You’re in a grocery store, choosing between four different kinds of bread. The first is sliced white bread; the second is whole wheat; the third has seeds and the fourth is a low-carb option.
Naturally, you’re drawn to the whole wheat bread because it’s healthier and tastes better than regular white bread. Right? Not necessarily. While whole wheat has more nutrients (vitamins and minerals) than regular white bread, some of the most nutritious foods on earth—like popcorn, green beans and grapes—have virtually no vitamins or minerals. In other words, just because a food is healthy doesn’t necessarily mean it will slow the aging process or make you look younger.
For decades, celebrity nutritionists and dermatologists have proclaimed the fountain of youth comes from eating certain foods that contain “anti-aging” properties. But research hasn’t confirmed most of their claims. Some foods that have been touted as “anti-aging” don’t deliver on the hype, and some once-beloved foods are now considered aging accelerators.
Here’s a look at nine common food myths and what science really tells us about them:
Myth #1: Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables—which are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals—will slow the aging process.
Fact or Myth? Fact. Researchers know that people who eat more calories from fruits and vegetables tend to have healthier skin than those who don’t. Foods that contain these nutrients help prevent premature aging by fighting free radicals (molecules responsible for aging skin). The majority of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables come from natural substances called polyphenols, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital. Polyphenols are found in red wine, green tea and foods made with extra virgin olive oil. Antioxidants provide numerous benefits; they neutralize free radicals, help prevent blood clots and lower your risk of developing cancer.
Fruits and vegetables also contain vitamin C, which is an essential ingredient in collagen (a major component of skin) and can improve your skin’s appearance. “Vitamin C speeds up the growth of cells and inhibits enzymes that break down collagen,” says Zoe Diana Draelos, MD, a dermatologist in High Point, N.C.
What to do: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day; at least 3 cups daily for women and 4 cups for men, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And don’t let missing your mark on serving sizes keep you from meeting your quota. “Add a dollop of tomato sauce to your pasta or slice of pizza, and enjoy some spinach in your morning eggs,” says Caroline Kaufman, RDN, LDN, a nutritionist at the New York University Medical Center’s Department of Population Health and Nutrition Education Program.
Myth #2: Eating plenty of lean protein (fish, eggs and chicken) will help you look younger.
Fact or Myth? Fact. Protein is responsible for repairing skin after it’s been damaged from aging, sun exposure and environmental stressors like pollution, says Draelos. “Your diet should be at least 15 percent protein to keep skin functioning at its optimum level,” she says.
However, calories from protein aren’t satiating. “If you’re consuming 150 calories of steak with broccoli and a few bites of garlic bread, you’ll likely eat less than if you had that same amount of food in a salad and whole wheat roll or two slices of bread,” says Kaufman. “This can help you maintain a healthy weight so your skin isn’t stretched over extra pounds.”
What to do: Incorporate lean protein into every meal. Choose fattier cuts of fish like salmon, sardines and trout, along with free-range poultry and eggs. Nuts also provide protein and can be a good snack.
Myth #3: Carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and other orange vegetables are loaded with beta carotene, which will keep your skin looking its best.
Fact or Myth? Fact. Beta carotene—a precursor to vitamin A—is essential for healthy skin, says Draelos. “Looking at the structure of the skin cells, you can see that it’s made of protein and fat,” she says. “Without beta carotene your body cannot create vitamin A so your skin will become drier and less elastic.”
Experts also recommend eating more foods rich in omega-3s, which can help prevent sun damage. “These fatty acids are great for the body—they’re anti-inflammatory and will help with eye health,” says Draelos.
What to do: Eat more orange vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and butternut squash and foods that are rich in omega-3s, like salmon, flaxseed and walnuts.
Myth #4: If you drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, the antioxidant lycopene will help protect your skin from wrinkles.
Fact or Myth? Fact. Lycopene—which is found in red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon—is a potent antioxidant that prevents free radicals from damaging collagen and elastin, the main components of skin, says Zeichner.
“It also helps to prevent signs of sun damage like wrinkles and age spots,” she says. “The best way to enjoy lycopene is in its natural state.” Lycopene isn’t as effective when it’s isolated, which happens when manufacturers add it to other products.
What to do: The lycopene in tomatoes is more easily absorbed by your body if you cook them and make sauces with tomato paste, says JoAnn Manson, MD, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. However, she recommends eating tomatoes in their natural state—or supplementing with tomato juice.
Myth #5: Green tea can help keep your skin looking its best.
Fact or Myth? Fact. The antioxidants in green tea prevent damage caused by free radicals and protect the skin against sun damage, says Kaufman. It also contains anti-inflammatory properties that speed the healing process.
What to do: To reap the benefits of green tea, you need to consume plenty of it. One cup a day isn’t enough to see changes in your complexion, says Kaufman. A better idea is to include green tea in your beauty routine by treating yourself to an at-home spa treatment.
To make a treatment, boil green tea bags in two cups of water for 15 minutes to extract the antioxidants. Pour the mixture into a bowl and add one tablespoon each of honey and aloe vera gel. Let it chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before applying it to your face with cotton balls. Leave it on for 20 minutes before rinsing with cool water.
Myth #6: If you want to prevent wrinkles, drink a glass of orange juice every day.
Fact or Myth? Fact. Vitamin C—found in oranges and other citrus fruits like grapefruit and tangerines—helps reduce the damage caused by free radicals and stimulates collagen production, says Zeichner.
What to do: “It’s best to take your vitamin C in its natural state,” says Kaufman. Oranges are a great source of this nutrient, but you need to eat them every day. A better option is a supplement that contains bioflavonoids, the nutrients that make up most of vitamin C.
Myth #7: If you have dry skin, try taking fish oil supplements to keep your complexion looking younger longer.
Fact or Myth? Fact. Omega-3s—the fatty acids found in coldwater fish such as salmon and tuna—are rich in antioxidants that protect the skin from sun damage and slow down aging, says Draelos. What to do: “I recommend taking one tablespoon of fish oil a day,” says Kaufman. You can also eat fatty coldwater fish like salmon twice a week.
Myth #8: For antiaging purposes, antioxidants in vitamin E are just as beneficial as antioxidants in fruits and vegetables.
Fact or Myth? Fact. “There’s no getting around the fact that plant-based antioxidants like those found in dark green leafy greens, red grapes and berries fight aging,” says Kaufman. The benefits of vitamin E have not been proven, and it’s not as strong an antioxidant.
What to do: Try mixing fish oil with vitamin E for a potent dose of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. The combination is more effective than either nutrient alone at preventing damage caused by free radicals. You can also take a multivitamin that contains both vitamins. “I recommend that women over 50 take a supplement that contains 500 to 1,000 IU of vitamin E and 400 to 800 mg of fish oil,” says Kaufman.
Myth #9: Glucose can help lift your spirits if you feel down in the dumps.
Fact or Myth? Fact. “When you’re depressed, your body is actually experiencing a form of starvation,” says Michael Colgan, MD. Glucose can help because it’s essential for brain function.
What to do: “When you’re feeling anxious or down in the dumps, eat a piece of fruit,” says Kaufman. Apples have a special structure that helps to fight depression, or you can consume fructose (fruit sugar), which is the natural sweetener found in fruits.