“Eating tons of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while reducing sugar and processed foods, makes your skin completely amazing,” preaches the perennially silky-cheeked Jessica Alba in her new book, The Honest Life: Living Naturally and True to You. We can hardly quibble. But while the praise of beautifying foods is a familiar refrain, the menu has expanded far past the berry, salmon and green tea mainstays. Inspired by Alba’s pantry staples, ranging from coconut oil and chia seeds to certified-organic everything, we asked holistic beauty and nutrition experts to single out the latest skin enhancers with potent cell-nourishing, inflammation-taming and gut-balancing benefits you might be overlooking.
Sprouted pumpkin seeds
The dry, dusty and dormant seeds, grains and legumes you normally buy may not be releasing their full nutritional potential, which new “sprouted” versions claim to unlock: When the seeds are soaked in water to kick-start the germination process, they begin to morph into live plants—making them more digestible and beneficial. Not only do vitamin levels go up, but being “sprouted means the seeds are much richer in enzymes, and enzymes drive everything in the body. They are what allow you to breathe, digest, blink your eyes, contract your muscles, beat your heart—everything,” says Dr. Karen Koffler, the medical director of Canyon Ranch Miami.
How to eat it: Instead of chips, try grazing on lightly salted, sprouted pumpkin seeds (Dr. Koffler’s snack of choice) to satiate cravings.
How much to have: These are still nutrient- and calorie- dense, so a handful is plenty.
Where to buy it: Select health food stores. Or sprout your own pumpkin seeds: “You can do this by soaking them for about eight hours in purified water, and then drying them at low temps in a dehydrator or low-heat oven,” says Shannon Conrad, registered holistic nutritionist and owner of the Toronto counselling company Be Actively Healthy.
Systemic inflammation isn’t just the culprit behind many chronic diseases. It’s also visible through early-onset wrinkles, and can manifest as stubborn skin conditions such as breakouts and rosacea, claims Dr. Koffler, who ranks onions and garlic high on her beauty shopping list. “The foods that help keep the system clean, and inflammation at a minimum, are the things that support liver function,” she explains. These odoriferous vegetables are high in sulphur, a compound the liver needs to do its detoxifying job well. For especially self-conscious social dining, less fragrant sources of sulphur include cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts).
How to eat it: Onions are best consumed raw or cooked minimally (sauté-style) so you don’t lose the sulphur content.
How much to have: You need not eat this pungent bulb with every meal; just add some slices to your salad or dinner on the regular.
Where to buy it: Since onions are commonly irradiated (to extend shelf life), Conrad prefers organic options from the local farmer’s market.
Alongside kefir, kombucha and kimchee, this raw, fermented cabbage (also endorsed by Drew Barrymore’s nutritionist, Kimberly Snyder, in her new book, The Beauty Detox Foods) is a rich source of probiotics. These bacteria are renowned for keeping our intestinal micro-flora and digestive system balanced and happy, which in turn translates to clearer skin, says Conrad. One cup accounts for 35 percent of our daily recommended intake of vitamin C—a nutrient you need for the production of collagen (the same protein that keeps youthful faces firm, elastic and wrinkle-free). “Good-quality sauerkraut that is naturally fermented should not contain any vinegar, or sugar for that matter,” says Conrad. “If it contains vinegar, it likely hasn’t gone through a natural fermentation process and is devoid of the healthy probiotic bacteria we want.”
How to eat it: Have on its own, or top a salad for a tangy crunch, advises Conrad. “It pairs well with meat, as a side or a condiment,” she adds. You can also mix it in rice or quinoa dishes, or stir into heated soups. (Avoid cooking the ’kraut.)
How much to have: A few tablespoons daily is enough to reap benefits, says Conrad. Buy it unpasteurized, since bacteria-killing heat renders the product useless.
Where to buy it: Any health food store will suffice, but Karthein’s Unpasteurized Organic Sauerkraut is Conrad’s go-to. “It tastes great and comes in a variety of flavours.”
For centuries, ghee (a type of clarified butter used in butter chicken) has been ingested as an Ayurvedic medicine for rejuvenating skin. “Many people, including myself, swear that ghee helps promote a healthy glow from the inside out,” says Conrad, explaining that it lubricates cells to keep them hydrated, and offers vitamins A, D, E and K, plus anti-inflammatory properties. Rich, sweet and nutty in flavour, ghee has a slightly alkalizing effect on the body whereas ordinary butter has a slightly acidifying effect, according to Conrad. It’s best to use ghee from grass-fed cows, she advises, to benefit from healthful omega-3s. Another source of radiance-imparting fats includes coconut oil, which has medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that are “highly skin-compatible,” says Dr. Nicholas Perricone, dermatologist and author of Forever Young, noting that they help strengthen connective tissues to help keep skin supple.
How to eat it: When cooking, swap your vegetable oils and regular butter for a little ghee, especially if you’re lactose- or casein-intolerant. “You can also eat it directly off the spoon,” advises Conrad, “or use it topically on other food.”
How much to have: Ghee is rich in saturated fat, says Conrad, so one to two tablespoons per day will do, used in place of other oils.
Where to buy it: While most health food stores carry ghee, Conrad’s favourite is the organic version from St. Francis Herb Farm.
Yes, the same seeds popularized in ’80s terracotta “pets” have made an unlikely comeback—as the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids. It’s a trendy alternative to salmon, says Dr. Perricone, often credited with stoking our collective appetite for anti-inflammatory fare (Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Eva Mendes follow his “fishy” philosophy). “Healthy fats such as those found in chia keep the cell membrane supple,” he explains. The omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, and it’s chronic, low-grade inflammation in your body that speeds skin aging, Dr. Perricone adds, claiming that the boons of a beauty diet can be readily apparent on skin within as little as three days.
How to eat it: Fibre-rich and virtually tasteless, chia is easy to sprinkle in yogurt, salads and even drinks. “Chia seeds swell and become gelatinous in liquids,” Conrad says, “making them great for smoothies and puddings.” They’re beneficial when eaten whole, or grind them up for a smoother-to-mix texture.
How much to have: Conrad advises eating one to two tablespoons a day.
Where to buy it: Bulk and health food stores. “There are white and black varieties,” says Conrad. “But both are equally nutritious.”
“Protein is probably one of the most important foods to help combat aging. It’s made up of amino acids, many of which are essential to strengthening connective tissue, keeping the skin smooth and elastic, nails firm and hair strong,” says Conrad. (Even Alba abandoned her vegan diet in her mid-teens, once she realized her body feels best on a varied diet with plenty of “clean,” lean protein—meat included.) Wild game such as venison, bison and elk are a rich source of lean protein, Conrad notes, and since they eat grass (rather than grain, soy or corn feed like most domesticated cattle) they’re abundant in omega-3s.
How to eat it: Grilled, barbecued, in soups or stews.
How much to have: Three times a week, in place of other red meats, Conrad suggests.
Where to buy it: Most butchers carry wild game meat; just ask.
Traditional whole-grain steel-cut oat- meal—the kind that calls for 30-plus minutes of patient cooking, not the microwaveable sugar bombs—is an important way to detox, says Dr. Koffler, who points to ad campaigns that once touted the food’s cholesterol-fighting power. The soluble fibre in it gets gooey when digested, then sticks to the bad cholesterol in your gut and “drags” it out when you poop, instead of allowing it to get reabsorbed and recirculated in your arteries. If you’re not moving your bowels daily, Dr. Koffler warns, the effects can show as skin redness, clogged pores or acne.
How to eat it: Soak oats overnight (in water, yogurt whey or lemon juice). In the morning, bring to a boil and cook till tender, then dress up your bowl with a bit of almond or coconut milk, ground cinnamon, chopped walnuts, berries or chia.
How much to have: Prep a saucepan of oats on Sunday, then divvy into servings for quickly reheated breakfasts during the week.
Where to buy it: Look for tins of McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal at select grocers.