Our bodies rely on various nutrients to support the natural ageing process.
Some nutrients may help slow signs of ageing, such as by promoting healthy skin. Our skin is our largest organ, if our skin is in good health it is an indicator (but not an absolute surety) that most of our other organs will be in reasonably good health too. This article focuses on the effects of food on the health of our skin.
It’s important to note that eating specific foods isn’t going to make you look noticeably younger, and that nutrition is only one aspect of ageing well.
Still, adding nutrient-dense foods to your diet can help you look and feel your best as you get older. In general, try to eat:
- healthy sources of protein
- healthy fats
- foods that are rich in antioxidants
1. Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest oils on earth. It’s rich in healthy fats and antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and oxidative damage caused by an imbalance of free radicals in the body.
A diet rich in olive oil has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases, including:
- heart disease
- type 2 diabetes
- metabolic syndrome
- certain types of cancer
In particular, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) make up about 73% of olive oil. Some studies have shown that a diet rich in MUFAs may help reduce skin ageing thanks to the strong anti-inflammatory effects of these healthy fats.
Extra virgin olive oil is also high in antioxidants, such as tocopherols and beta carotene, as well as phenolic compounds that also have anti-inflammatory properties.
In fact, one 2012 study found that people who consumed a diet rich in MUFAs from olive oil had a lower risk of severe skin ageing (which is caused by the collagen fibres in our skin unravelling, tangling, and cross-linking all of which combines to make skin sag and wrinkle).
Ideally, choose cold pressed extra virgin olive oil because it’s higher in antioxidants and less processed than oils that are extracted using other methods. Try adding it to a salad or dip.
2. Green tea
Green tea is high in antioxidants, which can help fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules created as a by-product of normal cell functioning. They can also form in response to stressors from the external environment, such as ultraviolet (UV) light or tobacco smoke. Free radicals can damage your cells if they’re present at high levels. Note cigarette smoke and too much exposure to ultraviolet light (e.g., direct sunlight, and tanning lights) are two of the biggest causes of skin damage and ageing.
That’s where antioxidants come in. These molecules stabilize free radicals so they’re unable to cause damage. You usually get antioxidants through your diet — like from green tea.
Green tea is particularly high in antioxidants called polyphenols. Specifically, it’s high in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), catechins, and gallic acid. These may reduce your risk of:
- heart disease
- neurological decline
- premature ageing
- other chronic diseases
The polyphenols found in green tea may help reduce external skin ageing — from environmental stressors such as the sun and pollution — by scavenging free radicals before they damage the skin.
In fact, many skin care products contain green tea extract for its antioxidant and antiaging properties. However, more research is needed before green tea products can be recommended to reduce skin ageing.
That said, consuming a diet high in antioxidants is associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease and healthier skin. And drinking green tea can be a great way to get more antioxidants into your diet but the caution is if you drink too much green tea it can cause harm to your body. New Zealand Doctors recommend drinking no more than two – three cups of green tea per day.
3. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish is a highly nutritious food that can promote healthy skin. Its long-chain omega-3 fats are beneficial against heart disease, inflammation, and many other issues. Furthermore, research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are linked to a strong skin barrier and may help decrease inflammation that damages the skin.
Salmon, one of the most popular types of fatty fish, has additional aspects that may help support your skin’s health. First, it contains a carotenoid antioxidant called astaxanthin, which is responsible for the pink colour of salmon. In one study, people with sun-damaged skin consumed a combination of astaxanthin and collagen for 12 weeks. As a result, they experienced significant improvements in skin elasticity and hydration. However, while these results seem positive, it’s unknown whether the effects were due to astaxanthin, collagen, or both. Plus, salmon and other fatty fish are high in protein. Our body makes collagen, it is one of the most abundant proteins in our body (although we produce less collagen from around age 25 onward).
Collagen is a key component of our connective tissues, its supports our body structure, flexibility and strength. Bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and our digestive system all rely on collagen to function well. Collagen makes up nearly 80% of our skin. You can help your body optimise its production of collagen by eating healthy foods.
Fish is also high in selenium. This mineral and antioxidant plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair and may help reduce and prevent skin damage from UV light. Having adequate levels in the body may reduce the severity of skin diseases like psoriasis.
4. Dark chocolate or cocoa
Dark chocolate is a rich source of polyphenols, which act as antioxidants in the body. In particular, it contains flavanols, which are linked to numerous health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease and have been shown to have positive benefits related to:
- type 2 diabetes
- cognitive decline
Additionally, it’s thought that a diet rich in flavanols and other antioxidants can help protect the skin from sun damage and help slow skin ageing. Our skin ‘wraps’ our bodies, thus keeping our skin healthy in these natural ways, is thought to positively impact everything under our skin too (i.e., all our body ‘parts’).
In one high quality 24-week study, participants that consumed a flavanol-rich cocoa beverage experienced significant improvements in skin elasticity and facial wrinkles compared with those in the control group. While these results are promising, other studies have not observed that dark chocolate offers benefits for skin appearance or ageing. Remember, the higher the cocoa content, the higher the flavanol content. Therefore, if you want to add dark chocolate to your diet, choose a variety with at least 70% cocoa solids and little added sugar.
It is important to note that the third factor in the triad of big causes of skin damage is consuming too much sugar (remember sugar is an ingredient in many processed foods, not just cakes, biscuits and lollies; it is listed in the ingredients of many fast foods too). Thus sugar, cigarette smoke and too much exposure to ultraviolet light (e.g., direct sunlight, and tanning lights) are the three biggest causes of skin damage and ageing.