By Lisa Drayer, MA, RD
It may seem surprising, but one of the most important things you can do to maintain a youthful, glowing appearance is to eat foods that provide your features with optimal nutrition. I often tell friends and clients that you can slather on all the moisturizer you want; over-condition your hair to the point of exhaustion or hide your unsightly nails under layers of polish, but unless your skin, hair, teeth, and nails and every other part of your body are getting the nutrients they need, you are not going to look your best.
The foods we eat serve as the nutritional foundation for our features, and our appearance is enhanced or diminished, based on whether we choose to consume or avoid specific nutrients in our diet. Brittle nails? Maybe you’re suffering from an iron deficiency. Dry skin? Perhaps you are not eating enough beauty-enhancing fats.
Below are some of the foods you will want to include in your diet for glowing skin, fuller hair, and healthier nails. Since the warmer weather is upon us, I included a Beauty Diet Summer Menu to get you started on the path to feeding your features and looking fantastic!
FOR GLOWING SKIN or FEEDING YOUR SKIN:
When you feed your skin with beauty nutrients, it will give back to you in the form of a glowing complexion for years to come.
To keep skin soft and supple, I recommend consuming beauty-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon, trout, and herring, as well as some plant foods like walnuts and flaxseeds, at least three times per week. Omega-3 fats lubricate skin and prevent moisture loss from cells. They also protect against inflammation that can lead to dry scaly skin, redness, and acne.
Other skin friendly foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach, which are rich in beta-carotene. This pigment gets converted to vitamin A in the body, which keeps skin soft and smooth. Kiwi, oranges, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and red peppers are top sources of vitamin C, which stimulates collagen synthesis and protects against wrinkles.
I cannot forget to tell you about this delicious snack for skin: dark chocolate. The sweet treat contains high levels of cocoa flavanols – these are plant compounds with antioxidant properties, and they have been associated with softer, more hydrated skin according to recent research.
If you spend a lot of time in the sun this summer, you will definitely need your SPF. You will also be smart to include spinach and tomatoes in your diet, as well as fruits like watermelon, cantaloupe, and mangoes. These foods contain carotenoids—specific names include beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein—which may help protect the skin against sunburn.
FOR HEALTHY HAIR or FEEDING YOUR HAIR:
Many people assume that good hair care starts with shampoo. In fact, beautiful hair starts with what you eat.
Hair is mostly made of protein (in the form of keratin) and your protein intake can have a dramatic effect on the texture and color of your hair. I recommend consuming at least 25% of calories from protein on a daily basis. Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, peanut butter, and low-fat dairy (including Greek yogurt, which has more protein than its non-Greek counterpart), are all excellent sources of protein.
When it comes to hair health, there are two important minerals that I always recommend for a marvelous mane: iron and zinc. Iron helps red blood cells carry oxygen to the hair follicles, and keeps hair smooth and strong. Even if you are not clinically anemic, you can experience hair loss simply from not getting enough iron in your diet. Lack of iron can also lead to dry, brittle hair.
Zinc is also important for a healthy scalp and beautiful hair. Zinc protects the scalp, preventing it from becoming dry and flaky. It also keeps hair healthy and full: low levels can cause hair loss and even a loss of eyelashes.
Oysters, clams, crabmeat, lean meats, and dark meat poultry are good sources of iron and zinc. Tofu, lentils, and beans are plant sources of these important hair minerals. (Plant foods contain non-heme iron, which is not as well absorbed as the heme iron in animal foods; however, you can enhance your body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron by consuming a small amount of vitamin C-rich orange juice in the same meal).
FOR BEAUTIFUL NAILS OR FEEDING YOUR NAILS:
Fingernails are a good indicator of your nutritional status, and to have beautiful, healthy nails it’s important to eat a well-balanced diet rich in beauty nutrients.
Similar to hair, one of the most important nail-boosting nutrients is protein, found in fish, poultry, cottage cheese, eggs, dairy, and peanut butter. Our nails are made of protein (keratin), so to grow long, strong nails, I recommend consuming a little bit of protein with every meal and snack. This will help you meet your protein goals, and will provide your body with an adequate amount of amino acids for nail growth.
B vitamins are also important for nail growth, and the B vitamin biotin has been associated with increased nail strength among individuals with brittle nails. Biotin is found in whole grains, eggs, salmon, and yogurt.
For longer, stronger nails, I also recommend consuming zinc-rich foods (oysters are the best food source) and iron-rich foods, including shellfish, lean meats, and iron-fortified cereals.
While there is no scientific evidence that calcium intake significantly alters nail quality, those who take calcium supplements sometimes comment that their nails are less brittle or smoother, or that they grow faster, according to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Good food sources of calcium include yogurt, milk, tofu, cheese, kale, and bok choy.
Lisa Drayer, M.A., R.D., is a nationally known nutritionist and health journalist. She has been a contributor to CNN and is the author of THE BEAUTY DIET: Looking Great Has Never Been So Delicious (McGraw-Hill) and STRONG, SLIM, and 30! Eat Right, Stay Young, Feel Great and Look FABULOUS (McGraw-Hill). For more information, visit www.lisadrayer.com
Sweet Potato, Zucchini, & Goat Cheese Frittata Adding sweet potatoes gives a boost of beauty-enhancing beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that keeps skin smooth and looking young.
Mango, Red Onion, Avocado, Spinach & Crab Wrap Dietary carotenoids in mangoes protect skin against the sun’s UV radiation all summer long. Crab is rich in iron and zinc, two minerals that are important for terrific tresses.
Grilled Halibut & Vegetable Skewers Halibut is rich in skin-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. Tomatoes on summer skewers add lycopene to the meal, which may protect skin from sun damage.
California Turkey Burger with Creamy Avocado Yogurt Spread The protein in turkey is a key building block for healthy skin, nails, and hair. Calcium in low-fat plain yogurt helps keep bones strong, nails healthy, and teeth beautiful.
Pomegranate Blueberry Smoothie Blueberries give a huge dose of beauty-boosting antioxidants to protect against the signs of aging. Anthocyanins (bluish pigments) in blueberries keep skin soft and supple.