Sugar and Skin: a Not-So-Sweet Combo

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 impacted by all those sweets: our skin.

How Does Sugar Affect Your Skin?

When foods high in carbohydrates or sugar are ingested, blood sugar (glucose) levels increase. This signals the pancreas to release insulin, which is responsible for helping cells use glucose for energy while removing excess blood sugar. However, when our system is consistently overloaded by too much sugar and other high glycemic index foods like white bread, 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. (Read more: The Diet and Acne Link) However, consuming too much sugar also encourages the breakdown of collagen and elastin, the proteins in skin responsible for giving it strength and elasticity. Sugar molecules bind to collagen and elastin fibers through a process called glycation. When this happens, advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed. These compounds inhibit the proper function of proteins like collagen and elastin, causing them to become deformed. The noticeable result of this is a decrease in skin elasticity and an increase in fine lines, 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 their formation. 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.

Wondering what you can 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. Men are advised to have no more than 36g per day, while women are advised to max out at 25g. Examine your diet for ways sugar sneaks in, such as via the consumption of high glycemic index foods like cereals with added sugars and other breakfast foods, 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 skincare 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 a 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.

By following these recommendations you'll not only begin noticing healthy skin, you'll also see a reduction in your stress levels, an increase in energy, a reduction in signs of inflammation (think achy joints) and more. Therefore, reducing sugar in your diet and replacing it with healthier alternatives is certainly worth the effort.

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