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Nutrition plays key role in skin health

  • Special to the Washington Post
  • Published Monday, Sep. 30, 2013, at 1:43 p.m.

Recipe for clear skin

• Cut out refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and any processed and most white foods.

• Try probiotics, which can be found in yogurt and kefir and as nutritional supplements.

• Eat healthful fats: sardines, grass-fed beef, almonds, wild Alaskan salmon and flaxseed.

• Eat from the rainbow: red cabbage, blueberries, yellow peppers, kale and garlic.

We’ve heard of problem skin being treated with everything from salicylic acid to antibiotics.

But yogurt and blueberries, flaxseed and salmon?

Nutrition plays a key role in skin health, said Meagen McCusker, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

“It’s really true that you are what you eat,” said McCusker, adding that the condition of your skin often tells a story about your overall health and well-being.

No wonder, then, that sugar – a culprit in many health problems, including diabetes and obesity – is also involved when it comes to skin health.

“Foods that keep your blood sugar low are also good for the skin,” McCusker said. “The first thing I tell people is avoid sugar – which includes refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup – and processed foods.”

Not only can sugar cause inflammation in the body, but it also adversely affects cell membranes and by extension can break down collagen, she said. Collagen is a type of protein that helps make the skin elastic.

Juliet Rodman, a dietitian and co-founder of Corporate Wellness Solutions, agreed.

“Stay away from anything that comes in a box,” she said, “both because of the added sugars and because of other additives.”

Instead, she said, gobble up produce of all colors, plus nuts and seeds, to get minerals, fiber and vitamins A, C and E.

For example, she said, nuts and dark green leafy vegetables are full of zinc. Kale is good for vitamins A and C. And sunflower seeds and almonds are packed with vitamin E.

Nuts also provide healthful fats and proteins, another important aspect of healthy skin, said Alan Dattner, a New York dermatologist.

“For example, omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in wild salmon, help support healthy cell membranes,” said Dattner, who has been treating skin conditions with holistic therapies, including nutrition counseling, for 30 years.

McCusker also suggested grass-fed beef, fish oil and flaxseed for healthful fats and proteins.

Another smart move is the addition into the diet of probiotics, which can be found in yogurt and kefir as well as nutritional supplements. (She prefers supplements over yogurt because they contain much higher amounts of probiotics.) There is evidence, McCusker said, that probiotics not only help digestive tract health but also help make skin healthy and happy.

Other than yogurt and kefir, dairy is not recommended, she said.

“From an evolutionary standpoint, we don’t need dairy once we are weaned,” she said. “And for many people with acne, dairy can worsen the condition.”

Instead, drink plenty of water.

“The skin is a little like a third kidney. If you don’t have enough water flushing through it, it doesn’t work well,” Dattner said.

Rodman added that hydration becomes even more important for the skin as we age and consequently dry out. “Dehydration tends to shrivel the skin,” she said.

In the end, healthful food for you skin – kale, flax, wild salmon, nuts and seeds as well as limited amounts of processed food and dairy – is what’s healthful for the rest of you, too.

“It’s about taking a logical approach to skin and nutrition,” Rodman said. “When you promote good skin, you promote overall good health.”

In addition to healthful food and hydration, promoting good skin requires a holistic approach. Keep an eye on stress, physical activity levels and sleep, and protect your skin from too much sun and environmental hazards, Dattner said, adding that any therapy – whether it’s based on high-tech pharmaceuticals or holistic lifestyle change – takes time.

Remember, he said, some people have spent a lifetime on antibiotics to prevent breakouts. So don’t expect glowing skin after a week of clean living, he said.

“If you have had bad habits – including bad nutrition – for 15 years, it’s not realistic to expect changes in two to three weeks,” he said. “But start moving in a sensible direction – eating less sugar and more vegetables – and begin to identify what makes a difference for you.”

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