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.
"Taking care of your skin is from the outside in, as well as the inside out," says Dr. Joely Kaufman, a Miami Beach dermatologist who participates in aging research and is an assistant professor at the University of Miami 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. Earlier this year, the American Dental Association 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.
So far, one-gallon "Kid Pure" containers of fluoridated water have earned the stickers; the group expects to adhere more of the logos soon on some sugar-free foods, drinks and dairy products.
"There's real science behind the sticker," says Dr. Dominick DePaola, a professor at Nova Southeastern University's College of Dental Medicine, 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. Still, some specific foods are proving to pack more punch in grooming a glowing complexion, shiny hair, healthy teeth and strong nails.
Kaufman, the Miami Beach dermatologist, recommends foods rich in antioxidants -- green tea, citrus fruits like oranges and pomegranate, spinach, collard greens, broccoli, romaine lettuce and egg yolks -- to combat skin damage from the sun and aging.
"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."
Add red wine to your shopping list, too. It contains resveratrol, an antioxidant found in the skin of red grapes. Resveratrol has been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties; it also is associated with delays in the aging process, Kaufman says. One glass of wine offers benefits; more than that and you risk too many free radicals that attack collagen and elastin, which accelerates aging.
Kaufman also 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, such as apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, asparagus, carrots, celery and mushrooms.
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. High on her list: bell peppers, orange juice, lemons, whole grain cereals, peanut butter and avocado.
Bauer also advocates eating foods that contain selenium, a mineral used in making a type of protein with antioxidant properties. Foods with high selenium levels include canned light tuna, whole wheat pasta, lean beef, shrimp, turkey and brown rice.
Omega-3 fatty acids help maintain cell membranes so they allow water and nutrients in and keep toxins out. Foods rich in omega-3s -- wild salmon, walnuts, flax, canola oil, soybeans and sardines -- also seem to be able to protect skin against sun damage, according to Bauer.
Avoid sugary foods, refined-flour baked goods and soda, 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.)
WHOLE FOODS, NOT SUPPLEMENTS
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 the 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."
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 like 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.
Some foods and drinks that may, surprisingly, help keep teeth healthy: Cranberries, black and green teas, even raisins. Researchers have found that a compound in cranberries can stop bacteria from clinging to the teeth, blocking the formation of damaging plaque deposits. (But because many cranberry products are loaded with sugar and consuming large amounts could lead to tooth decay, don't overindulge.)
Black and green teas contain polyphenols, antioxidants that prevent plaque and help reduce chances of developing cavities and gum disease. There's also evidence that tea has potential for reducing bad breath because it inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause odor. Many teas also contain fluoride from the leaves and the water they're steeped in, which helps protect teeth from decay.
Although they may seem sweet and sticky, raisins contain compounds that fight bacteria that can cause cavities and gum disease, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study. DePaola, the Nova dentist, also recommends low-fat cheese, yogurt and even some fish for calcium, which helps re-mineralize the enamel on teeth.
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 like 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.
Spinach, broccoli and Swiss chard are good sources of vitamins A and C, which your body needs to produce sebum. The oily substance, secreted by your hair follicles, is the body's natural hair conditioner. Legumes like kidney beans and lentils provide plentiful protein to promote hair growth, as well as ample iron, zinc, and biotin.