The best way to look healthy and attractive may not be inside a $100 jar of cream or under a surgeon's knife. What you put on your plate may be just as important as what you put on your skin.
An increasing number of studies and clinical trials are underlining the importance of "beauty foods" -- super-nourishing fruits, vegetables, nuts, teas and other everyday foods that may replace a trip to the spa with a stop at the neighborhood grocery store.
Did you know that eating salmon and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids could result in fewer wrinkles? That you could brighten your smile with cranberries? That spinach, broccoli and Swiss chard contain vitamins that help produce an oily substance that acts as a natural hair conditioner?
"Taking care of your skin is from the outside in, as well as the inside out," says Dr. Joely Kaufman, a Miami dermatologist who participates in aging research and is an assistant professor at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "A good skin care regimen involves both topical and dietary regimens."
The most obvious sign of the beauty foods movement has started appearing on store shelves. Last year, the American Dental Association (ADA) identified foods that are good for oral health with a "Smile Healthy" sticker. The small stamp alerts shoppers that certain foods and drinks have been tested and met the standards set by the ADA for promoting healthy teeth, including fluoridated water.
"There's real science behind the sticker," says Dr. Dominick DePaola, a professor at Nova Southeastern University's College of Dental Medicine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is helping the ADA identify foods worthy of the logo. "We don't want people to think there are good and bad foods; unless you abuse food, it's really not bad. But we want to be able to tell people that these are the better choices."
Most experts say eating a well-balanced diet is the best way to ensure healthy benefits. If you rely on supplements as part of your healthy beauty regimen, think again. Recent research suggests it's better to get your nutrients from whole foods, not pills.
In an academic review published in Nutrition Reviews last year, University of Minnesota public health professor David Jacobs concluded we derive more benefits from eating whole foods rather than isolating nutrients for supplements or fortifying foods with them (vitamin C or calcium added to orange juice). It's the synergy between vitamins and nutrients in naturally occurring food that creates optimal benefits, Jacobs believes.
Jacobs isn't against supplements; he believes they're beneficial for people with deficiencies and other medical needs. But most people should get their nutrients from food, he said. "The totality of the diet is what's important. What we're eating -- plant or animal -- previously was a living organism and the closer it is to that form, the better."
And specific foods are proving to pack more punch in grooming a glowing complexion, shiny hair, healthy teeth and strong nails.
"There have been several studies linking foods rich in antioxidants to protection from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light," Kaufman says. "Ultraviolet radiation is known to cause production of harmful free radicals, which are linked to aging and skin cancer."
Kaufman urges patients to stay well-hydrated with water because dehydration makes the skin appear dull, rough and older. Current thinking says you should let thirst guide how much water you drink every day. Liquids are the primary source, but you can also eat food with high water content.
In "Food Cures: Treat Common Health Concerns, Look Younger & Live Longer" (Rodale, $18.95), nutrition expert Joy Bauer writes that in addition to avoiding too much sun and smoking -- the "two worst things for your skin" -- fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins C and E nourish and protect the skin.
Avoid sugary foods, refined-flour baked goods and pop, Bauer recommends. They cause inflammation in skin cells and throughout the body, causing premature aging and wrinkles. (If that doesn't turn you off of soft drinks, nothing will.)
It follows that whatever you eat affects your teeth and gums. But sugars are not the only culprit. Even a whole-wheat roll can be damaging. Carb-based foods such as breads and crackers tend to have a chewy texture that makes it easier for them to get caught between teeth and under the gum line, where bacteria can accumulate.
If you have carbs at a meal, rather than as a snack, you can curb the negatives. When you eat larger amounts of food, you produce more saliva, which helps wash food particles away, says the American Dietetic Association.
On the other hand, going on a low-calorie fad diet may be the worst thing you can do to your hair. Diets are often low in important nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc and vitamin A, which can stunt hair growth and lead to dullness or even hair loss.
Your hair grows up to a half-inch every month and the foundation for all that new hair, skin and nail growth is the nutrients we eat. If you were born with fine, thin hair, no food will give you thick locks. But a well-balanced diet can make a difference, nutrition experts say.