There’s hardly a more annoying, eye roll-inducing statement than “You are what you eat.” But the reality is: What you eat affects you. Dietary choices can impact your habits from grocery shopping to meal prepping, your mental and physical health, and, obviously, your waistline.
But that’s not all. What you eat can also affect your skin. Choosing a certain diet might not only be a good idea for your physical health goals—improving heart health, training for a 5K, building max strength for CrossFit—but might also help improve your skin’s health. We chatted with some experts to find out how these four popular diets actually affect your skin.
What it is: Otherwise known as the “caveman diet,” Paleo is a popular diet plan in which followers eat only foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have consumed. Founder Loren Cordain, Ph.D., says that because Paleo is more in line with what our genetic ancestors ate, the lifestyle helps people minimize their risk of diseases and lose weight. A Paleo diet is rich in meats, fruits, vegetables, seafood, and nuts—but low in grains; dairy; added salt; and legumes such as peanuts, beans, lentils, and soybeans. (Want to know more? Check out our beginner's guide to going Paleo.)
What that means for your skin: Let’s just say there’s a reason many beauty supplements contain protein-rich formulas: Proteins are essential for healthy skin. “[They] are broken down into amino acids, which are the building blocks for all of the proteins found in the skin, hair, and nails, as well as in the rest of the body,” explains Hadley King, M.D., dermatologist at SKINNEY Medspa in New York City. So just as protein is the key to building muscle, it’s also necessary for building up collagen for healthy, elastic, strong skin.
But protein isn’t the only dietary staple a Paleo-rich diet can provide. “Sufficient healthy fats are necessary for the barrier function of our skin,” King says. Translation: Healthy fats from foods such as olive oil and avocados can help your skin stay hydrated and protected from the elements.
Of course, one thing to keep in mind when you're eating a protein-rich diet is the type of meat. There’s still some concern around hormone-treated poultry, explains S. Manjula Jegasothy, M.D., CEO and founder of Miami Skin Institute. “Foods that are high in exogenous [external] hormones, such as those extra-large, nonorganic chicken breasts and other animal proteins that have been treated with hormones on the farm, have been linked to higher overall cortisol levels,” she says. Higher cortisol levels can mean higher testosterone and estrogen or progesterone levels, which potentially lead to acne, she explains.
Ultimately though, as long as your dietary restrictions don’t result in a deficiency of any particular vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients, then following a Paleo diet will actually be good for your skin, King says, adding that avoiding added salt might also lead to decreased puffiness (a.k.a. no under-eye bags from that late night out).
What it is: The popular 30-day diet is somewhat similar to Paleo, in that it focuses primarily on meats and veggies. But unlike Paleo, Whole30 is pretty restrictive for 30 days, then helps followers gradually reintroduce certain foods after the program is over. Dieters consume meats such as poultry, fish, and red meat; veggies; some fruits; and fats. Whole30 excludes grains, beans or legumes, dairy, sugar (artificial or natural), soy, and booze. (Want to know more? Check out our beginner's guide to the Whole30.)
What that means for your skin: Whole30 followers also reap the benefits of a protein-rich and fat-heavy diet in terms of skin barrier health. But because Whole30ers also eliminate sugars and alcohol, they might notice an improvement in the look of their skin.
Low sugar levels are beneficial for acne sufferers and older skin, explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He says high sugar levels in the blood can lead to a process called glycation, in which sugar molecules attach to collagen, leading to the hardening of the collagen and resulting in early aging.
As if that wasn’t enough, many of the foods eliminated during Whole30 trigger inflammatory responses in our body and create havoc in our immune system all the way to our skin, says Danielle Stadelman, a registered dietitian from Long Beach, California. “Inflammation triggers cells to clog pores, leading to acne and skin flare-ups,” she says. Sugar, fried foods, refined carbohydrates, dairy (for some people), and saturated fats can all cause inflammation, Stadelman says. “Cutting out specific foods could help certain people slowly clear up their skin, especially if their previous diet was high in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats before,” she adds.
What it is: Though going dairy-free is primarily seen as a lifestyle choice for those who are lactose intolerant, some choose to eliminate dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, etc.) to reduce fat and sugar, cut calories, and lose weight.
What that means for your skin: Here’s where things get tricky. Although many associate dairy with acne breakouts, there’s not a ton of research to support this. However, Jegasothy says foods rich in endogenous (or inherent) hormones like the ones found in animal milk could still be linked to breakouts, so eliminating dairy might be beneficial for controlling hormone-related skin conditions such as acne and other cystic disorders. Also, skim milk has a relatively higher concentration of sugar to fat, which might play a role in causing acne inflammation, Zeichner says.
However, if you’re considering eliminating dairy, you might be missing out on gut-healthy (and thus skin-healthy) probiotics like those found in Greek yogurt and some cheeses. Ditching dairy might also lead to a decrease in vitamin D, which helps the skin regenerate when exposed to UV rays and other environmental signs of aging.
Ultimately, if you suffer from breakouts, Stadelman says it’s perfectly fine to eliminate dairy to see if it’s the culprit, but rarely has she found it be the sole cause. “Most dairy products are packed full of sugar and processed ingredients that are linked to inflammation in the body, which could exacerbate skin problems such as acne,” she says.
What it is: These days gluten-free diets aren't just for people with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. Many who ditch gluten (a protein naturally found in wheat, including spelt, kamut, farro, and bulgur, and other grains, such as barley and rye) believe doing so helps with bloating, stomach problems, and sometimes getting rid of a few extra pounds.
What that means for your skin: First and foremost, if you have celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis, then eliminating gluten is essential for preventing the extremely itchy, blistering rash associated with the diseases, King says. But for the rest of us, ditching gluten—mainly carbs—might lead to a decrease in acne, as many foods that contain gluten also have a high glycemic index, which has been linked to inflammation in the body.
However, according to Stadelman, going gluten-free can have both positive and negative affects on the skin. “Eliminating processed grains will help reduce blood sugar spikes, which can decrease sagging skin and collagen breakdown,” she says, cautioning that anyone going gluten-free should be wary of replacing gluten-containing foods with processed gluten-free products, as they can still spike your blood sugar, potentially leading to breakouts.
Conversely, she warns that eliminating all gluten means you’re missing out on great sources of vitamins B and selenium, which can help fight off inflammation related to skin damage. “A gluten-free diet may not work for everyone,” she explains. “However, if you have skin flare-ups and nothing else has worked, go for it. Just remember to watch out for added sugar and fats in gluten-free products.”