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How to Eat Your Way to Better Skin

Why slather on the moisturizer when you can just cram down some fish?

Most skincare advice couldn’t be more trite. Case in point: The key to good skin is enough sleep. Or staying hydrated. Or taking all the right vitamins. Or putting on enough sunblock. Or moisturizer. Same for how diet factors in: Load up your plate (and by extension, stomach) with enough vegetables and fish, and all that ails your epidermis should be cured. 

However, Sam T. Hwang, professor and chair of dermatology at the University of California, Davis, isn’t so quick to make such simplistic dietary proclamations — i.e., that a particular increase in one type of food or food group is going to result in the smooth skin of royalty and babies’ asses. After collaborating with other researchers to analyze components of the Western diet, which is notoriously high in fats and sugar, to look into how dietary changes might help mitigate some of the issues with psoriasis, he discovered that it’s all much more holistic.

“We knew that psoriasis was associated with obesity,” Hwang tells me. “It’s a comorbidity of that disease.” But what he was curious to find out was which came first — psoriasis or obesity. As such, he and his team put mice on a Western diet for four weeks (a delicious menu of simple sugars like sucrose or fructose with a bunch of fat mixed in for good measure). “We didn’t expect to see anything,” he explains. To their surprise, though, after just four weeks, they began to witness significant signs of inflammation in the mice’s skin, which, on a molecular level, was similar to human psoriasis.

More importantly, Hwang found that once the mice were taken off a Western diet, their psoriasis improved and their inflammation lessened. What Hwang et al concluded then was that obesity wasn’t required for skin to be inflamed, rather just the presence of a shit diet like the kind most of us Americans eat. 

“I tell my patients, based on my own research, to move away from the Western diet,” he says, while emphasizing that this doesn’t mean a meat-less or sugar-less existence and that it’s the sum of a diet’s parts that either eat away at or swaddle your skin, not necessarily specific ingredients therein. “For example, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t abandon meat; it adds more fiber and reduces high levels of sugar.” 

That’s where all the fish-for-better-skin talk comes from. It’s not wrong either: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and herring are excellent foods for achieving healthier skin. “They’re rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are necessary to help keep skin thick, supple and moisturized,” Healthline reports. That’s because, in part, omega-3 fats in fish reduce the inflammation that can cause redness, acne and psoriasis. “They can even make your skin less sensitive to the sun’s harmful UV rays,” Healthline adds, continuing to push the fish-as-magic-epidermal-elixir angle hard. 

Not that any of this will dissuade Hwang from his bigger-picture approach. If anything, the only individual argument he’ll make is exactly that — every individual is different and no matter how much mackerel you put down at dinner or the amount of sugar you banish at dessert, what works for everyone else might not work for you. Or as he succinctly puts it: “It’s impossible to tabulate diets in every human.”  

After all, it’s not like everyone in the Mediterranean is walking around with poreless skin either.