News & Perspectives

Healthy Food Choices Can Protect Against Skin Damage
What the Study Showed

An international study of the eating habits of more than 400 older adults from around the world has found that consistently eating certain foods can make a big difference in whether skin stays taut and smooth or becomes damaged and wrinkled.

The results, which were published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, indicated that a daily diet high in antioxidant-rich vegetables, legumes, and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil can limit skin damage. In contrast, diets high in meat, dairy, and butter have negative effects. Diets high in antioxidant-rich nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, and E, also offered skin-protective action.

How It Was Done

Investigators examined the diets of more than 400 adults ages 70 and older by asking them to fill out a questionnaire listing foods and nutrients that they had most commonly consumed over the previous year. The participants were of varied ethnic backgrounds. Some were Greek-born and living either in rural Greece or Australia, some were Anglo-Celtic and living in Australia, and others were Swedish and living in Sweden.

To assess the level of skin health and/or wrinkling, investigators used a widely accepted noninvasive method of measuring skin damage called skin microtopography. This involves spreading a viscous white liquid on an area, letting it set for 3 to 5 minutes, and then measuring quality changes as the material is stripped off the skin.

This skin test was done to the back of the hand, a part of the body long considered ideal for determining the extent of overall skin wrinkling in an individual (The hand is often exposed to sunlight but does not typically have cosmetics or sunscreen applied to it).

Ultimately, certain trends in daily diet correlated with more or less skin wrinkling. The researchers were careful to take into consideration the participants' ages and whether they smoked, a habit that potentially promotes wrinkling and has long been linked to premature aging of the skin.

Researchers found that of the groups studied, the Swedish participants experienced the least skin wrinkling. They were also the group that consumed the most vegetables, olive oil, fish, and legumes, and conversely also ingested the smallest amounts of butter, margarine, milk, and sugar products. After the Swedes, the least skin wrinkling was found in the following order: Greeks in Melbourne, Greeks in rural Greece, and Anglo-Celts in Australia.

Why It's Important

People have long searched for clues for how to keep skin looking healthy and wrinkle-free throughout a lifetime. Based on the findings of this study, it seems that ensuring that certain foods are included in the diet more or less daily can indeed make a difference.

Foods appear to nourish the skin in a protective way, ensuring that routine exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun does not cause too much damage. Boosting natural defenses against sunlight is key because skin becomes damaged and wrinkled over time primarily as a result of oxidative stress. The skin is highly vulnerable to oxidative damage because it has such a high concentration of lipids, proteins, and DNA--all of which are sensitive to oxidation and damaging changes.

Remarkably, consuming three particular foods--apples, tea, and prunes--seemed to account for a large (34%) positive difference in limiting skin damage. Other protective foods included eggs, yogurt, vegetables (especially green leafy varieties such as spinach, but also celery, eggplant, onion/leeks, and garlic), olives, cherries, melons, nuts, dried fruits, pears, multigrain bread, jam, and water.

Monounsaturated fats such as olive oil also appear to help the fatty acids in the skin resist oxidative damage. Nutrients most correlated with protection against skin damage were vitamin C, retinol, and such minerals as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, and iron.

The study additionally identified foods that at high intakes were linked to increased skin wrinkling. These included sweet milk desserts, full-fat milk, and ice cream (but not skim milk, yogurt, or cheese). Also in this category was red meat (especially if highly processed), soft drinks, potatoes, and cakes and pastries. The higher the total fat intake (except for monounsaturated fats such as olive oil), the more skin damage occurred.

Source: Purba M, Kouris-Blazos A, Wattanapenpaiboon N, et al. Skin wrinkling: can food make a difference? J Am Coll Nutr 2001;20(1):71-80.

Date Published: 10/30/2003
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