatoes, are excellent sources of vitamin A. Best known for its crucial role in aiding vision, vitamin A is also vital for maintaining the body’s outer epithelial tissue. “Vitamin A is necessary for skin maintenance and repair,” says Singer. “The nutrient serves as a barrier, providing a healthy surface lining to prevent bacteria from entering the body.” People short on vitamin A are more likely to have dry, rough, or scaly skin; they may also have bumpy skin after hair follicles become blocked by keratin, a protein overproduced in the absence of vitamin A. According to Singer, dietary vitamin A is better for skin than supplements, which can cause birth defects, nausea, vomiting, and possible liver abnormalities when taken in excess.
How much to eat: Aim to eat 1 to 2 cups of carrots or other bright-orange foods every week.
Avocados are excellent sources of vitamin E and lutein, both of which promote healthy skin. Vitamin E can help reduce the sun’s harmful effects, particularly in conjunction with other antioxidants. Other research suggests that the nutrient helps combat collagen breakdown. Lutein, a carotenoid found in leafy greens, increases skin hydration, improves skin elasticity, and protects against deterioration of beneficial lipids that keep skin plump and firm.
How much to eat: Singer suggests adding small amounts of avocado to your weekly diet by putting slices on salads and sandwiches or blending it in dips in lieu of mayonnaise or sour cream.