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Could your diet be ageing your skin?

Today, wrinkles are a big deal, not to mention big business. Together, we spend in excess of $1 billion each year ironing out our folds and furrows in pursuit of a more youthful complexion.

Thanks to years of media campaigns, we are all up-to-speed on the connection between exposure to the sun and premature ageing, and we’re pretty confident that a lifetime spent sucking on a cigarette will accelerate the ageing process.

In fact, the research says that a person who smokes 10 or more cigarettes a day for a minimum of 10 years is statistically more likely to develop deeply wrinkled, leathery skin than a non-smoker. But, despite our obsession, significantly less is known about the impact our diet might be having on our skin.

What if the key to a youthful complexion lay not in a legendary fountain, but in something as easy to change as our diet? In recent years, nutritionists have been putting their hands up, eager to weigh in on the ageing debate. Could a diet high in refined sugar be taking its toll on our skin as well as our waistlines? Could a diet low in fibre slowly but surely be etching its existence on our foreheads?

Sweet But Sour

The role sugar plays in the acceleration of ageing is one that has come to the fore in recent years. We all grew up knowing that it’s bad for our teeth, and grew accustomed to the fact that it might add inches to our waistlines, but news that sugar may also be damaging our general health came as something as a surprise to the general public when David Gillespie published his headline-grabbing book, Sweet Poison.

Since then, celebrities have been saying farewell to refined sugar in their tens, and a quick trawl through WordPress will reveal hundreds of blogs documenting the evidently quite tough journey from a sweet life to one that’s savoury.

But Gillespie is certainly no nutritionist, and his book focuses largely on the role sugar plays in our nation’s battle with obesity.

In 2007, dermatologist Dr Frederic Brandt proposed that by reducing your sugar intake, you can turn back the clock by 10 years, improving the tone, texture and radiance of your skin. 10 Minutes/10 Years: Your Definitive Guide To A Beautiful And Youthful Appearance documented how Brandt, who counts Madonna and Cher as his clients, saw an improvement in his skin when he eliminated sugar from his diet.

‘In a nutshell, sugar hastens the degradation of elastin and collagen, both key skin proteins,’ he says.

According to Brandt, it doesn’t matter where the sugar comes from – a bottle of soft drink or a piece of fruit rich in fructose – the trouble starts as soon as the sweet stuff hits your bloodstream.

‘The sugar triggers a process in the body called glycation. This is where the sugar molecules bind to your protein fibres – those wonderfully springy and resilient collagen and elastin fibres – which are the building blocks of skin,’ he explains.

‘Imagine that your collagen is your skin’s mattress and the elastin fibres are the coils holding it together. The sugar attacks these fibres, making them less elastic and more brittle so they break. The result is that your once-youthful skin starts to sag and look old.’

But, according to Sydney nutritionist and author Michele Chevalley Hedge, it gets worse. She says that the glycation process causes these proteins to mutate, creating harmful new molecules called Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs), which can accumulate and cause further inflammation and damage to collagen and elastin. Consuming too much refined sugar also reduces antioxidants, which help keep skin looking healthy.

Last year, Hedge spoke out about her concern over the amount of ‘hidden’ sugar in the Australian diet. Rather than refraining from buying a packet of sweets, or an iced bun, where the sugar is nothing but visible, Hedge cites products such as white bread, breakfast cereal, muesli bars, sports drinks and flavoured yoghurts as the key culprits.

‘Australia has an excellent awareness of the damage that sun can do to our skin but no one realises the damage that sugar can do,’ Hedge said. ‘If you put someone on a low-sugar diet it really has enormous impact.’

The popular nutritionist, Patrick Holford, has recently published his top ten tips for looking and feeling younger. ‘No one tells us how to age well,’ he says. ‘If you change your attitude and regard your body in a similar way to a home, which needs regular maintenance and preventative work, we can alter our later years, prolong your life and improve the quality of it.’

Holford references the impact sugar can have on ageing, and suggests a diet that is higher in fibre can go some way to limit the impact sugar has on the body. Fibre in complex carbohydrates is what slows down the release of sugars into the blood, so go for soluble fibres such as those found in oats, which are also present in chia seeds and flax seeds which you can sprinkle on to a meal.

‘To get maximum fibre effect, try glucomannan fibre from the konjac plant,’ he says. ‘Add a heaped tablespoonful to a glass of water, then take it at the start of a meal.

Glucomannan taken this way will almost halve the blood sugar spike of that meal, therefore making the whole meal more slow-releasing and therefore healthier.’

The Grim Reaper

Professor Cynthia Kenyon recently added weight to the role sugar plays in ageing, with her research on roundworms. She found that, by following a diet that is low in calories and rich in nutrients, not only can lifespan be extended, but the compounds that make sure skin and muscle-building proteins are working properly can be boosted. The result? A more youthful-looking you.

Kenyon, who is based at the University of California, San Francisco, found that the carbohydrates we eat directly affect two genes that govern youthfulness and longevity.

The first gene, which Kenyon nicknamed the Grim Reaper, affects longevity, and can be ‘turned off’ by eating fewer calories. The second gene, DAF 16, she named ‘Sweet Sixteen’ because of its anti-ageing impact on the worms. Interestingly, Sweet Sixteen is only turned on when the Grim Reaper is turned off.

‘DAF 16 sends out instructions to a whole range of repair and renovation genes,’ says Professor Kenyon. ‘Your supply of natural anti-oxidants goes up, damping down damaging free radicals.’

Kenyon’s discovery adds more detail to the role sugar plays in ageing. Carbohydrates make the body produce more insulin, to mop up the blood sugar produced by the carbs. The insulin ‘turns on’ the Grim Reaper gene, meaning that Sweet Sixteen remains inactive. By cutting down the carbs, the ‘elixir’ gene is allowed to work its magic.

‘Carbohydrates, and especially refined ones like sugar, make you produce lots of extra insulin. I’ve been keeping my intake really low ever since I discovered this,’ says Professor Kenyon. ‘I’ve cut out all starch such as potatoes, noodles, rice, bread and pasta.

`Instead I have salads, but no sweet dressing, lots of olive oil and nuts, tons of green vegetables along with cheese, chicken and eggs.
‘I’ll have a hamburger without a bun and fish without batter or chips. I eat some fruit every day, but not too much and almost no processed food. I stay away from sweets, except 80 percent chocolate.’

Despite this step forward, others remain unconvinced, in favour of further research. ‘The exact role of insulin in health and ageing is a promising and fascinating area,’ says David Gems, deputy director of the Institute for Healthy Ageing at University College, London.
‘But I’m not sure the evidence for the benefit of cutting carbohydrates and keeping insulin levels down is strong enough yet.’

Antioxidants and Inflammation

‘Dietary choices are critical to delay the onset of ageing and age-related diseases, and the sooner you start, the greater the benefit,’ says Susan Moores, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. Indeed, the role antioxidants play in preventing the onset of an aged appearance has been subject of debate for some time.

According to dermatologist and best-selling author, Dr Nicholas Perricone, age-related changes may be reversed by consuming foods and drinks that are rich in a variety of compounds, including antioxidants, and are anti-inflammatory, such as cold-water fish and richly coloured fruits and vegetables.

Perricone believes that the ageing process can be slowed or even reversed by choosing foods that are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory. ‘All foods fit into three categories: pro-inflammatory, neutral, or anti-inflammatory,’ he says.

It follows that, by consuming foods that promote inflammation, we are accelerating the ageing process. ‘If we eat large amounts of saturated or trans fatty acids, sugars and starches, insulin levels surge and trigger an anti-inflammatory response and accelerate the aging process,’ he explains.

Vitamins and Minerals

We know what we shouldn’t be eating. But what about the foods that have a positive impact on our appearance? Plenty of research has shown that some vitamins – including vitamins A, C and E – and the minerals zinc and selenium are thought to keep wrinkles at bay by reducing the number of free radicals produced by skin cells. But some specific vitamins have added benefits.

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that repairs dry, cracked skin when applied topically. Available as a supplement and rich in nuts, seeds, leafy green veggies and vegetable oils, adequate intake of Vitamin E is thought to help prevent and limit the damage caused by free radicals and oxidation, whilst also improving the functioning of the immune system.

Whilst also an antioxidant, vitamin C helps regenerate other antioxidants in the body – including vitamin E – and improves the firmness and production of collagen. As the structural element that provides shape to your skin, getting enough vitamin C in your diet should therefore leave your skin looking firm and youthful.

Niacin, or vitamin B3, can help the skin retain moisture, promotes natural exfoliation, or the sloughing of dead skin cells as newer ones move towards the skin’s surface, and raises the HDL cholesterol whilst lowering triglycerides. It’s therefore good for your skin, both inside and out.

Your appearance – young or old – is a good indicator of the state of your health. Whilst it may not provide the instant gratification of anti-wrinkle injections, it seems a few small changes to your diet can pay dividends when it comes to your appearance.

By cutting back on sugar, increasing your intake of fibre and loading your plate with vital vitamins, it won’t just be your skin that’s saying thank you. It’s likely the overall health of your eyes, teeth, nails and bones will also be reaping the rewards.


NUTS are rich in healthy fats that will benefit the elastin and collagen in skin, helping it to maintain its structure.

FISH is rich in omega-3 fatty acids – a powerful anti-inflammatory full of health benefits.

WATER is essential for the hydration of the skin, muscles and all the organs in the body. Stick to a minimum of three to four glasses of pure water on top of your usual fluids.

FRUIT AND VEGGIES are packed full of antioxidants that will gobble up your free radicals. If you’re following a low-sugar diet then stick to fruits that are low in fructose such as pineapples, strawberries, avocado and bananas and you’ll be on to a winner.

WHOLE GRAINS provide a great source of soluble fibre, whilst also packing a punch when it comes to phytonutrients. Three serves a day are recommended.

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About the Author

Lizzy has more than ten years’ experience in the print and digital publishing arena and is the Editor at Single File. Having moved from the UK to Australia in 2008, Lizzy has worked for a number of leading publishers in Sydney and has particular expertise in the health, wellness and travel markets. If you have any questions for Lizzy, you can send them across by email to lizzy@singlefile.com.au.

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