“If you’re eating well, you’ve already improved your skin by 50 per cent.” So believes Dr Kiran Sethi, founder of Isya Aesthetics and consultant to a bevy of Bollywood celebrities.
Even if you knew at the back of your mind that the answer to buttery-smooth, glowing skin lies in the refrigerator, chances are your dressing table – much like mine – is forever groaning under the weight of tubs of expensive lotions and potions in a bid to improve your skin in every way known to Instagram. I am a skincare glutton and I cannot lie. But, as it turns out, the cliches are true: beauty does lie within and you are what you eat.
Over the years, the link between food and skin health has been widely researched, particularly to ascertain if nutritional modifications can help to reduce occurrences of, or alleviate, symptoms for patients with more serious skin conditions. These are tests that go well beyond the sage “drink lots of water” advice.
A recent review of 10 years' worth of studies and clinical trials, published in the International Journal of Dermatology in February, concluded that foods with a high glycemic index and load, some dairy products, fast food, chocolate and a low intake of raw vegetables, are all associated with acne. The consumption of fruit and vegetables on more than three days a week, however, as well as the consumption of fish, was proven to have a protective role against acne.
According to the National Rosacea Society in America, the most common triggers for rosacea (a skin condition that manifests as redness and swelling on the face) are alcohol, spicy food and hot drinks.
There are even studies that date as far back as 1975, which establish the importance of vitamin C and E, beta carotene, selenium, antioxidants and phytonutrients in reducing the risk of skin cancer by breaking down free radicals and reducing the damage caused by exposure to UVB sun rays to the immune system.
“Your skin is a reflection of your gut. It is the largest organ in the body, and it is a pure mirror of what your intestines are on the inside,” says Pooja Makhija, clinical dietician and author of N for Nourish. “Your skin will be as irritated as your gut. Whether it’s acne, redness, pigmentation, or blocked pores… all of them occur from a poor gut. No amount of skin treatments or products can change your skin until you change your diet.”
Clinical dietician and founder of Simply Healthy Diets Mitun De Sarkar agrees. “Sometimes you might get acne on the forehead, [which means] it’s your liver that needs attention. Redness or acne under the eyes is a sign of the kidneys calling for help. On the cheeks, it’s your digestion that is a problem. And if it’s your chin, then it’s likely a hormonal imbalance. But everything is linked to your gut in the end,” she says.
Here are De Sarkar and Makhija’s recommendations to help you eat according to your skin type and issues.
Avocados and antioxidants for oily skin
Oily skin is prone to acne, so your first line of defence is hydration. Drink water infused with cucumber, lemon and mint to keep the skin moist, oil-free and glowing. Foods with antioxidants and a high water content, such as cucumbers and watermelons, which also have lycopene, protect the skin from sun damage. Oranges, grapefruit, strawberries and kiwis are packed with vitamin C that can detox the liver and flush out the skin’s oiliness. Broccoli and leafy green vegetables improve digestion (poor digestion is one of the main causes of acne-prone oily skin).
Don’t let oily skin keep you from having healthy fats from avocados, walnuts and salmon, either. These provide essential omega-3 fatty acids that tame inflammation and prevent acne formation.
Coconuts and collagen for dry skin
Dry skin gets easily irritated, sensitive and red, especially when it is exposed to extreme weather conditions such as harsh winters, scorching summers and even excessive air-conditioning. All of these can strip the skin of its nutrients and dehydrate it, as can being outdoors without sunscreen, no matter the time of year.
Hydration is essential. Coconut water provides natural electrolytes. Avocados and soaked nuts and seed, such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, chia, flax, sesame and pumpkin seeds, provide the skin with the healthy fats and antioxidants it needs to stay healthy.
Saturated fats such as coconut oil can be used for cooking and topical application to soothe dry, irritated skin. Coconut oil contains lauric and caprylic acid, which help to fight inflammation and enhance the skin’s protective layer by helping to trap moisture within.
Boiled eggs, which contain sulphur and lutein, and fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, which provide the skin with collagen and keratin proteins, all help the skin to lock moisture and preserve its elasticity.
Fresh vegetable smoothies with spinach, kale, berries, pomegranate, tomatoes and gooseberries will hydrate and plump up dry skin, thanks to their high vitamin C content.
Fruit and vegetables for ageing skin
Guavas, blueberries, figs, red bell peppers, papaya, broccoli and baby spinach will all work wonders as each of these foods have specific nutrients that infuse the skin with essential minerals such as magnesium, plant-based non-heme iron, lutein, and vitamins C, A, E, K and B, which strengthen the skin’s cell membranes and slow down the ageing process.
Additionally, pomegranate has urolithin A and punicalagin, which rejuvenate the skin while also restoring and preserving its collagen. Sweet potatoes (to be eaten with their skins on), meanwhile, have beta carotene, which restores the skin's elasticity.
A diet rich in these foods will not only help to clear up the skin and reduce inflammation, but also stabilise the metabolism and improve digestion, which, as we’ve established, is key to youthful-looking skin.
Vegetable juice and lean protein for pigmented skin
Pigmented skin could be caused by factors such as hormonal imbalances, dehydration, micronutrient deficiency, protein deficiency or a lack of sleep. As such, it’s important to rule out polycystic ovary syndrome and thyroid disease, drink two to three litres of water every day, add a glass of vegetable juice to your daily diet, make sure you’re consuming sufficient lean protein to ensure good skin wear and tear, and sleep six to seven hours every night.
To all, Sethi adds a caveat: “While food is a game-changer, don’t forget other factors such as stress, sleeping cycles, lifestyle, exercise patterns, hormones and genetics. They all play a big role in skin health. There is some unpredictability, too – an acne breakout might not leave any marks on one person, but does so on another. No one can control that.
"What you can do is ensure a good diet and basic skincare. You can’t eat well, but then step out without sunblock or use soap on the face – it will make the skin leathery, pigmented and dry, no matter how good your diet is.”