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03 Aug 2023

10 foods that support healthy ageing

Food & Fluids

Our bodies rely on various nutrients to support the natural ageing process.

Some nutrients may help slow signs of ageing, such as by promoting healthy skin. Our skin is our largest organ, if our skin is in good health it is an indicator (but not an absolute surety) that most of our other organs will be in reasonably good health too. This article focuses on the effects of food on the health of our skin.
It’s important to note that eating specific foods isn’t going to make you look noticeably younger, and that nutrition is only one aspect of ageing well.
Still, adding nutrient-dense foods to your diet can help you look and feel your best as you get older. In general, try to eat:

  • healthy sources of protein
  • healthy fats
  • foods that are rich in antioxidants

1. Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest oils on earth. It’s rich in healthy fats and antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and oxidative damage caused by an imbalance of free radicals in the body.
A diet rich in olive oil has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases, including:

  • heart disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • metabolic syndrome
  • certain types of cancer

In particular, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) make up about 73% of olive oil. Some studies have shown that a diet rich in MUFAs may help reduce skin ageing thanks to the strong anti-inflammatory effects of these healthy fats.

Extra virgin olive oil is also high in antioxidants, such as tocopherols and beta carotene, as well as phenolic compounds that also have anti-inflammatory properties.
In fact, one 2012 study found that people who consumed a diet rich in MUFAs from olive oil had a lower risk of severe skin ageing (which is caused by the collagen fibres in our skin unravelling, tangling, and cross-linking all of which combines to make skin sag and wrinkle).

Ideally, choose cold pressed extra virgin olive oil because it’s higher in antioxidants and less processed than oils that are extracted using other methods. Try adding it to a salad or dip.

2. Green tea
Green tea is high in antioxidants, which can help fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules created as a by-product of normal cell functioning. They can also form in response to stressors from the external environment, such as ultraviolet (UV) light or tobacco smoke. Free radicals can damage your cells if they’re present at high levels. Note cigarette smoke and too much exposure to ultraviolet light (e.g., direct sunlight, and tanning lights) are two of the biggest causes of skin damage and ageing.

That’s where antioxidants come in. These molecules stabilize free radicals so they’re unable to cause damage. You usually get antioxidants through your diet — like from green tea.

Green tea is particularly high in antioxidants called polyphenols. Specifically, it’s high in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), catechins, and gallic acid. These may reduce your risk of:

  • heart disease
  • neurological decline
  • premature ageing
  • other chronic diseases

The polyphenols found in green tea may help reduce external skin ageing — from environmental stressors such as the sun and pollution — by scavenging free radicals before they damage the skin.

In fact, many skin care products contain green tea extract for its antioxidant and antiaging properties. However, more research is needed before green tea products can be recommended to reduce skin ageing.

That said, consuming a diet high in antioxidants is associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease and healthier skin. And drinking green tea can be a great way to get more antioxidants into your diet but the caution is if you drink too much green tea it can cause harm to your body. New Zealand Doctors recommend drinking no more than two – three cups of green tea per day.

3. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish is a highly nutritious food that can promote healthy skin. Its long-chain omega-3 fats are beneficial against heart disease, inflammation, and many other issues. Furthermore, research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are linked to a strong skin barrier and may help decrease inflammation that damages the skin.

Salmon, one of the most popular types of fatty fish, has additional aspects that may help support your skin’s health. First, it contains a carotenoid antioxidant called astaxanthin, which is responsible for the pink colour of salmon. In one study, people with sun-damaged skin consumed a combination of astaxanthin and collagen for 12 weeks. As a result, they experienced significant improvements in skin elasticity and hydration. However, while these results seem positive, it’s unknown whether the effects were due to astaxanthin, collagen, or both. Plus, salmon and other fatty fish are high in protein. Our body makes collagen, it is one of the most abundant proteins in our body (although we produce less collagen from around age 25 onward).

Collagen is a key component of our connective tissues, its supports our body structure, flexibility and strength. Bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and our digestive system all rely on collagen to function well. Collagen makes up nearly 80% of our skin. You can help your body optimise its production of collagen by eating healthy foods.

Fish is also high in selenium. This mineral and antioxidant plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair and may help reduce and prevent skin damage from UV light. Having adequate levels in the body may reduce the severity of skin diseases like psoriasis.

4. Dark chocolate or cocoa
Dark chocolate is a rich source of polyphenols, which act as antioxidants in the body. In particular, it contains flavanols, which are linked to numerous health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease and have been shown to have positive benefits related to:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • cognitive decline

Additionally, it’s thought that a diet rich in flavanols and other antioxidants can help protect the skin from sun damage and help slow skin ageing. Our skin ‘wraps’ our bodies, thus keeping our skin healthy in these natural ways, is thought to positively impact everything under our skin too (i.e., all our body ‘parts’).

In one high quality 24-week study, participants that consumed a flavanol-rich cocoa beverage experienced significant improvements in skin elasticity and facial wrinkles compared with those in the control group. While these results are promising, other studies have not observed that dark chocolate offers benefits for skin appearance or ageing. Remember, the higher the cocoa content, the higher the flavanol content. Therefore, if you want to add dark chocolate to your diet, choose a variety with at least 70% cocoa solids and little added sugar.

It is important to note that the third factor in the triad of big causes of skin damage is consuming too much sugar (remember sugar is an ingredient in many processed foods, not just cakes, biscuits and lollies; it is listed in the ingredients of many fast foods too). Thus sugar, cigarette smoke and too much exposure to ultraviolet light (e.g., direct sunlight, and tanning lights) are the three biggest causes of skin damage and ageing.

5. Vegetables
Most vegetables are extremely nutrient-dense and low in calories. They contain antioxidants, which help reduce the risk of heart disease, cataracts, and certain cancers. Many vegetables are also high in carotenoids, like beta carotene and lycopene. Some research suggests that a diet high in carotenoids may protect the skin against the sun’s UV rays, which are the main cause of skin damage and premature skin ageing. Some of the best sources of beta carotene are:

  • carrots
  • pumpkin
  • kumara – the varieties with orange coloured flesh (also known as sweet potatoes)

Many vegetables are also rich in vitamin C, which is a potent antioxidant. Vitamin C also plays a crucial role in collagen production. Collagen is a key building block of the skin, but its natural production in our bodies begins to decline after the age of 25. Vegetables with the highest vitamin C content include leafy greens, bell peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli.

It’s important to eat vegetables of different colours, as each colour represents different antioxidants that can benefit your skin and overall health. Aim to have at least two vegetables at each meal.

6. Flax seeds
Flax seeds offer impressive health benefits. They contain lignin, which are a type of polyphenol that has antioxidant effects and may lower your risk of developing a chronic disease, such as heart disease and breast cancer They are also a great source of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Consuming a diet rich in omega-3 fats helps support a healthy skin membrane by helping your skin stay hydrated and plump.

In high quality studies from 2009 and 2011, women who consumed flax seeds or flax oil for 12 weeks showed increased hydration and smoother skin. However, newer research is needed and the effects on males skin needs to be studied too.

7. Pomegranates
Like most fruits, pomegranates are full of healthy nutrients. They’re high in fibre, potassium, and vitamin K, which help support a healthy heart. They’re likewise rich in antioxidants, such as flavonols, tannins, phenolic acids, and lignin. Some human and animal studies suggest that the antioxidants found in pomegranates may also help support healthy skin ageing by decreasing UV skin damage and brown spots caused by sun exposure.

These antioxidants also help protect the skin’s existing collagen and promote the skin to make new collagen. Pomegranate seeds and their juice can provide a quick, nutritious source of antioxidants in the diet.

8. Avocados
Avocados are rich in heart-healthy fats, fibre, and several vitamins and minerals that are essential for health. Their high content of monounsaturated fat may help promote healthy skin by supporting a healthy skin membrane, while their high antioxidant content may fight free radicals that damage and age the skin.
For example, one study showed that a diet rich in plant-based fats was linked to better skin health in older adults.

Considering the delicious taste and versatility of avocados, adding them to your diet is an easy way to get in extra nutrition for healthy skin.

9. Tomatoes
Tomatoes provide many impressive health benefits, several of which can be attributed to their high lycopene content. Lycopene is a type of carotenoid that gives tomatoes their red colour. It also acts as an antioxidant to help reduce the risk of chronic disease.

Studies in human skin samples show that lycopene may also provide a small amount of protection from the damaging rays of the sun. However, this protection is significantly lower than using sunscreen. In one study, women who drank an antioxidant-rich beverage containing lycopene, soy isoflavones, fish oil, and vitamins C and E every day had a measurable decrease in wrinkle depth after 15 weeks. Pairing tomatoes with healthy fats, such as olive oil or avocado, significantly boosts the body’s absorption of lycopene.

10. Collagen peptides
Collagen is the body’s most abundant protein. In particular, it’s found in high amounts in the skin and joints. As we age, our body begins to break down collagen and produces it less effectively. This can lead to gradual signs of skin ageing, such as wrinkles and sagging skin.

While this process is inevitable and a natural part of ageing, consuming foods that support collagen synthesis can help keep your skin healthy for longer. These include protein-rich foods and vitamin C.

Avoiding activities that accelerate collagen breakdown can also help. These activities include sun tanning, cigarette smoking, and consuming above the recommended daily intake of sugar.

Furthermore, human studies have shown that consuming hydrolyzed collagen peptides — a smaller form of collagen that your body absorbs much more efficiently — may improve skin elasticity, moisture, and firmness while reducing wrinkles.

That said, many studies don’t take other lifestyle factors into account, such as protein intake, overall diet, smoking, and ultraviolet light exposure.
Healthy protein-rich foods to eat regularly include:

  • chicken
  • tofu
  • fish
  • eggs

In addition to eating the above healthy protein-rich foods all age-groups, especially those 65+ years, are recommended to protect the health of the largest body organ, your skin by:

  • always wearing a hat with a brim size that creates shade of your whole head, face and ears when out in even dull sunlight;
  • protect exposed skin using at least 15+ sunscreen, even on dull cloudy days (e.g., remember sunscreen on your face and hands too);
  • don’t use tanning beds unless prescribed by a doctor for specific skin conditions; and
  • consume under the daily recommended sugar intake;
  • and stay hydrated, your body will usually tell you by feeling thirsty that you need to drink more fluid. As a rough guide the NZ Nutrition Foundation advises per day adult women should aim to drink 2.1 litres (8 cups) and men 2.6 litres (10 cups); if your Doctor has advised a different daily fluid intake follow your Doctors instructions. In older age, the thirst signals decrease thus it’s very important to check that you are going to the toilet regularly and check the colour of your urine (pee):
    • pale yellow = you are drinking enough (well hydrated)
    • dark yellow = you need to drink more (dehydrated)
    • looks like water = you are drinking too much (overhydrated).

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Date Published: August 2023

To be reviewed: August 2026