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News flash: You really are what you eat, especially when it comes to your face, hands, elbows, and everything in between -- recent research from Australia found a direct link between diet and complexion. After studying the dietary habits of more than 400 elderly people, scientists concluded that those who ate more vegetables, fish, and olive oil over the years had fewer wrinkles than those who had a high intake of red meat, butter, and dairy. Here's what to eat to meet your skin's specific needs -- plus nutrient-rich products docs say will offer visible results.Your Skin Needs: Hydration
Eat: Essential fatty acids (EFAs), found in foods like salmon, vegetable oils, walnuts, and flaxseed.
Think back to Bio 101: Every cell in your body has an outer membrane that serves as a gatekeeper, allowing nutrients into the cell and letting waste out. This membrane is made up of lipids, or fats, so it stands to reason that to keep our skin functioning optimally, "we have to consume adequate amounts of essential fatty acids to form healthy cells," explains Ellie Krieger, RD, host of the Food Network's Healthy Appetite. Plus, EFAs can help shield the skin from UV damage. A study published in the Lancet Oncology showed that high intakes of EFA-laden extra virgin olive oil may help prevent against some cancers, including skin cancer. But that doesn't mean you should skip SPF!
Aim For: 12 grams of omega-6 a day (an ounce of walnuts) and 1.1 grams of omega-3 (a serving of salmon).
Eat: Vitamin A and carotenoids, found in milk, eggs, carrots, and cantaloupe.
Also known as retinol, vitamin A is required for cell growth and division. Without it, the skin can't produce new cells or shed old ones, so it can turn thick and scaly, explains Jeannette Graf, MD, an assistant clinical professor at New York University Medical School. While vitamin A is found in animal-derived products -- meat, milk, eggs -- certain kinds of carotenoids, or plant pigments, in fruits and veggies can be converted into vitamin A by our bodies. Beta-carotene, the stuff that gives carrots and cantaloupe their orange tint, is a good example of a pro-retinol.
Aim For: 700 mcg a day (about 2 cups of dark leafy green veggies or 2 1/2 cups of brightly colored fruit).
Eat: Vitamin C plus vitamin E, found in apples, citrus fruits, and whole-grain cereal.
Though plenty powerful on their own -- vitamin C builds collagen to keep skin firm and plump, and vitamin E safeguards cell membranes -- when these two antioxidants join forces, they work overtime. Not only do they bolster one another and help other nutrients work better, "they can protect from inflammation," says Roger A. Clemens, DrPH, a nutritional biochemist and expert on functional foods at the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago. In other words, they can help prevent puffiness and may reduce redness.
Aim For: 75 mg of vitamin C (one medium orange or 1/2 cup sliced red pepper) and 15 mg of vitamin E (2 ounces of sunflowers or almonds).
Eat: Water-containing fruits and vegetables.
Everything we do -- even breathing -- saps our cells of detoxifying fluids. Experts suggest drinking enough fluids to replace those that we excrete throughout the day. "Water also helps flush out impurities that could lead to acne blemishes as they exit through skin," says Dr. Graf. Even better: A study in the August 2006 edition of Skin Research and Technology proved that drinking more water, mineral water in particular, can also moisturize the surface layer of skin for a constant glow.
Aim For: 2 liters a day.
Eat: Flavonoids, found in dark chocolate, green tea, red wine, grapes, and cranberries.
Even more potent than vitamins C and E, this superantioxidant group includes both the polyphenols in dark chocolate and green tea and the proanthocyanidins abundant in red wine, red grapes, and cranberries. Experts credit flavonoids with everything from supporting collagen and elastin -- which helps keep skin plump -- to helping prevent cancer. "Even better, flavonoids may improve circulation, which ensures that other nutrients get where they need to go to do their job," says Tara Gidus, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Aim For: 100 mg (one cup of hot cocoa or a glass of red wine).
Eat: Selenium, found in Brazil nuts, turkey, and whole grains.
To maintain a youthful appearance (read: fewer fine lines and firmer skin), selenium is essential. This mineral possesses both anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic properties. "But its most important job is to activate our natural antioxidant enzymes, which slow down the aging process," explains Dr. Graf.
Aim For: 55 mcg (2 cups of brown rice or 6 ounces of skinless, boneless chicken breast).
Eat: Ellagic acid, found in raspberries, strawberries, pomegranates, and pecans.
Although most of the studies on the antioxidant ellagic acid have been done in vitro (on cell cultures) or on animals, many scientists believe it's a promising cancer-fighting ingredient. What's more, a new study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that ellagic acid can also help protect the elastic fibers that keep skin structure intact and maintain firmness despite destructive enzymes. In fact, nutritionists like Oz Garcia, PhD, diet expert for Equinox Fitness, are touting pomegranate as the new superfood for total health.
Aim For: 8 ounces of pomegranate juice.
Try: Hydrating mask from Emilie Davidson Hoyt, founder of Lather and Lather Spa.
Puree the banana, then add yogurt, honey, and oats. Blend well. Smooth the mask over damp skin, leave it on for 15 minutes, and rinse with warm water.For: Soothing Red, Irritated Cheeks
Try: Rose-hip facial mist from Ole Henriksen, celebrity esthetician, spa owner, and product developer.
Shake the ingredients together and pour the mixture into a mister bottle. After cleansing, generously spritz your face, then apply moisturizer to damp skin. Use in the a.m. and p.m. before bed.For: Instant Radiance
Try: Scrub and mask for all skin types from June Jacobs, creator of June Jacobs Spa Collection.
Using circular motions, gently rub the rice over your dampened face for 3 minutes. Rinse away and pat dry. Combine honey and pomegranate juice, apply the mixture to skin, and allow it to dry for about 15 minutes. Remove with a warm, dampened washcloth.
Wondering whether it's more effective to follow a gorgeous-skin diet or apply nutrient-rich products? Experts agree that you need both (and all these foods protect your health in other important ways), but a cream may offer a quicker fix. "You're generally going to get a higher concentration of a nutrient's properties by applying it directly to your skin," explains David McDaniel, MD, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology and plastic surgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Here, five to try:
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2007.