Believe me when I say that ‘You are what you eat’ is literally true. Because your choice of food does not just affect your overall health. It also has a major impact on your skin’s appearance, texture and aging process. Therefore I will give you a series of articles regarding anti-aging foods, and the nutrients I’ll cover in this first part are some of the best weapons against skin aging. They are most known for their ability to prevent damage caused by sun, stress, and pollution. But more recently they have also been found to tighten the skin and to some extent reverse other signs of aging. So if you’re obsessed with skincare, like I am, keep reading about the powerful carotenoids!
Since I am a nutritionist, food and its power to either heal or damage your skin are my favorite subjects. And you will notice that by the length and depth of this article… Still, before I want you to continue, I urge you to read and implement my post about using a good sunscreen. Because an effective anti aging sunscreen is the strongest foundation of preventing skin aging. Once that’s in place, the tips you’ll find in this article can work effectively.
So let’s get started to explore these exciting nutrients that will protect and heal your skin from the inside! It’s a long post but I promise it will be worth reading all of it. And if you want to quickly jump to a certain part of the article, this is what I’ll cover:
- What are carotenoids?
- Why are carotenoids good for anti aging?
- What are the best food sources to combat aging with carotenoids?
- Should I take supplements with carotenoids?
- 6 steps to maximize your intake of these skin tightening foods
- Summary and extra meal tips
What are carotenoids?
Before we dig into what these nutrients can accomplish for your skin, let’s give a brief summary of what they are.
Carotenoids are a large group of pigments that are produced by plants (over 700 found in nature so far, and over 40 provided in our diet). These nutrients can be divided into two groups called xanthophylls and carotenes, depending on their molecular structure.
There are mostly 6 major carotenoids (3 carotenes and 3 xanthophylls) that are common in human tissues. And these are also the ones most studied so far. Beta-carotene, alfa-carotene, and lycopene are so-called carotenes. While beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin are in the group of xanthophylls. And no you don’t have to memorize these names. But I will mention them a few times throughout the article, so I think it’s a good idea to briefly explain what they are and how they’re connected.
Besides those 6 there is another xanthophyll worth mentioning. Since the studies around this carotenoid are increasing. It is called astaxanthin and is very similar to the other xanthophylls. But instead of land-living plants, this one is produced by algae. I will get back to it later in the post.
So what are these carotenoids good for? Well in nature they play an important role in protecting tissues against sunlight. As they work as highly effective antioxidants. And in plants, they are also involved in photosynthesis and have the ability to absorb UV-rays and blue light.
When it comes to humans, some of these carotenoids are pro-vitamin A, which means they can convert to vitamin A in our body and are therefore a great source of this vitamin. But besides that, all of these antioxidants have a major impact on our health in many different forms.
A diet rich in carotenoids is associated with a lower risk of certain cancers as well as heart disease. And also a protective role against obesity and excess body fat. On top of that, (what will be the focus of this article) they protect and heal our skin from the inside.
Also, some of the carotenoids are especially known for protecting our eyes against UV- radiation and blue light. And have more recently been shown to have the same protective effect on our skin. I’ll get back to that in a bit!
Why we need antioxidants
So, just in case you’re not familiar with antioxidants. Let’s briefly mention that they protect us against so-called free radicals. These are unstable molecules that injure our cells and can cause a number of negative reactions. They are important for some functions in the body. But the problem arises when we get too many of them due to pollution, bad food, and stress.
In addition to those free radicals that form inside our bodies, our skin takes on loads of damage due to solar radiation. Those cause an overdose of free radicals in our deep skin layers. And damage our elastin and collagen protein (the proteins that make the skin elastic and firm). Which in turn will lead to loss of elasticity and formation of wrinkles.
Antioxidants are molecules that can prevent and neutralize damage from these free radicals. And there are many different types. Some are produced in our own bodies (and the younger we are the better production). And some we must ingest from our diet such as the carotenoids.
Carotenoids in our skin
When we eat the carotenoids, they transport and deposit in different tissues in our bodies, including our skin. And that amount can also be measured.
Many studies have examined how carotenoids correlate with skin health and guess the results? The number of carotenoids in our skin does not just reflect our diet habits. But it also reflects our skin health and our degree of skin aging. And individuals with high levels of carotenoids in their skin do look a lot younger than those with low levels.
These studies also show that stress factors like sunlight, pollution, smoke, and disease (even just a cold) drastically decrease the carotenoid levels in our skin. Showing again their protective role against free radicals. The more stress, the larger depletion of carotenoids. And the greater need for consuming more.
Many studies show that individuals with high levels of carotenoids in their skin look a lot younger than those with low levels.
So the carotenoids have a strong antioxidant effect, protecting our skin cells from all the bad extrinsic aging factors (tip! Learn more about the different aging mechanisms in this blog post). But besides that, carotenoids have recently been found to modulate gene expressions. Which is super exciting when it comes to altering our aging process. More of that below.
Why are carotenoids good for anti aging?
As mentioned above, carotenoids are a special force of antioxidants that defend our body (and skin) against damaging free radicals. But carotenoids do a lot more which I will tell you about in this section.
The largest factor regarding skin aging is exposure to sunlight. UVA is the main culprit, but blue light and near-infrared have been shown to have a negative effect as well.
Carotenoids are fantastic antioxidants protecting us from these aging sun-rays. But what’s even more exciting is that they also seem to boost our own production of antioxidants so we get an even greater defend capacity.
As I mentioned earlier, this production is declining as we age. But with carotenoids, we can reverse that. It’s like these molecules are creating a chain reaction of defense to protect our cells.
In addition to this antioxidant capacity, carotenoids also have the ability to absorb radiation. And therefore protect our skin even more from the damaging sunlight.
Are some carotenoids better than others when it comes to sun-protection?
This is the more nerdy part of the post. But for you who are interested, I have dug deeper into them all. To see if some are more effective than others. And again, the outcome seems to be that the combination of them all will give the best result.
For example, many studies show that beta-carotene and lycopene are highly effective in preventing damage from UVA and UVB. And that lycopene might play an even larger role in protecting our skin from UV-rays and sunburn.
One study found that participants who ate five tablespoons of tomato paste every day showed 33 percent more protection against sunburn than a control group. Now five tablespoons are not huge amounts of tomato paste, and still, it gave such pronounced protection.
Another study showed that beta carotene is very protective against blue light and infrared light in addition to the UV-rays. And blue light is extra sneaky since it is not just present in daylight and other light sources. But it’s also present in your smartphone and computer screens. And even though that exposure is not at all as harmful as the direct sunlight. The accumulative effect can indeed be noticeable.
Other studies are showing that lutein and zeaxanthin seem to be even better at blocking out blue light and other harmful rays such as Infrared radiation. These two xanthophylls seem to be especially superior to blocking blue light. And this is in addition to their protective role against UV-induced skin damage. So again, I would suggest eating them all.
When it comes to astaxanthin, I mentioned earlier that this algae carotenoid is getting more attention in studies. It is very similar to lutein and zeaxanthin in its structure. And also in its mechanism to protect from UVA and other harmful rays. There are also some indications that Astaxanthin might be an even more powerful antioxidant when it comes to UVA-damage. So I find it worth to include in this post and I will make an update whenever I found more studies showing new exciting results.
Tightening and rejuvenating
So I mentioned above that carotenoids have the ability to alter different gene expressions. One of them is to upregulate our own internal antioxidant system. So besides being antioxidants themselves, carotenoids boost our defense system to an even higher extent. And this is not all. They have also been shown to regulate other gene expressions that lead to a more youthful appearance.
When it comes to these age-reversing-effects, most studies seem to have been done on the xanthophylls Lutein, Zeaxanthin, and Astaxanthin. And the outcome is quite amazing.
For example, Lutein and Zeaxanthin can alter the gene expressions that increase hyaluronic acid within our skin. Hyaluronic acid has high water binding capacities and is important for skin hydration and elasticity. And it declines as we age. So, by increasing hyaluronic acid with carotenoids we will increase moister in our skin, increase elasticity and reduce wrinkle depth.
Other studies have also found the two xanthophylls to increase levels of skin lipids, as well as a decrease of lipid peroxidation. Which will improve elasticity even more and tighten our skin. It has also been shown that overall skin tone and luminance of the skin is improved with an increased amount of lutein and zeaxanthin.
What about the carotenes then? Well, they do probably play a big role as well. And for example, lycopene has been shown to have a direct effect on our collagen production. Which will give us a more youthful skin-structure.
Besides being antioxidants, carotenoids can alter gene expressions that lead to more youthful skin.
Now if this is not enough reason for you to increase your intake of fruits and veggies, then I don’t know what is 🙂
I also want to mention Astaxanthin again. Since many studies have been done about this xanthophyll. And with the same outcome as with lutein and zeaxanthin. Skin elasticity is improved by taking supplements with astaxanthin. Even in studies where the test groups were given quite a small amount.
What are the best food sources for carotenoids?
So now you know the reasons why carotenoids are good for anti-aging. And study after study shows the same result. By eating lots of fruit and vegetables we increase the number of carotenoids in our skin. And persons with high carotenoid levels in their skin do look younger and have less wrinkles than those with low levels. But what are the best fruits and veggies to eat if we want to increase our intake of these skin-tightening carotenoids?
Well, carotenoids are especially found in yellow-orange and reddish-colored fruits and vegetables, and in dark green leafy vegetables. But they can also be found in fruits and veggies with all different kinds of colors. I will, of course, give you more specific advice in this section.
After reading all these studies about the carotenoids I am aiming myself to get a mix of them daily. I believe that a combination of them all, and in high amounts, will be the best strategy thanks to the synergy effect.
The skin tightening foods I recommend every day
In the image below I will list the four carotenoids that I recommend you to eat every single day, for younger skin. And examples of where to find them. I focused on these 4 since they have been most studied regarding skin health and anti aging. And they are also most easily found in our diet.
Now that does not mean that other carotenoids aren’t great for your skin. It’s just that these ones are even more proven to have an effect. And therefore I recommend you to start with those. Once that is done, you can for sure start to mix in other carotenoids as well. I will list a few examples further down in this post.
Remember that a combination of carotenoids will always give a stronger antioxidant effect than from each of them alone. And fruits and veggies will always give you a natural mix of antioxidants in every bite. But by combining from these four different groups you will make sure you get the highest amount of all these important carotenoids per day.
Lutein and zeaxanthin work especially great as a couple, compared to the single ones alone. And to get that combination you need to plan a bit. Because it seems like most leafy greens are extra rich in lutein but not so much in zeaxanthin. And the same goes for many other vegetables and fruits. Most of them contain more lutein than zeaxanthin. Some exceptions are orange, mango, orange-pepper, goji berries, and honeydew melon. As you can see in my chart. So try to include some of these foods every day. Egg yolk and corn are also two good sources of both lutein and zeaxanthin.
Does color matter?
Some orange fruits and vegetables such as carrots, cantaloupe, and dried apricots, are higher in beta carotenes than in lutein and zeaxanthin. While others such as orange pepper, orange, and corn are much higher in lutein and zeaxanthin. And for goji berries, the dominating carotenoid is zeaxanthin. Even though it’s red. So no, it is not easy to decide carotenoid levels depending on the color.
Also, green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and kale, do all contain colorful pigments, but they are still green due to the high amount of chlorophyll.
So, firstly, make sure you eat colorful fruits and vegetables every single day. Because they will indeed contain good carotenoids of either sort and usually a great mix of them. And to be a bit more precise, follow my chart.
Other carotenoids to consider
So the four carotenoids above are the most studied regarding skin health. But other’s are probably a good idea to include as well whenever you can. For example, beta-cryptoxanthin is a xanthophyll that also deposits in our skin with protective abilities. It is found in mandarins, persimmons, red peppers, pumpkin, and papaya.
Capsanthin is a less common carotenoid that has not been studied a lot for skin health. But I did find one study showing it has a similar protective ability against UVB as lycopene. If you like peppers and chili, those are the best source of that particular carotenoid.
And what about astaxanthin that I have mentioned a few times now? Well, that one is found in marine algae and some seafood such as wild salmon (if it’s wild and red in color).
Farmed salmon is always red in color but that fish is in most of the time fed with a synthetic form of astaxanthin. This one is synthesized from petrochemicals and DOES NOT have the health benefits as natural astaxanthin. It is not even clear if it is safe or not and I would personally avoid it.
Should I take supplements with carotenoids?
*Please note, this post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you purchase through any of those links. It doesn’t cost you any extra and I only recommend products I truly love and use myself. You can read my full disclosure here.
So, what about supplements? Can we take a shortcut to young healthy skin and just buy some pills with carotenoids? And do we get the same benefits as with food? My short answer is no. But as with everything else there are of course some exceptions. So if you are interested in supplements with carotenoids, this is the section for you.
The complexity to understand
Science is still scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the powerful health effects from the right kind of food. But some we do know. For example, it is clear that we need a lot of different antioxidants for the best effect on our skin. And the power is in combining them since they interact with each other. Think of them as participants in a football team.
By eating a whole fruit or veggie, you always get several antioxidants in every bite, as well as other important components in the plant. All of those will enhance each other’s work and give the maximum effect.
For that reason, it is always best to eat the whole food rather than certain isolated antioxidants. And actually, some isolated antioxidants can have a potentially dangerous effect on our health.
The carotenoid you should not take as supplements
Let’s give some examples of carotenoids you should not take as supplements.
The most known in the beauty industry is beta-carotene. And you have probably heard of it or even tried it in supplements yourself. It is sold in tablets for its sun-protective and skin beneficial properties. As well as its ability to make you more tanned. And yes, all is true but with one big exception. The studies that have shown positive health results on beta-carotene are mostly studies where individuals have got beta-carotene rich food. Not supplements. Instead, supplements with beta-carotene have raised quite some safety concerns over the years.
Many studies on beta-carotene have shown that this carotenoid can induce a prooxidant effect when taken as supplementation. And that is the opposite of the antioxidant effect it has when taken in its whole food source. High doses with beta-carotene supplements are therefore linked to several health risks. And I cannot recommend it.
Instead, I advise you to get your beta-carotene from food. This carotenoid simple needs to be in the whole fruit/veggie together with the other carotenoids to work efficiently.
High doses with beta-carotene supplements are linked to several health risks. This carotenoid simple needs to be in the whole fruit/veggie together with the other carotenoids to work efficiently.
And in case you wonder, no concerns have been raised about the safety of eating antioxidants from fruit and vegetables. On the opposite governments are urging people to eat more of these rich food sources. So fill up with carrots and other beta-carotene rich foods. But avoid isolated tablets/capsules.
Lycopene is another carotenoid popular as supplements. So is that one a good bet? Well, it has not shown any adverse effect in the form of supplements. Such as beta-carotene. BUT, several studies show that lycopene’s protection against UV radiation is more effective if taken together with the other tomato compounds. Compared to just taking lycopene alone. Many studies also indicate that there are very few health benefits of taking lycopene alone as a supplement.
Again, we need the synergetic effect of all the different phytonutrients in the plant, to get the best result.
Supplements that can be to consider
Xantofylls seems to be more promising when it comes to supplements. And it does seems like lutein and zeaxanthin can have great health effects when taken as supplements. And that includes skin improvements. It also seems like there are no safety concerns either. The same goes for the algae xanthophyll astaxanthin.
I would still recommend the whole fruits and veggies when it comes to lutein and zeaxanthin since you will get so many more nutrients by eating the whole food. And the food sources are not hard to find either now that you have my chart.
If you do want to add a supplement for some reason, I would suggest astaxanthin. Not just for its amazing effect on skin health, especially for protecting against UVA damage. But also because unlike the other carotenoids, it is more difficult to get in your diet. Unless you eat algae or certain seafood on a regular basis. Which I don’t. Also, it has been shown to be safe as supplements as long as it is from a natural algae source.
*Please note, this post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you purchase through any of those links. It doesn’t cost you any extra and I only recommend products I truly love and use myself. You can read my full disclosure here.
So I have recently bought an astaxanthin supplement from the brand Sports Research. I like the fact that it’s an easy way to boost my skin with carotenoids during very sunny days. Or when I catch a cold. As mentioned earlier, those are some of the situations where your skin depletes quickly of carotenoids.
I also find it handy if I am traveling or on certain days where I just don’t have the same control over my fruit and veggie intake. So if you consider buying any carotenoid supplement, this is a safe and much more effective choice than beta carotene. I order mine from Iherb because I found them to have the best price on this supplement. And they ship worldwide. You can check out the current price on this link, and get a 10 % off if you decide to purchase.
(Recent update. It seems like sports research supplement is out of stock. Since I ran out of mine just recently I decided to order another one from the brand California Gold. It has the same premium source of astaxanthin and the same amount. If you want to try the same and have a 10% off then follow this link)
Other supplements to consider are powders where the whole fruits/veggies have been included. I love this one from “Amazing grass”, and take a scoop of it every day. It has a great mix of all different kinds of plants as well as probiotics and some green tea. This link will also give you 10 % off.
My final tip to consider when it comes to supplements is to buy goji berries. They are not a supplement at all since it’s the actual berries I am talking about. But it is easy and convenient to buy a big bag of them and eat a handful every day. It’s a perfect anti-aging snack together with nuts (that will increase the uptake due to their fat content).
What I love about goji berries is that they contain ALOT of zeaxanthin. Which is not found as common as lutein in most fruit and veggies. On top of that goji berries contain lycopene, beta-carotene, and of course lutein and many other carotenoids. And they are super tasty as well 🙂
The downside with goji berries is that they are quite expensive. Especially if you buy organic, which I truly recommend since the non-organic ones are heavily sprayed with pesticides.
I have recently discovered amazon though, and they have plenty of organic goji berries to great prices. Even though I live in Sweden and pay extra shipping, it is almost half the price compared to buying goji berries in Swedish stores. If you live in the US I know the selection is much better and I always found good products (with decent prices) at whole foods market. But if you live in Europe like me I truly recommend amazon when buying goji berries. If you want to check out my favorites, follow this link to amazon and see the current price.
6 steps to maximize your intake of these skin tightening foods
So now you have all the facts about how great carotenoids are for your skin elasticity as well as antioxidant defense. You also have the guide to what food sources to find them. And what supplements to consider if you feel the need for some extra. Lastly, I want to give you some meal tips and advice on how to maximize your intake of these skin tightening foods. Because it’s when you boost your skin with carotenoids that you will get the best results.
While writing this post it hit me though, that many of you might find it overwhelming to eat the amounts of fruit and veggies I recommend. Because according to statistics, people, in general, eat far too little of it. Which is a major health problem in the western world.
Only 14 % of the population in Europe eat the recommended intake of at least 5 fruits and veggies per day. And in the US, only 10 % eat their recommended amount of at least 1,5 cups of fruits and 2-3 cups of vegetables per day.
I find it truly sad that so few people reach these low recommendations. And I hope this post can motivate you to increase the intake of fruits and vegetables in general. And hopefully, eat a lot more than the lowest recommended level.
With that said. If you want to get really serious about improving your skin’s texture and tightness, then follow these 6 steps:
1) Check my chart every day. And make sure you eat from every square EVERY DAY
I will include it here once more for your convenience. I recommend you to choose at least 1-2 portions of your favorite fruits/veggies out of each box per day.
2) Try to include a bit of fat in your meals with carotenoids
Fat will increase the uptake of carotenoids. So for example, grab a few nuts while eating your fruit. And include some avocado or olives in your salad. Personally, I love nuts and I eat them to almost everything. That way I get some healthy fats together with my carotenoids and make sure I get a great uptake.
The carotenoids in fruits seem to have better absorption than the ones in vegetables. So definitely make sure you have some fat included in your veggie-meals. This does not mean you have to pour oil all over your food. A small amount is sufficient. For example 1/4 of an avocado, 8 almonds, or just 2-3 whole walnuts, will give you the fat needed for good carotenoid-absorption.
3) Eat your veggies a bit cooked
The uptake from vegetables is much better when cooked. You do not have to over-steam your carrots though. They can still be a bit crunchy.
4) Bunker up with tomato paste
Tomato paste is one of the best sources of lycopene. And since it is made from heated tomatoes the uptake is superior. Also, it is easy to find and easy to store so you can buy it in plenty. And in addition, it is very easy to include in many dishes. (Or you can do as I do, eat a few spoons of it as it is)
5) Bunker up with frozen fruit and vegetables
Frozen fruits and veggies are great ways to always have fresh carotenoid-rich food available. Go for frozen kale, spinach, broccoli, and mango. Easy to find and usually more priceworthy, especially as organic.
6) Avoid situations that will deplete your skin of carotenoids
I mentioned them earlier in the post. Cigarette smoke, a lot of sun, pollution, and illness. These are all situations that can drastically deplete you of carotenoids in your skin. Remember it takes a number of days and even weeks to build those concentrations. While losing them can happen quickly.
Now some of them are harder to avoid, but at least have in mind what it does to your skin. And fill up with some extra carotenoid-rich foods during the exposure.
Summary and extra meal tips
We’re reaching the end of this article. It’s long as hell I know, but your skin will thank you for having the patience 🙂 Here comes a final summary and some extra meal tips.
The older we get the more our natural defense system declines. And that means it will be harder to defend us against the stress and damage that the sun brings on. Of course, using sunscreen is a must (don’t forget it, not even a single day. This blog post will explain why). But even by using sunscreen every day of the year, we will never get 100 percent protection and our skin will to some degree be affected in a negative way. This is where the carotenoids come in handy.
The more carotenoids we eat the younger we look
So studies have shown that people who have been measured with high amounts of carotenoids in their skin look far younger than those with low amounts. The reasons for that are the carotenoid’s capability to protect us from external aging factors, as well as their ability to alter our gene expressions to promote tighter skin. Therefore, eating a diet high in carotenoids is indeed a good strategy for younger-looking skin.
Remember that you will lose carotenoids in the skin quickly during stress, illness, pollution and even more during sun exposure. It takes a few hours to deplete you of it. While it takes several days to increase levels. So fill up as much as you can during these circumstances!
While doing the research for this post I started to increase my own intake of carotenoids, quite a bit. Now I have always been a fruit- and vegetable lover. And I think that has saved my skin a lot during the years. Even when I was not as good with sunscreen as I am today. But now I am eating more strategically, according to my chart. And if you’re interested in how I eat during a typical day, here are some extra tips.
Mango has become my favorite fruit! Simply because it’s one of the best fruits when it comes to carotenoids. It is also super-tasty and easy to buy and store frozen. My everyday breakfast is a bowl with mango and a mix of organic berries like raspberries blueberries and pomegranate, mixed with rice protein powder and a handful of nuts.
In my meals throughout the day, I make sure to include at least 4 more fruits (usually more) depending on the season. And for some of my snacks, I also include a handful of goji berries together with nuts.
Dinner time is where I make sure to include veggies like carrots, broccoli, kale and/or spinach. No matter what dish I have, I include these veggies since they are easy to find, good in price and very high in carotenoids. I also like to include other kinds of veggies a few times per week, such as sweet potato and bell peppers. But these are the staple ones.
Another carotenoids-great tip I have to share is to eat hummus as a snack or meal. Include different vegetables in the hummus itself and serve with carrot sticks. I have just discovered this fantastic and tasty snack after a recent trip to Barcelona Spain. I have always loved hummus, but eating it this way makes it even more fun!
I truly hope you feel inspired to increase your carotenoid intake! And as a bonus, all these extra fruits and veggies will give you less room for junk food and sweets. And that will benefit your skin in several ways as well. Which I will get back to in another post 🙂
Also, if you are new to my blog I highly recommend you read my post about the 3 fundamental actions to prevent wrinkles. Just to make sure you start in the right direction.
Let me know in the comments what your favorite fruits and veggies are. And of course, if you have any questions!
Until next time!