Pricey products that promise clear, radiant skin and strong, shiny hair fill store shelves, but a better path to those results might be right on your plate.
"There are many nutrients that are vital to keeping your hair and skin healthy, and your diet is the main way to get them," said Dr. Valerie Goldburt, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center and a dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology's Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery in East Setauket.
Carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals -- all are important in keeping your hair and skin looking great, she said.
"Eating poorly, like processed food, not only doesn't do anything for your body, it can actually cause harm," Goldburt said. "Processed foods don't get digested as easily and can cause inflammation that can literally break down your skin."
Also, she said, when the body doesn't get what it needs, it starts to divert nutrients away from less important organs so, for instance, it will focus on preserving the heart, and your hair and skin will suffer.
And don't forget the water, which keeps skin hydrated and rids the body of toxins. "You should drink half of your body weight in ounces of water per day," Goldburt said. "Not juice, not coffee, just plain old water." That's 80 ounces a day for someone weighing 160 pounds.
What's Best for Your Skin
Stay away from fad diets that nix the fat. "Fats are really important for your body and your skin, and you can only get them in your diet -- meaning, your body can't make them," Goldburt said. Fatty, ocean-sourced fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, herring, anchovies and sardines, as well as walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil, are good sources of omega-3s, which Goldburt says may reduce inflammation in the body that could be exacerbating skin conditions. "These essential fatty acids also help to keep your skin healthy, maintain its natural oil barrier and make it look younger -- less wrinkly -- and clearer," Goldburt added. Other sources of "good fats" are olive oil and avocados.
Wrinkles, skin thickening, discoloration and decreased elasticity are caused by oxidation of cells by molecules called free radicals, said Lisa Licari, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant at Long Island Mind and Body in Garden City.
"Eating foods rich in antioxidants -- which include vitamins A, C, E and selenium -- can slow oxidation and those undesirable skin changes," Licari said. Good choices, she said, are tomatoes, whole-wheat pasta and olive oil.
What's Worst for Your Skin
A high-glycemic diet, meaning lots of carbohydrates and processed foods, "can lead to insulin resistance, where the body needs to produce more of the hormone insulin in order to clear sugar from the blood," Goldburt said. Known for its link to high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, insulin resistance "also leads to acne and skin inflammation," she said.
If you have acne, Goldburt said, limit your dairy intake. "Dairy can prompt the body to produce insulinlike growth hormone, which can cause an increase in clogged pores and acne," she said. "Patients with serious acne should avoid all dairy for a six-month trial."
Try to eliminate fried foods, white bread and candy, which is loaded in sugar, advises Dr. Adam Schaffner, a plastic surgeon and skin care expert from Port Washington. He said these culprits contribute to multiple conditions that cause red, dry, flaky skin. Candy, for instance, damages collagen and elastin, the fibers that keep skin firm, he said, leading to wrinkles and dull skin. Also on Schaffner's taboo list: soda, coffee and alcohol, which can dehydrate the body and take a toll on your skin.
What's Best for Your Hair
For super hair, Schaffner said, don't skip the salad: "Dark green vegetables, such as spinach, are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, which are required for the body to produce sebum, the oily substance secreted by hair follicles that naturally conditions hair." Legumes, such as kidney beans and lentils, are good sources of protein to promote hair growth, he added, and they also contain zinc and biotin, needed to maintain healthy hair.
Goldburt pointed out that "most of us don't get enough biotin in our diet to make a difference for hair growth. If you're experiencing hair loss, often the first thing the dermatologist will do is put you on biotin supplements. You need at least 2,000 micrograms a day for active hair loss."
Licari's suggested food choices include salmon, for omega-3s, iron and B12 to promote scalp health and protein to promote growth; spinach and Swiss chard, for vitamins A and C, which help hair produce sebum, a natural conditioner; and cashews, for omega-3s and zinc. A zinc deficiency, she said, can cause hair loss.
What's Worst for Your Hair
"Avoid diets that over-restrict calories or specific foods," Licari said. "This can lead to vitamin and protein deficiencies and affect hair health," causing slow growth, dull and brittle hair and hair loss.
And if you don't want your hair to fall flat, drive past the fast-food outlets. Fried and greasy foods contain trans fats, which Schaffner said cause excessive oiliness.