“Let food be they medicine and medicine be thy food.” - Attributed to Hippocrates
The Greek philosopher Hippocrates may have lived nearly 2,500 years ago, but he clearly knew what he was talking about. The more we understand about nutrition, the more we learn about the impact poor diet has on our immune system, our physical and mental development, and our energy levels.
Often overlooked, though, is the way food can affect the health of our skin. Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of supporting skin health and condition.
The body’s largest organ is constantly growing new cells, so it’s essential we ensure that process is fuelled with the right nutrients.
Take your carbs complex
Carbohydrates play a key role in a balanced and varied diet, but they come in different forms. Refined carbs have been associated with weight gain and other problems.
It seems they could also have an impact on our skin. The link between acne and diet has been controversial over the years but research now shows compelling evidence that high glycemic load diets – those with lots of refined carbohydrates such as white bread, sugary drinks and sweetened cereals - may exacerbate acne.
As ever with diet, it is all about moderation and variety.
Nutritionists suggest a wide mix of dishes that include protein-rich foods such as meat and eggs, and complex carbohydrates like wholemeal bread and brown rice, along with plenty of vegetables and fruits.
Slay the free radicals
Another essential element of our diet to consider when it comes to our skin are antioxidants which have been linked to many benefits including cancer prevention and anti-aging properties.
Polyphenols are phytochemicals found in natural plant food sources and have antioxidant properties which can help neutralize “free radical” molecules that can damage cells and cause them to stop working properly.
Free radicals can be created naturally by the body, but they are also closely associated with alcohol intake, tobacco smoke, ultra-violet light and pollution.
Regarding aging, they cause the collagen in the skin to degrade and decrease the production of new collagen which can increase sagging and loss of skin firmness.
Eating antioxidants – which also include beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium and vitamins A, C and E – can help slow down the aging process. Vegetables such as artichokes, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, beetroot and spinach, and some nuts contain high levels of antioxidants.
They can also be found in fish oils, dried fruits, like raisins, prunes, figs and dates, and deeply coloured fruits, such as blackcurrants, blueberries, mangoes, grapes, strawberries and tomatoes. Even spices and herbs such as cloves, cinnamon, oregano and curry powder contain antioxidants, offering a great way to flavour a meal and discover new tastes.
Of course, vitamins are – as their name suggests – vital for our health. And as with so much else, that includes the health of our skin.
For most vitamins we rely on a healthy, varied diet, but vitamin D is a bit different. Vitamin D is made by the body during exposure to sunlight. As well as aiding skin cell growth and repair, the vitamin also builds and maintains strong bones, so it is important to ensure that those who are unable to get enough vitamin D from safe exposure to the sun, supplement it with other sources.
The humble egg is one such source, fatty fish another. Additional vitamin supplementation may be recommended for some people, depending on their circumstances.
Mix it up
While encouraging a varied diet that includes meat, cheese and fish is important for our wellbeing, it is often harder to persuade some people, especially children, to eat fruits and vegetables.
Turning fruits and vegetables into smoothies and trying new recipes – such as putting nuts and fruits in salads, making soups, using them as pizza toppings or adding them as a garnish - can all help.
The key is variety. The wider the variety of foods we can incorporate into our diet, the more micronutrients we are making available to our skin.
The earlier we can encourage this variety, the more benefit children are likely to get from it throughout their lives.
The long game
Two and a half millennia after Hippocrates shared his thoughts on the importance of food as medicine, medical and nutritional science has come a long, long way.
Yet we are just as dependent on our health as he was.
Our skin is the most noticeable part of our body and yet we often forget that caring for it doesn’t just involve applying creams and lotions, it also depends on giving it a healthy diet.
If we do this, we are supplying the right building blocks and can help ensure that our skin is as healthy as it possibly can be for many years to come.
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This story is part of a series of articles aiming at illustrating how healthy skin makes a positive impact on people’s lives. It has been developed with the contribution of our scientific and medical experts and is intended for the general public.