What does ‘anti-ageing’ mean to you?
Sunscreen? Expensive skincare? Perhaps even fillers?
Most people don’t realise that we have an opportunity to ward off signs of ageing at least three times a day. That is, every time we eat.
This article covers the latest science surrounding an anti-ageing diet—and shows you how to tweak your diet to promote youthful-looking skin.
What causes ageing?
How does an anti-ageing diet work?
Anti-ageing diet: What to eat
Special mention: Almonds
Are you postmenopausal? Eat this too
Anti-ageing diet: What not to eat
What about anti-ageing supplements?
Think 5S: Anti-ageing lifestyle factors
All our organs age. We notice it on our skin because it’s our most visible organ .
There are two types of skin ageing:
2) Photoageing. This is the damage caused by UV light, and it’s most pronounced on the skin’s light-exposed sights [4,5]. Researchers hypothesise that of all environmental factors—including pollution and smoking—UV radiation is responsible for 80% of premature ageing .
– dry skin
– lack of elasticity
– fine wrinkles
– age spots
…a.k.a. everything you don’t want for your complexion.
You might think that you can wear sunscreen to combat photoageing but there’s nothing you can do about chronological ageing. But here’s where things get interesting. We like to categorise concepts because it makes them easier to understand—but chronological ageing and photoageing aren’t so distinct as they seem. In fact, several interlinking factors affect the rate of both chronological ageing and photoageing.
Some of these factors are oxidation, inflammation and glycation . These biological processes affect how your skin withstands the passage of time AND how it defends itself against UV exposure.
And here’s the kicker: the food you eat influences oxidation, inflammation and glycation—which means your diet affects all forms of ageing.
Still with me? Great! Let’s explore how your food can help your face.
An anti-ageing diet may sound too good to be true—but it’s firmly rooted in science. In case you need more convincing, here are some quotations direct from the peer-reviewed research:
“Modern science has proved that an imbalance in nutrition and poor eating habits are important causes of skin ageing” 
“There is a strong relationship between diet, health, and youthful-appearing skin” 
“The connection between proper nutrition and skin health has long been associated with the possibility to delay ageing” 
There’s a vast body of research on this stuff, and it’s growing every day. What we know so far is that your diet has the power to help your skin in three ways :
1) Preventing glycation
Glycation is when a sugar molecule binds to protein or fat . This typically refers to when a sugar molecule binds to collagen (a protein) in your body.
Glycation is a problem because it makes the collagen stiff, vulnerable and difficult to repair, leading to what’s known as ‘sugar sag’ .
2) Fighting oxidation
Oxidation is a fancy word for damage. It occurs when internal and external threats overwhelm your skin’s natural defences.
These threats come from everywhere: UV light, pollution, smoking and even your cells’ waste products .
3) Soothing inflammation
Oxidative stress (or a mismatch between threats and your skin’s defence mechanisms) leads to inflammation. And inflammation fires up enzymes that break down collagen .
As you know, broken-down collagen = wrinkly, saggy skin.
This all sounds very complicated, but it’s not. In a nutshell: certain foods and eating patterns can help preserve your existing skin, repair damage, and make new skin components if necessary . The secret lies in knowing what and how to eat.
Some foods can help prevent skin ageing, while others can exacerbate it. So, let’s start with what you should eat to fend off those wrinkles:
Do eat: a low-glycaemic load diet
A ‘low-glycaemic load diet’ is the technical term for a way of eating that keeps your blood sugar steady. This means eating fewer refined carbohydrates and processed foods—and eating more lean protein, fibre-rich carbohydrates and healthy fat instead.
Take breakfast as an example. Rather than eating cereal (refined carbohydrate), you might opt for a slice of wholegrain toast (fibre-rich carbohydrate) with a poached egg (lean protein) and sliced avocado (healthy fat).
This approach to eating has a huge impact on your skin. For example, in one study diabetic participants ate a low-glycaemic load diet for four months, and it reduced the dreaded glycation or stiffening of collagen by 25% . As you learnt above, more flexible collagen means fewer wrinkles.
Once you have the basics nailed, you can incorporate two further hacks to maximise the blood-sugar-balancing effect:
a) Always take a bite of protein first
b) Drizzle vinegar on your food (apple cider vinegar is a good choice)
If you’re not sure what constitutes protein, carbohydrate and healthy fat, check out the diagrams in this article.
Do eat: healthy fats
Healthy fats form part of a low-glycaemic load diet, but they also deserve their own moment in the spotlight. To discover why, let’s look at some research findings:
a) In a study of nearly 3,000 people, eating more omega-3 fats was linked to having youthful-appearing skin .
b) Eating more monounsaturated fat from olive oil is associated with less ageing from sun exposure .
c) In a study of 4,000 women aged 40 to 74, those who ate more linoleic acid (a type of omega-6 fat) had plumper, more hydrated skin .
The bottom line is that eating the right fats helps your skin look younger, even if you’re exposed to the sun. Here are the best sources of those skin-loving fats:
– Oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are rich in omega-3 fats
– Olive oil and avocado are rich in monounsaturated fats
– Nuts and seeds are rich in omega-6 fats
Get in the habit of having a thumb-sized portion of healthy fat with every meal or snack.
Almonds are particularly worth eating. Not only are they a source of omega-6 fats, but they’re also brimming with vitamin E. Your skin is enriched with vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant and prevents collagen breakdown [23,24].
In one study, postmenopausal women who ate around 60g of almonds daily had less severe wrinkles after just four months . That’s the vitamin E and linoleic acid at work!
You don’t need to eat 60g of almonds every day, but a handful of raw almonds daily is certainly a treat for your skin.
Do eat: red, orange, yellow and green fruits and vegetables
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is always a good idea—but your skin especially loves red, orange, yellow and green fruits and vegetables. Why? Because they contain carotenoids.
Carotenoids are special compounds that give plant foods (and some animal foods) their colour. When you eat them, they travel to the skin and hang out in its upper layers, where they help to protect your cells from UV damage [26,27].
Less UV damage means fewer wrinkles. Case in point: one study showed that people who eat more green and yellow vegetables had less severe crow’s feet wrinkles . Not only that, but carotenoids also give your skin a natural ‘glow’ that’s even more attractive to others than a tan (really, they’ve studied that!) .
Now, eating colourful fruits and vegetables does not mean you should skip sunscreen. But it does mean that you’re helping to confer extra protection to skin across your whole body .
Some of the richest sources of carotenoids include:
Aim to eat at least one of these foods daily, and switch it up!
Do eat: other colourful plant foods
Carotenoids are great, but they’re not the only phytonutrients (‘plant nutrients’) that serve your skin. Other plant foods are rich in polyphenols, which have powerful anti-ageing potential .
Examples of polyphenols include:
– Flavanols found in cocoa
– Catechins found in green tea
– Resveratrol found in peanuts and grapes
These are just a selection. There are thousands of polyphenols found in all types of plants foods, and it’s estimated that we eat up to 1g of total polyphenols daily [30,31]. For comparison, we eat mere milligrams of other skin-essential nutrients such as zinc.
– Consuming flavanol-rich cocoa may reduce UV damage by up to 25% 
– Drinking catechin-rich green tea may improve skin elasticity and texture 
It’s important to point out that research in this area is new, and we need more large-scale human trials before we can give specific advice. For now, it’s worth loading your plate with as many natural colours as possible—and perhaps drinking green tea and eating the odd square of dark chocolate!
Do eat: herbs and spices
Remember glycation, which leads to ‘sugar sag’? If you’re eating that low-glycaemic load diet, you’re already helping to prevent glycation.
A further way to protect your collagen is to include herbs and spices in your diet, as these contain special compounds with anti-glycation potential [9,39]. Put another way: if there’s a sugar molecule threatening to stiffen your collagen, herbs and spices can stop it in its tracks.
Lab studies suggest the following herbs and spices are the most potent :
Use them in stews, smoothies and baked goods for extra anti-ageing power.
There’s no gentle way to put this: collagen synthesis declines by 30% in the first four years of menopause. After that, it decreases by a further 2% every year . So, if you feel you’ve aged dramatically after menopause, that’s why.
It’s all to do with the hormone oestrogen (or estrogen, for our American friends). Oestrogen maintains collagen and keeps your skin looking youthful and plump—and when it declines naturally after menopause, your skin can go south too .
Enter phytoestrogens. These natural plant compounds can interact with oestrogen receptors in your skin cells. Animal studies suggest that phytoestrogens can increase collagen and hyaluronic acid levels, perhaps helping to maintain your skin’s plumpness after menopause [42,43].
Like the polyphenol data, research here is still in its infancy. But if you’re peri- or postmenopausal, food-based phytoestrogens are safe and worth trying. Some of the best sources include :
– Fermented soy products (such as tempeh): eat in sandwiches or incorporate into vegetarian stews
– Ground flaxseeds: sprinkle over porridge/oatmeal, soups and salads
Aim to eat phytoestrogen-rich foods at least a couple of times a week.
Although it’s more fun (and often more effective) to focus on what you should increase in your diet, you should also be aware of what it’s worth reducing or eliminating for the sake of your skin.
Eat less or eliminate: sugar
You know that too much sugar isn’t good for you, but you probably don’t realise how it ages your skin.
In a fascinating study of more than 500 people, researchers discovered that as people’s blood-sugar levels increased, the older they appeared to others .
Translation: eating too much sugar can make you look much older. It’s all to do with that pesky glycation. Excess sugar binds to your collagen, causing it to stiffen and allowing wrinkles to embed.
There should always be room for the occasional sweet treat—life is for living, after all! But if you want to maintain youthful-looking skin, controlling your blood sugar is one of the most powerful habits you can adopt . Head back up to ‘Do eat: a low glycemic load diet’ to remind yourself of the blood-sugar-balancing principles.
Eat less or eliminate: processed food
Glycation can occur in your body, but you can also exacerbate ageing by eating foods that contain high levels of advanced glycation end products, also known as ‘AGEs’ .
Processed foods such as cookies, biscuits and crisps/chips contain high levels of AGEs . When you eat these foods, you absorb up to a third of their AGEs—which accumulate in your skin and contribute to premature ageing [1,46].
Prioritise fresh, whole foods as much as you can. Your skin will thank you now and in years to come.
Eat less or eliminate: fried and baked food
The way you cook your food can contribute to your AGE load too. High-temperature cooking—such as grilling, roasting, baking and frying—can increase the AGE content of food by up to 100 times .
You know when meat browns or cheese crispens? That’s AGEs! They accumulate in cooked fruits and vegetables too, but to a lesser degree .
To reduce your AGE intake, favour gentle, water-based forms of cooking such as boiling or steaming. If you want to grill, roast, bake or fry your food, add a dash of lemon juice or vinegar before cooking because these reduce the amount of AGEs produced .
Anti-ageing supplements are a rapidly growing industry. But are they worth it? Let’s look at the science for some of the most popular supplements:
I’ve made a video talking about collagen, and there’s more detail below!
Commercial collagen supplements contain collagen sourced from pigs, cows or fish. There’s no such thing as plant-based collagen.
Rather than taking the complete collagen protein, it might be better to opt for collagen peptides. These are like little snipped-up bits of collagen. Research suggests that collagen peptides are easier to absorb, and we know that they reach our skin [1,8].
Collagen peptides may relieve skin ageing by helping our cells make new collagen and reducing those notorious agers, oxidation and inflammation . Some study findings are pretty compelling:
a) 35 to 55-year-old women taking 2.5g or 5g collagen peptides daily enjoyed greater skin elasticity after eight weeks .
b) 45 to 65-year-old women taking 2.5g collagen peptides daily had fewer noticeable wrinkles around their eyes after eight weeks .
c) A meta-analysis (a large study of studies) looking at 1,123 participants in total found that collagen peptides improve skin elasticity, hydration and wrinkles within 90 days .
But before you think collagen peptides are the answer to all your anti-ageing prayers, you should know that collagen supplement research often incites criticism. This controversy is partly because most research is funded by the people who make the supplements, so there’s the suggestion that the studies are purposefully designed to demonstrate a positive result .
Yes, sorry to break the illusion: science is rarely 100% impartial!
Until we have more non-manufacturer-sponsored studies, it’s best to proceed cautiously. Try collagen peptides and see if they work for you—but don’t expect them to make up for other ageing dietary habits.
Probiotics may not be the first supplement that springs to mind for anti-ageing, but there’s some interesting research in this area:
a) A study looking at human skin cells found that supplementation with Lactobacillus acidophilus IDCC 3302 prevented UV damage .
b) In another human study, supplementation with Lactobacillus johnssonii NCC 533 calmed the immune response to UV exposure, resulting in less collateral damage to the skin .
c) 41 to 59-year-olds taking Lactobacillus plantarum HY7714 had shallower wrinkles and better hydrated skin after 12 weeks .
Like collagen, probiotics may work because they reduce oxidation and inflammation. But here’s the thing about probiotics: their effects are strain-specific. So, you have to take the same strains used in the studies to achieve the same effect.
The problem? These strains aren’t yet widely available. It’s arguably still worth taking a broad-spectrum probiotic (one that contains several strains) for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect [55,56]. Still, it’s unlikely to be the sharpest tool in your anti-ageing box.
Most of us have heard of coenzyme Q10 because it’s a common ingredient in anti-ageing face creams. But not many people know that it’s also a nutrient in foods such as oily fish, liver and whole grains.
One small but high-quality study found that daily supplementation with 50–150mg coenzymeQ10 significantly reduced wrinkles and improved skin smoothness in women aged 45–60 . It sounds impressive, but it’s worth knowing that the difference in wrinkles was only detectable by experts!
So, should you take a supplement?
Overall, it’s fair to say some or all of these supplements may help your anti-ageing efforts—but they’re only worth investing in once you’ve nailed the anti-ageing dietary habits. Despite the marketing, a supplement should never be viewed as a magic pill.
Your dietary habits play a big role in how you age, but they’re not the only factor. Don’t forget these lifestyle habits too:
1) Sun exposure. UV radiation is the primary cause of premature ageing . Practise sensible sun exposure and wear sunscreen when the UV index is three or above . Never heard of the UV index? Check your favourite weather app.
2) Smoking. If you smoke, you’re guaranteed to develop more wrinkles. And they stick around even after you stop smoking . Mitigate the damage now by getting the help you need to stop.
3) Stress. Chronic stress induces the trifecta of skin ageing: oxidation, inflammation and glycation [60,61]. We can’t eliminate stressful situations from our lives, but we can influence how they affect us. Whether it’s mindfulness or movie nights, find out what makes you relax and prioritise it.
5) Skincare. As we age, the pH of our skin increases, weakening its barrier function . You can fight back by using skincare to promote a more acidic pH . Learn all about the importance of skin pH—and which products to use—at Skin pH: How pH Balance Creates Clear Skin.Tweaking your diet to optimise your skin is a marathon, not a sprint. In fact, embracing these habits for years is the secret to taking years off your appearance.
Well done for reaching the end! Let’s recap what we’ve learnt:
– Skin ageing is the culmination of photoageing and chronological ageing. The rate of both of these types of ageing is affected by three key biological processes: glycation, oxidation and inflammation.
– Certain foods and eating patterns can reduce glycation, oxidation and inflammation—which means your diet can combat all forms of ageing.
– Fundamental principles of an anti-ageing diet include eating:
– A low-glycaemic diet
– Plenty of healthy fats
– Red, orange, yellow and green fruits and vegetables
– Other colourful plant foods (and drinks)
– Herbs and spices
– Post-menopausal women may also benefit from eating phytoestrogens found in fermented soy products and flaxseed.
– As part of an anti-ageing diet, you should also reduce or eliminate:
– Processed food
– Fried or baked food
– Supplements including collagen peptides, probiotics and coenzymeQ10 may have an anti-ageing effect, but it’s only worth taking these once you’ve embraced the anti-ageing dietary principles.
– Other anti-ageing lifestyle factors to consider include sun exposure, smoking, stress, sleep and skincare—easily memorised by thinking 5S!
Fiona Lawson is a former national magazine editor turned registered nutritionist and skin specialist. She holds an MSc in Nutritional Medicine and a BANT-registered post-graduate qualification in Nutritional Therapy.