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Remember that old Oscar Wilde classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray? Gray made a deal with the devil that he could live a wild life while his face retained the unlined freshness and innocence of youth... even as his increasingly hideous portrait hidden away in the attic came to reflect the excesses of his decadent lifestyle.

Our reality: Diet and other lifestyle choices are clearly reflected in your face and skin, the body's largest and most protective organ. Take care of yourself, and your skin will show it. Eat poorly, smoke and skimp on sleep, and your skin will be worse for wear. Your skin's condition is, in some ways, a barometer of the health of your entire body. If your skin looks bad, imagine how it affects your insides.

Recipe for Healthy Skin

Proper nutrition will keep you glowing and rosy, as will getting enough sleep, regular exercise and fresh air (but not too much sun)... keeping your worries under control... and avoiding negative habits such as smoking and overindulgence in alcohol. While this sounds simple, it is important to keep in mind that your skin needs proper nourishment to ensure proper function. It is not just a shell that keeps your insides in. Your skin is a functioning body organ.

What you should eat and drink for healthy skin...

Stay Away From Sugar

According to Nancy Appleton, PhD, nutritional consultant and author of Lick the Sugar Habit (Avery) and Stopping Inflammation (Square One), sugar has a major impact on the skin. In young people, it upsets digestion, which can lead to inflammatory skin problems such as acne, rashes and rosacea. In older people, sugar makes the skin age more rapidly by changing the structure of collagen, a protein that is the building block of skin. As the structure of the skin changes, wrinkles become increasingly apparent.

Cut Back on Saturated Fat and Fried Foods

A high-fat diet may contribute to the development of skin cancer, according to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. In a two-year study of 76 skin cancer patients, half followed their usual diet (about 40% fat) while half adopted a low-fat diet (20% fat). In the months that followed, researchers found that low-fat dieters developed an average of only three new pre-cancerous lesions (called actinic keratoses), while high-fat dieters developed an average of 10. To cut back on saturated fat in your diet, eat more fish instead of red meat, and remove the skin from poultry.

In Dr. Appleton's opinion, the problem is not so much in fatty foods but in how they are prepared. She says that the real culprits are acrylamides -- the carcinogenic chemical by-products of cooking carbohydrates at high temperatures. Frying, barbecuing, baking and smoking foods leads to the formation of acrylamides. Over-processed foods, such as french fries and chips, are also high in these carcinogens and should be eaten very sparingly if at all. It's easy to cut back on acrylamides by poaching rather than grilling fish and by eating boiled potatoes instead of fried. (To learn more about acrylamide, see Daily Health News, November 4, 2004.)

Identify and Avoid Food Allergens

Foods that some people can handle with no problem lead to food allergies in others, observes Dr. Appleton. She explains that when the gut fails to fully digest hard-to-process foods, such as simple sugars, fried foods and hydrogenated fats, partially digested food particles enter the bloodstream. The body reacts to these particles as foreign invaders, with the immune system establishing inflammation around them in an effort to protect the body. When this reaction takes place on the skin, inflammatory skin problems such as pimples and rashes result. Inflammation can occur anywhere -- and in multiple locations -- in the body, where it manifests itself in different ways. In the case of acne, hair follicles become clogged with substances such as sebum (oil) and P. acnes bacteria. P. acnes produce large amounts of inflammatory enzymes called porphyrins, and white blood cells rush in to protect the body. The result is inflammatory acne, characterized by pimples, pustules, blackheads and whiteheads. According to Dr. Appleton, the good news is that when you stop eating reactive foods, such as sugary junk foods, fried foods and overly processed products, these symptoms will go away.

Eat More Nutrient-Rich Fruits and Vegetables

Your skin will benefit from eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables... especially, as Dr. Appleton points out, if you eat them instead of sugary and fried foods. For optimal skin health, plenty of nutrient-rich vitamins and minerals are a must, and a lack of A, B or C vitamins can lead to dry skin and rashes. Fruits and vegetables are also rich in antioxidants, which can prevent the oxidation of free radicals that leads to inflammatory skin problems.

Drink Plenty of Fluids

To cleanse your body of toxins, it's important to drink plenty of fluids. The standard recommendation is eight glasses of water (or other healthy liquids such as herbal teas or fresh juices) daily. This flushes toxins out of the bowel, kidneys and liver. An essential element of all metabolic processes, water keeps the body's systems and organs performing at peak efficiency, and the skin supple and hydrated. Conversely, dehydrated skin is apt to be flaky and dry. However, Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, MD, reminds me that excess water intake can increase the need for extra salt. His recommendation is to use your thirst as a barometer. (For more on healthy drinking strategies, see Daily Health News, May 27, 2004.)
Note: Make sure that your drinking water is of high quality. Contaminants such as lead and bacteria can harm the skin and may even increase cancer risk. If you have concerns about water purity, install a filter.

Monitor Your Dairy Intake

Word comes from the Harvard School of Public Health that milk -- rather than greasy foods or chocolate -- is the most likely dietary contributor to severe teenage acne. While researchers do not go so far as to recommend that teens cut back on dairy in their diets, they recommend moderate consumption of milk. Also keep in mind that there are other rich sources of calcium, including canned salmon, sardines, tofu and green vegetables, such as broccoli and collard or turnip greens.

All in all, the same balanced diet that benefits your health overall will keep your skin in tip-top shape too.


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