The SPF* of Real Food

Which real foods can protect your skin against sun damage on your next outdoor excursion?

By Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD, Food and Nutrition Writer, eSavvyHealth.

*Sun Protection Factor 

It’s common practice for those wishing to maintain healthy skin to apply creams of various kinds to prevent damage and increase desirable skin qualities. And damage due to the UV component of sunlight can prematurely age the skin, resulting in wrinkling, loss of elasticity, and sunspots. Worse, it can lead to skin cancer. This is why it is important to protect the skin by using sunblock and wearing protective clothing. 

Still, skin creams tend to be expensive, and sun block isn’t always practical.  Fortunately, like many other attributes, the health of your skin truly does come from within. Research has shown that certain real foods not only improve skin quality but even provide protection against the damaging effects of UV radiation.  

Such foods contain compounds that typically have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and photoprotective properties. While these foods don’t replace prudent sun protection practices, they might complement your efforts: 

  • Antioxidant-Rich Fruits and Vegetables: Foods high in antioxidants like vitamins C and E can help protect your skin from oxidative stress caused by UV radiation. Berries, citrus fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach, and broccoli are good choices.
  • Foods Rich in Beta-Carotene: Beta-carotene is a pigment found in many colorful fruits and vegetables. It can help protect your skin by absorbing UV radiation. Carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and dark leafy greens are high in beta-carotene.
  • Green Tea: Green tea contains polyphenols like epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that have anti-inflammatory and photoprotective effects. Consuming green tea might help reduce the harmful effects of UV radiation.
  • Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and could potentially mitigate sun-induced inflammation.
  • Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate contains flavonoids that may provide some UV protection and improve skin hydration. Opt for dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (70% or more).
  • Nuts and Seeds: Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, and flaxseeds, are sources of vitamin E and other antioxidants that can contribute to overall skin health.
  • Red and Orange Fruits: Lycopene, found in red and orange fruits like watermelon, tomatoes, pink grapefruit, pink guava, and papaya may help protect skin cells from UV damage.
  • Astaxanthin-Rich Foods: Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment found in certain seafood, like salmon, shrimp, lobster and krill. It has been studied for its potential to improve skin elasticity and provide some UV protection.
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The monounsaturated fats and antioxidants in olive oil might contribute to skin health and offer some level of sun protection.
  • Water-Rich Foods: Staying hydrated is essential for skin health, as it helps maintain skin’s elasticity and natural moisture barrier. Foods with high water content, such as cucumbers, watermelon, and celery, can contribute to hydration.

Although this is good news, it doesn’t mean that you can eat a carrot instead of applying sunscreen on your next day out. Research indicates that it takes 8-10 weeks of a diet rich in foods with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and photoprotective properties to cause measurable improvement in your skin’s response to UV radiation. But such foods contain many other health benefits, making them well worth whatever changes might be needed to include more of them in your diet. 

Another way to prevent sun damage is to skip the junk food. Many highly-processed foods contain inflammatory sugar and volatile fats that can exacerbate inflammation. On your next vacation or beach trip, think twice about what you’re placing in your picnic basket and cooler, so you miss the burn and come back with a nice healthy glow. 

Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Manager at Keck Medicine of USC in Arcadia, CA. You can find her at the barn or in the grocery aisle reading a label.

References:

  1. Photoaging (Sun Damage), Yale Medicine  
  2. SPF: Sun Protection Foods, Food and Nutrition, 2021  
  3. Skin protection against UV light by dietary antioxidants, Food and Function, 2014 

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