As the largest organ in the human body, the skin is a barometer for overall health. High stress levels show as acne outbreaks and premature wrinkles; respiratory ailments make the skin looser and sometimes discolored or pale. If your diet is poor and lacks nutrition, this too is reflected in the health of your skin. Certain foods are especially harmful; read on for ten to avoid.
1. Salty foods
Sodium is essential for humans; we need it to live, and we cannot make it ourselves. Unfortunately, the food industry adds far too much salt to many products, for taste and preservation, and the result is a worldwide surge of cardiac disease, and also skin trouble. Overly salty foods, like French fries and potato chips, encourage bloating as cells try to absorb the sodium by jettisoning water. Be wary of any processed foods: “fat free” on packaged grocery food often means more sugar and preservatives, both bad for the skin.
2. White bread
Refined carbohydrates, like those in white bread, cookies, and bagels, break down into sugar that is released very rapidly into the bloodstream, raising the body’s glycemic index. Insulin is secreted to regulate the sugar levels (it causes cells to absorb more sugar); higher insulin levels make the skin secrete greasy oil called sebum. Sebum is prone to colonization by acne causing bacteria, and it causes inflammation of the skin (redness, swelling).
Dairy products are high in fat, and this too triggers the release of the hormone insulin. In 2007, the American Academy of Dermatology published a study confirming the tie between dairy foods and acne. This study involved forty young men, mostly teenagers, who all had acne; the guys who consumed less fat had fewer breakouts.
Another highly fatty dairy product, milk contains several hormones, called androgens, which influence skin health. One hormone in milk, IGF-1 (insulin growth factor), is similar in chemical structure to insulin, and so causes sebum production to increase, which leads to clogged pores. Milk also has lactose, a kind of sugar, and too much sugar leads to rosacea, acne, and other skin inflammation.
The extreme overconsumption of alcohol manifests as yellowed, spotty skin, a sign of liver disease. While most people don’t go this far with their drinking, even a few drinks a night will leave your skin dehydrated and washed out in the morning. Alcohol is hard for the liver to break down, and requires a lot of water to flush out—this is why skin is drier and without glow during a hangover. For fresh, rosy skin, drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily, and limit your alcohol intake. If you can drink ten or twelve tall glasses of water every day, even better.
As mentioned earlier, ingesting too much sugar starts off a hormonal reaction that ends with acne (and possibly diabetes). Besides being routinely pumped with sugar, chocolate causes the production of interleukin 1b, a marker of immune system inflammation, to increase, which encourages acne-related inflammation (this news comes from a study performed in the Netherlands). Chocolate also raises production of another chemical, interleukin 10; this neurochemical lowers immune system defenses, inviting pimple-causing bacteria to colonize the skin.
Carbohydrates that turn into sugar were mentioned before; sugar itself warrants an entry. A highly addictive food that causes withdrawal symptoms—headaches, fatigue, depression—sugar is part of many, many food products, usually in disguise. Fructose, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, corn syrup: all are forms of sugar. These nutrient-empty calories are added to sodas, energy drinks, coffee drinks, alcoholic beverages, baked goods, and many yogurts. The resulting blood sugar spike, like after drinking a half liter of soda, sets off a chain reaction in the body to try to level it out, and this work is written on the skin, in breakouts, dullness, and rashes. Beyond this initial trouble, sugar molecules bind with protein molecules inside collagen and elastin (a process called glycation); when skin enriching collagen and elastin are broken down by glycation, sagging and wrinkles follow.
8. Soy milk
Although soy is a super food—a complete plant protein—it doesn’t agree with everyone, especially when it comprises a major piece of someone’s diet. Vegans and vegetarians are particularly likely to over-depend on soy, and at a certain point, this will turn into food intolerance. Food allergies and intolerance (a milder form of allergy) call up an immune system response, inflammation, which becomes irritated, rashy skin.
9. Whole grains
Whole grains are better for the body than white grains (rice, bread, pasta), but relying too much on any carbohydrate source as your main energy supply damages the skin; complex carbohydrates are hard to digest. Many people are sensitive to gluten, the main molecule in white and most whole grains. If you have any sensitivity to gluten, your immune system will respond with inflammation, which can lead to acne and blotchy skin. Also, remember that carbohydrates are meant as a long-term energy source—they kept our ancestors rolling through a long day of farming. It’s hard to burn all that energy if you’re sitting around, and the unburned sugar turns into stored fat.
Nuts are actually a healthy, filling plant food; unfortunately, they are usually sold loaded with salt, or fatty oils (as in many peanut butters). Highly salted nuts have the same effect on the body as potato chips; the sodium load depletes water levels in skin cells, which leaves them thirsty and the skin, saggy. Choose organically grown, unsalted almonds or walnuts for a healthy breakfast feature.
11. Too much caffeine
Caffeine in moderation is fine; a cup of un-sugared black coffee contains antioxidants that fight cancer, and its caffeine will quiet a headache. Continually ingesting caffeine, however, is hard on the body. This stimulant increases cortisol production (the same hormone that responds to acute threats and stressors), which, over time, shows up on the skin as wrinkles and thinness. Caffeine is also a diuretic; if you don’t drink a cup of water after every cup of soda you ingest, you’re at greater risk for dehydration. Dehydration, even mild cases, makes the skin saggy and listless, and brings on fatigue.