Sun damage of the skin is caused by an accumulation of sun exposure. As sun damaged skin is one major cause of skin cancer, it is a good idea to think of protecting your skin and still get sunshine, which remains essential for wellbeing and health. We usually think of sunscreen to prevent sun damage. What about nutrition? What foods can protect our skin? Answers with Megan Witt, Registered Dietitian.
How important is nutrition in sun protection?
In addition to heading out with adequate topical sun protection we can also nourish our skin from the inside out to help us naturally reduce damage from excess sun exposure. Eating an antioxidant-rich diet along with foods that also reduce inflammation can give the body a bit of natural, internal sun protection. A study published in the Sept 2007 issue of Molecular Biotechnology found that after about 3 months on a flavonoid and carotenoid-rich diet, volunteers showed a decrease in sun sensitivity. (Mol Biotechnol. 2007 Sep;37(1):26-30.)
Free radicals generated from UV light exposure contribute to cell damage, aging, and increase the risk of skin cancer. Antioxidants work to quelch free radicals and stop their harmful effects. Some antioxidants you may recognize include vitamins A, C, and E, selenium, beta carotene, and lycopene. There are literally thousands of compounds in plant-based foods that act as antioxidants, many of which we have yet to discover. These compounds provide the plant protection from excess UV light and when consumed by us as food, end up in our tissues providing a similar benefit.
Does it mean good nutritional habits could replace a sunscreen in some cases?
No, it will not replace topical sun protection, but provides “bonus” internal protection that will be there 365 days a year.
What would be a good diet to prepare your skin for summer?
A predominantly plant based diet with occasional fatty cold water fish intake is a great foundation. Cold water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, anchovies, and sardines are rich in the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats EPA and DHA. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans are naturally rich in antioxidant compounds. A few foods especially high in antioxidants include pomegranates, various berries such as blueberries and raspberries, green leafy vegetables, cherries, plums, even dark chocolate and tea. Generally the deeper the color of the produce, the greater the concentration will be of protective plant compounds.
As the temperature heats up, you may also need to increase fluid consumption. Try mainly to drink water, unsweetened green, white or black teas, and herbal teas to avoid extra calories and artificial sweeteners.
Green and white teas are a rich source of the antioxidant EGCG. White tea contains the most as it is the least processed, followed by green, then black tea. Emerging research suggests that consumption and topical application of EGCG can help protect the skin from UV damage and skin cancer. One may need to drink 4-5 cups a day to reap the benefits from oral intake. You can also find it in topical beauty products that contain EGCG or ‘green tea extract’.
Although cocoa is not a popular summer beverage, this study shows how consuming more antioxidants can really protect skin. A study published in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Nutrition found that women who consumed a concentrated cocoa beverage-rich in antioxidant flavanols, had a reduced amount of skin roughness and scaling after exposure to UV light compared to women who consumed a cocoa beverage with a minimal amount of flavanols. The higher amount of antioxidant flavanols in the concentrated beverage provided more UV protection.
Now, instead of loading up on rich, sugary chocolates you could add natural unsweetened cocoa powder to your protein shakes or sprinkle it into your oatmeal for an antioxidant boost. Unsweetened cocoa powder is just that, nothing else.
Are there any foods to avoid when sunbathing?
Limit alcohol and excessive caffeine consumption as they can be dehydrating, especially if you are going to be out for long periods in extreme heat or humidity. Alcohol dehydrates the body and the skin and can deplete nutrients important to skin health.
Sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats are all pro-inflammatory and increase the rate of aging. Avoiding foods containing these age-accelerating ingredients is always a good idea. Also, avoid foods that you are sensitive or allergic to as they can contribute to increased inflammation in the body as well.
Certain medications can increase sun-sensitivity so talk with a pharmacist to see if you need to take extra precautions when in the sun.
What are your top meals (breakfast, snack, dinner…) that are good sun protectors?
Breakfast- A bowl of old-fashioned oats mixed with blueberries topped off with a couple tablespoons of chopped almonds (vitamin E rich). Enjoy with a hot or cold glass of green or white tea, sweetened lightly with a bit of Stevia.
Snack ideas- Cut up fresh veggies such as carrots, cucumbers, red or green peppers and enjoy with hummus (a mixture of garbanzo beans, ground sesame seeds, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and cumin). Enjoy a nice cold glass of fresh mint tea.
Frozen or fresh fruit smoothies- mix 1 cup fresh or frozen berries of choice (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries), with ½ cup pomegranate juice and ½ cup milk, soy milk, or rice milk. Sweeten to taste with stevia or agave nectar. Blend and enjoy.
Whole grain crackers topped with herbed lowfat cream cheese. Chop up fresh herbs of choice (rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, etc.) and mix into cheese. Fresh herbs actually contain more antioxidants than many common fruits and vegetables. Herbs in the oregano family contain the most antioxidant power-42 times more than apples and 4 times more than blueberries.
Lunch- Curried chicken salad that includes walnuts, raisins, and red onion on a bed of mixed greens. Curry contains the spice turmeric which has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Dinner- Grilled wild Alaskan salmon, sautéed kale in garlic and olive oil, with side of cinnamon baked sweet potato. Enjoy a piece of dark chocolate torte topped with fresh raspberries for dessert.
When you apply oil externally on your skin, it attracts solar rays. What about taking oil internally, does it really protect your skin from sun damage?
Increasing the amount of certain fats in the diet can help reduce the amount of damage caused by UV sun exposure. EPA and DHA are omega 3 fats found in cold water fish. They are important to skin health in general and are a component of skin cell membranes. While they don’t block UV rays, their potent anti-inflammatory properties do help protect the skin. Most research has examined the EPA omega 3 fat and has found that this fat increases the amount of time it takes to get a burn and may even help reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Do you advise to supplement your diet with nutrients? Which ones and what dosage?
Ideally we should try to get most of our nutrients from dietary intake. But, there are situations in which supplements can be of benefit and are recommended. When one’s diet is lacking or inconsistent, a basic multivitamin can provide some nutritional insurance. Other supplements I often recommend due to inadequate dietary intake include calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega 3 fatty acids.
Many people do not like fish or have concerns about mercury contamination in fish. In this case I feel taking fish oil supplements is actually a safer choice than frequently consuming certain types of fish. Tests done by ConsumerLab.com on omega-3 fatty acid supplements showed that all but two were fresh and all contained their claimed amounts of EPA and DHA. None of the products were found to contain detectable levels of mercury. By comparison, mercury levels in fish generally range from 10 ppb to 1,000 ppb, depending on the fish. In addition, none of the products contained unsafe levels of PCBs. PCBs have been found in several fish including farm-raised salmon.
The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommends 650 mg EPA /DHA per day for adults over 15. The American Heart Association recommends 1000 mg/day for those with existing heart disease, but other conditions may require more. Many safely take up to 3000 mg/day, but talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are already on medication that thins the blood before taking fish oil supplements.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that taking a dietary supplement of mixed carotenoids including beta carotene, lutein, and lycopene, can help protect the skin from damage caused by UV radiation. The study used 8 mg/day of each. Other research found a similar effect when combining vitamin C and vitamin E supplements.
Supplement recommendations should ideally be individualized to the person’s unique needs based on their medical history, normal food intake, and genetics.
Can you take too many of them? For example, when you take too much beta carotene, your skin sometimes turns orange. Is this bad?
Yes! You can absolutely take too much of a vitamin supplement. Be cautious with vitamin A. You should not take more than 3000 IU/day of vitamin A in the retinol form which comes from animal sources. Look for multis with 50% of vitamin A from retinol (no more than 3000 IU per day) and 50% from beta-carotene. The retinol form of vitamin A can be toxic to the liver, cause birth defects, and increases the risk of hip fractures in older adults.
Beta-carotene obtained from plant sources can be converted into vitamin A in the body but it does not pose the toxic threat that the retinol form of vitamin A does. However, smokers should not take beta-carotene supplements because of previous studies suggesting an increased risk of lung cancer, but these supplements appear safe for non-smokers. Yellow, orange, red and pink fruits and vegetables are typically rich in carotenoids and would be a safe and healthy alternative.
I would not recommend taking so much beta-carotene that you ended up looking orange though. It’s usually not a good idea to pick one nutrient and take large amounts of it. You can easily take in adequate amounts of beta carotene and other carotenoids via food. For example ½ cup cooked spinach contains over 11,000 IU vitamin A from beta carotene and one 7.5 inch carrot contains over 8600 IU vitamin A. And, these veggies contain other important compounds that you wouldn’t find in a beta-carotene supplement.
Is this kind of diet and supplementation suitable for children as well?
We should always encourage our kids to eat a balanced diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables as the best way to get all the nutrients they need. But, if you feel they aren’t eating enough variety to meet their needs then a basic multivitamin is safe.
In my opinion, the most important dietary supplement you can provide your kids is essential omega 3 fats. One reason is that kids usually don’t eat fish or other food sources. The other reason is because of the risk of mercury contamination in today’s fish supply. I feel better about giving my young children a dietary supplement of fish oil that has been tested for potentially harmful toxins. In young children under age 5, DHA is the fatty acid of most importance. Many products are now fortified with DHA including juices, milk, and yogurt. The dosing ranges from 150-250 mg DHA/day for young children over 2. There is no RDA established for omega 3 fats. As children age, then they can begin to increase the amount of EPA they take.
What about sunstroke and dehydration. What kind of foods should be taken to prevent it?
In extreme hot and humid weather it is important to be prepared and take precautions. Stay adequately hydrated with plain water or other alcohol-free beverages. If you do drink alcohol, alternate a water with each alcoholic drink. Although you may want to quench your thirst with a beer, it will only further dehydrate you. Some caffeine can be consumed, but try to not consume exclusively caffeinated beverages. If you are going to be out for extended periods of time doing physical work, then consuming a sports beverage to replace electrolytes is recommended.
On average, the foods we eat contribute to about 20% of our daily fluid needs. Fruits and vegetables are fluid-rich. Watermelon, lettuce, and tomatoes are more than 90% water. Milk, yogurt, soymilk, jell-o, pudding, and meal-replacement shakes also can contribute to fluid needs.
On extremely hot days, don’t over exert yourself. Seek shade and find ways to keep your body temperature from getting too hot by using cool rags, icy drinks, or finding air conditioning. Sunstroke is a very serious condition, so take the proper precautions.
Do you have any other advice to share with us in terms of nutrition to get ready for a sunny summer?
For most of the US, they have experienced a long, cold winter with little sun exposure. I do recommend they get a little sunscreen-free sun exposure to help boost vitamin D levels. People with lighter skin tones need only spend about 10-15 minutes in the sun 2-3 times a week. Those with darker skin tones will require a little more time in the sun.
Remember to still use sunscreen and take the proper precautions when in the sun for extended periods of time! Overexposure to the sun can lead to premature aging and skin cancer, but under-exposure and low vitamin D levels can lead to health problems too.