Food for good skin and hair: Eat your way to a healthy glow
The experts recommend you hop on a rainbow diet
Entering lockdown, I assumed that with no makeup, exposure to outside pollution or excessive sweating in rickshaws, I would wake up one day with shampoo-ad hair and spotless skin. Instead, three months in, I had started to look dull, ashy and was busy cleaning up the hair I shed around the house. Constant stress eating and food deliveries had caused my vitamin D levels to free-fall. It didn’t help that I had been avoiding the sun with the same enthusiasm that you do a distant relative at a wedding. It didn’t matter how many products went into my 5-step night-time skincare routine. I was eating a lot, sure, but it wasn’t necessarily food for good skin and hair. (or my body)
We need proper nutrition to push away pimples and keep our hormones in check while maintaining the smoothness and sheen of a glistening hot gulab jamun.
“The gut-skin axis is well established. The saying ‘We are what we eat’ translates into food reactions and allergies, and how they’re connected to common skin conditions like acne, eczema, hair loss etc,” says Dr Sonali Kohli, an aesthetic integrative dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital.
“A healthy gut helps us to digest and absorb nutrients from the food we consume. Eating organic and seasonal foods that nourish our microbiome helps boost immunity and maintain our skin barrier.”
A poor diet affects your body’s ability to naturally produce and synthesise keratin, elastin and collagen, which make up our skin and hair. Sure, keratin is basically dead when it becomes hair, skin and nails. But it’s the synthesising process of turning cells into keratin by the body that needs good nutrition, which determines the end quality.
Are supplements enough?
Even popping a daily multivitamin doesn’t mean that I can go ham on the, well, ham every day of the week. Nutritionist Latika Soin reminds us of a fact we’ve always known but resisted — food is about balance. While we should ideally be able to depend on meals for nourishment, it’s not always possible given the unpredictable quality of ingredients available.
In such cases, a pill supplement might be what you need to counter deficiencies in your system which can show up on your skin and hair.
“While supplements can never replace a good diet, when we calculate the nutrient value of foods we eat, we may not be meeting the essential nutrient requirements for optimum wellbeing,” says Kohli, explaining why we may need supplements even if we’re eating healthy. “Essential nutrients are those which the body cannot produce and we depend solely on our diet for their source. Also, an impaired gut barrier can greatly alter the absorption of nutrients from food.”
It all comes down to individual needs and there’s no better judge of that than you (and your medical advisor). Your acne, dry scaly skin and sudden premature greying can be indicators of nutritional deficiencies that can’t be combated through skincare. These are best mapped out with proper medical advice.
The nutrients you need in your food for good skin and hair
Dry flakey skin, thinning, brittle hair and nails can be an indication that you’re low on protein in your diet. Proteins are the basic building blocks of skin, hair and muscles — they give your body the amino acids it requires to produce keratin and collagen. You may have heard of lavish keratin treatments at hail salons, but it won’t matter how many sittings you get if you’re depriving yourself of adequate amounts of protein in your meals.
Soin explains that all proteins aren’t equal. Unfortunately for our vegetarian and vegan friends, animal-derived proteins, known as ‘complete proteins’ are richer than the alternative plant proteins. The ‘incomplete proteins’ don’t comprise all the amino acids but you can still get a good amount of protein by combining different ingredients and sources of plant protein.
What to eat: One part of your meal plates should include lean meats of chicken or turkey, fish, milk, eggs and cheeses. Paneer is an option for vegetarians and for completely plant-based proteins, your best resource is the variety of legumes available in the Indian market.
Experiment with recipes for different types of dal, rajma, black-eyed peas (lobia) and chana. You can also try soy and tofu products. Brown rice has a good amount of protein, you can also try a combination of barley (jau) and amaranth (rajgira) instead of regular white rice.
Just like protein, all fats aren’t equal in the food chart. The yummies you eye every time you want to snack are probably the ones high in trans and saturated fats. The good fats, on the other hand, are unsaturated and these we get primarily from vegetables, nuts and fish.
We need these essential fats for energy, building muscle, staying warm and better absorption of vitamins and nutrients. When you plan your meal with food for good skin and hair, essential fats should be on the MVP list.
“A balanced intake of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids can regulate skin’s oil production, soften dry and rough skin, soothe the irritation of skin conditions like dermatitis and eczema, and reduce breakouts,” says Soin. It leaves your hair and promotes steady hair growth by maintaining a healthy scalp
What to eat: Seafood is the best source of fatty acids. If that’s too fishy for you and you don’t want to dent your bank account buying avocado in India then start drizzling your salads with olive oil, almonds, walnuts, chia and flax seeds.
You need to eat antioxidants as much as you need that vitamin C serum in your skincare routine. Free radical damage can stress our skin into premature ageing, damage and dullness.
It’s not just the free radical damage from the sun and habits like smoking. Free radicals naturally exist in our body and when there’s an imbalance between them and the antioxidants needed to combat their impact, it leads to oxidative stress which causes damage to our cells and tissues. Vitamin C, E and flavonoids can power up your skin’s defence and fight the damage caused by oxidative stress.
What to eat: Blueberries and cranberries are heralded as the powerhouses of antioxidants but can be expensive. If you want something that’s lighter on the pocket and more easily available, indulge in amla, tomatoes, coconut, strawberries, carrot, apple, turmeric, jamun, guava, pomegranate. Which all together sounds like quite an… interesting fruit salad. If you want to get really experimental, then give spirulina a shot.
Try and have two cups of green tea through the day. Check the fine print on the box to make sure that they are whole green tea leaves and most just ‘green tea flavour’.
B vitamins exist in our system as water-soluble and as a group with multiple health benefits. Niacin (vitamin b3) is used cosmetically as nicotinamide or niacinamide which can regulate sebum production, improve skin barrier function and help smoothen out the skin’s texture to reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
You’ll easily spot vitamin b7 supplements at the local chemist, better known as biotin or vitamin H for its ability to improve your hair. Biotin is believed to stimulate healthy hair growth, improve dryness and itching of the skin and reduce breakage of nails by thickening them.
What to eat: Popping a pill seems easy but it’s just as simple to boost your vitamin B levels by eating the right food for good skin and hair. To include the entire B group, you need to mix things up.
Whole grains like barley and millet, fish and poultry, beans and lentils, seeds and nuts like sunflower seeds and almonds, leafy vegetables like broccoli and spinach and citrus fruits will cover all the types of vitamin B our body needs.
Minerals that matter
When we get caught up in the chatter about multivitamins, we often forget about the minerals that keep our body healthy. Iron and zinc give lustre to your hair and make it shine while magnesium can be calming. It prevents any calcium from building up on your scalp which causes dandruff and hair fall.
Selenium works alongside vitamin E to help protect the cells from free radical damage. Zinc is instrumental in your body’s ability to heal. This includes soothing and healing scalp conditions, acne, psoriasis and dermatitis.
What to eat: Meat is an excellent source of zinc. As are legumes like chickpeas, pumpkin and sesame seeds and fortified dairy products. Almonds, spinach, peanuts and cashew nuts are rich in magnesium. Cereals, dairy and grains serve as a good source of selenium along with meats.
Says Kohli, “Eating a rainbow diet is the simplest way for putting together eating habits in a holistic way that brings you vitality, energy and peace of mind. Fruits and vegetables of different colours actually contain different types of micronutrients. Eat five cups of fruits and veggies in five colours (red, yellow and orange, white, green, blue and purple) every day.”
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Styling: Divya Gursahani, Makeup: Riddhima Sharma, Hair: Krisann Figueiredo, Model: Rakshitha Harimurthy/Faze, Coat: Bodements