The Not-So-Sweet Effects of Sugar on Skin

Sugar addiction is out of control in America. According to the American Heart Association, the average American adult consumes approximately 77 grams of sugar each day, a number more than three times the recommended maximum of 25 grams for women. And while most conversations surrounding the negative effects of sugar focus on our waistlines, there’s another area of our body dramatically affected by all those sweets: our skin.

The Problem with Sugar

When sugary foods are ingested, blood sugar levels increase, which signals the release of insulin that is responsible for removing sugar from the blood stream. However, when our system is consistently overloaded by too much sugar and other high-glycemic foods like white breads, chips and potatoes, the body becomes less sensitive to insulin (“insulin resistance”) and inflammation results. That fact alone is of concern because inflammation is associated with a variety of skin conditions like acne, psoriasis and eczema. There’s more, however. (Read more: The Diet and Acne Link)

Sugar molecules can also bind to collagen and elastin – proteins in skin responsible for giving it strength and elasticity – through a process called glycation. The result of glycation is the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which inhibit the proper function of the proteins and cause them to become deformed. The noticeable result of unhealthy collagen and elastin is a decrease in skin elasticity and an increase in wrinkles and other signs of aging.

Slowing the AGE Assault

While glycation and the formation of AGEs is a normal process that occurs in all humans, the reality is that consumption of sugar and other high-glycemic foods accelerate it. This has been demonstrated in the lab where rats fed sugar water showed increased accumulation of AGEs in their tissue. It’s therefore obvious that minimizing sugar consumption is priority #1 for those who want to slow skin aging and improve overall skin health. (Another major contributor to premature skin aging is photoaging. Learn more about it: How to Stop Premature Aging.)

Researchers are investigating ways to slow the assault of AGEs and one encouraging finding is that certain herbs and spices may be able to inhibit the formation of AGEs. Among the standouts are star anise, cinnamon, allspice and cloves (chai tea, anyone?). The power of these foods lies in their phenolic content and antioxidant capacity.

So then, what can you do to minimize the formation of AGEs and slow premature skin aging?

  • 1. Minimize the amount of added sugar in your diet. While a piece of chocolate every now and then isn’t going to create a problem for your skin, exceeding the recommended maximum daily sugar intake will indeed leave a mark. Examine your diet for ways sugar sneaks in and find healthy alternatives.
  • 2. Seek out antioxidant-rich foods. There’s no doubt that antioxidants are good for your entire body and certainly for your skin. It’s the reason you find that so many skin care products today have added them into their formulations. Learn the best sources of antioxidants and ensure your diet includes them daily. (Read more: Get Your Daily Dose of Antioxidants for Skin Health)
  • 3. Consider eating a Mediterranean diet. Much has been said about the health benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet, including reduced risk of heart disease. With its emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and fish, this way of eating is also good for the skin. In fact, a 2016 study demonstrated that consumption of a Mediterranean diet reduced AGEs in the body.

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