It’s official! It pays to go green for the sake of your skin. Plants are packed with the goodness of high quality nutrients, which are beneficial for immunity and skin repair. Plant foods have long been known to promote health and wellness. Cultures where the diet primarily features plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are found to have increased longevity and reduced rates of cancers and chronic diseases.
Traditionally, the goodness of plants has been attributed to the health-promoting effects of their array of vitamins, minerals and fibre. More recently, however, research studies are uncovering a new story. Plant foods contain thousands of other compounds in addition to macronutrients [complex carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fibre] and micronutrients [vitamins and minerals]. These additional compounds are collectively known as phytonutrients. Simply put, phytonutrients are active compounds in plants that provide proven benefits to humans when consumed.
Phytonutrients provide plants with protection from environmental challenges, such as damage from ultraviolet light, and when we consume plants rich in phytonutrients, they provide us with protection as well. These compounds have an ability to counter the attack of free radicals.
Phytonutrients, in minute quantities, have a number of benefits on the skin which include anti-aging and skin clarifying. They are like beauty shots which provide large benefits to the skin even in very small quantities. Ongoing research in this area has unearthed various classes of phytonutrients found in different plants. As we shall find out, this is one of the important reasons why one needs to eat different kinds of plant foods.
Classes of phytonutrients
Phytonutrients have been classified in different ways either based on their family groups, chemical structure or biological activity. I have found that the easiest is the one based on their primary ingredients. One unique quality of phytonutrients is that they can be identified by the colour they impart to various foods as we will see below. They are also loosely, therefore, known as plant pigments:
Flavonoids: These are the plant pigments derived from phenols that give plants their colour, like the deep of blue of blueberries, the purple of grapes, the orange of pumpkins or the red of tomatoes. Flavonoids include the anthocyanidins in blueberries and the quercetin found in onions.
Isoflavonoids and lignans: These nutrients contain plant hormones or phytoestrogens and are found in soy foods. Isoflavonoids are also found in nuts while lignans are found in flaxseed and rye.
Organic acids: The most important one, ferulic acid, is found in whole grains and is believed to delay skin aging in combination with Vitamin C.
Terpenoids: These include the basic terpenoids like limonene which is found in citrus food peels, as well as the carotenoids [Vitamin A precursors], coenzyme Q10, the phytosterols, and the tocopherols and tocotrienols like Vitamin E.
Organo-sulphurs: These are found in cruciferous plants like cabbages and sulphur compounds in garlic.
The most practical way of understanding and incorporating these phytonutrients or beauty shots in our diet is to look at the source of these nutrients. So let’s look at the different kinds of plant food and what sort of nutrients they provide us with.
Beauty shots in fruits
The purple-blue pigment that gives fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and red and purple grapes their unique colouration is called anthocyanidin. This pigment also protects plants from the damaging effects of oxidation. The antioxidant properties of anthocyanidins are now being studied by healthcare researchers who are determining that these pigments don’t just support the health of plants, but of humans as well.
The more we learn about beauty busters or free radicals, the more we realize how they make the skin age faster and lose its elasticity. We can understand, therefore, why antioxidants are gaining an important place in the nutrient table. Among the antioxidants, purple-blue pigments are found to have unique features. They protect cells and tissues from free radical damage in both water-soluble and fat-soluble environments. Further, their free radical scavenging capabilities are thought to be more effective than many of the currently well-known vitamin antioxidants, For instance, their antioxidant activity is almost 50 times that of either Vitamin C or Vitamin E, the vitamins most of us like to befriend!
These substances are also essential in the protection of collagen, the strength provider we spoke about earlier. They prevent the breakdown of collagen and thus protect the skin from aging, so they certainly qualify as genuine beauty foods. Incorporation of these fruits in our daily diet will ensure that we keep aging at bay, the natural way!
Beauty shots in vegetables
Our mothers and grandmothers were right—the foods we loved to hate as children are particularly healthy for us. Members of the Brassica family of vegetables, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and bok choy appear to have significant beauty promoting properties. Studies have shown that people who consume these vegetables frequently have not only a lower risk of developing a variety of cancers, but also a sip of the elusive elixir of youth.
While these vegetables also contain significant vitamin and mineral profiles, the key to their unique health-promoting abilities may be the presence of phytochemical known as gluicosinolate. These have a profound effect on our liver enzymes and beneficially support the metabolism of oestrogen, the most important female hormone. This partially explains the effect that these vegetables have on the softness and texture of the skin as well as its clarity. Indirectly, hormones also maintain good vascularity of the skin, contributing to its glow factor.
Beauty shots in whole grains
Diets that feature significant amounts of whole grains have been proved to offer protection against the development of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and skin disintegrity. While whole grains provide an array of important constituents such as fibre, resistant starches, vitamins and minerals, it is important to appreciate the important health contribution of the phytochemicals that they contain.
The germ and bran of whole grains such as rice, barley and oats contain a concentrated amount of important phytochemicals that belong to the organic acid family. Included in this family of compounds are protective acids like ferulic acid. While whole grains are a significant source like fertile acid, certain fruits and vegetables like spinach, parsley, grapes and rhubarb are also known to contain this important compound.
Ferulic acid has been found to be a potent antioxidant that is able to scavenge free radicals as well as protect against damage to cells and tissues. In combination with Vitamin C, it is believed to have strong anti-aging properties and is extremely beneficial to skin health and glow.
Beauty shots in tea
Drinking tea is an important cultural feature in all the Asian nations and is slowly gaining popularity elsewhere in the world as well, due to its advantages. Tea is packed with beauty shots, the most important being catechins. In addition to being an important feature of green tea, catechins are also found in other plant-based foods such as apples, grapes, raspberries and avocados.
Among their many benefits, catechins are powerful antioxidants. They also support healthy gastrointestinal tract function, help in detoxification, and aid in the repair of damaged DNA and skin aging and can, in some cases, even reverse these processes.
Catechins are known to appear in the bloodstream, get circulated relatively quickly and at levels that provide benefits from drinking just a few cups of tea a day. They have the ability to repair UV damage and possibly even provide preventive care against sun exposure, though these studies are still under research.
The amazing thing about these beauty shots is that they work beautifully on their own and even better in combination. This sits well with most cuisines as vegetables are usually eaten in combination with grains, especially in dominantly vegetarian societies.
Today, we know that plant power is not only green but is bursting with colour. The colour in our diet has the ability to add colour and glow to our skin.
Excerpted with permission from
Skin Deep: An Inside Out Approach to Looking Good, Naturally!;
Published by: Harpercollins India
This was first published in the May 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.