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Is there such a thing as “good” fat for your skin?

Brigstock Skin & Laser Centre’s very own Dr Nilu Vajpeyi writes…

Last month, we discussed how diet can affect the health of your skin and how science has shown there is a direct link between the health of your skin and the health of your body as a whole. Increased blood sugar level in the body results in a process called glycation which affects the ageing process. We also discussed the negative effects that excessive carbohydrate consumption has on the body. The main message of last month’s newsletter was to eat less sugar and the long-chain sugar molecules also known as carbohydrates. This month I want to focus on the positive effects that protein and good fats have on the health of your skin.

Protein is an essential building block of all life and constitutes about 50% of the dry weight of most cells. The body uses protein to build the structures that create our muscles, organs, skin, hair and connective tissue. Proteins are made from long chains of smaller molecules known as amino acids which the body cannot produce itself. As these amino acids and proteins are essential for good health and the body has little capacity to store protein, it is essential we eat sufficient amounts of complete protein on a daily basis.

dr-niluOver the past 30 years, the received wisdom has been that a low-fat diet is a good diet. You must now forget this mantra. Recent studies have shown that the body needs fats for good health. That right! Your body needs oil and fat!

Another word for oils and fats is the word ‘lipids’. Lipids help maintain cell structures and cell functions. Lipids are also essential for the regulation of your hormones including insulin which regulates your blood sugar levels. Remember increased blood sugar levels are bad for the health of your body and skin.

How do oils and fats affect the skin? Well, studies have shown that increased fat consumption increases the elasticity of the skin and reduces wrinkles. Sufficient levels of both monounsaturated and saturated fats in our diets are therefore essential for maintaining healthy and youthful looking skin as we get older.

Scientific studies have shown that trans-fats and highly processed unstable polyunsaturated vegetable oils high in omega-6 increase inflammation in the body. This has added to the reputation that fats are bad for you. The key however is to ensure we eat sufficient amounts of stable monounsaturated fats such as avocados and olive oil and stable saturated fats also such as animal fats and coconut oil. Interestingly olive oil has been shown to reduce the risk of severe sun-induced skin ageing. This is also the case with the consumption of fish which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to reduce inflammation, have antioxidant properties and help protect telomere length.

What is telomere length? Telomeres maintain the stability of our genes. As we age our cells divide. When this happens our telomeres shorten, which means telomere length is a good indication of our affective cellular age as opposed to our chronological age. Increased rates of the shorting of telomeres have been linked to increased levels of free radicals and greater oxidative stress. Shorter telomeres have also been linked to increasing levels of cancer and shorter longevity and have been linked to obesity, low-grade inflammation and raised blood sugar levels.

The past 30 years have seen a lot of focus on the negative effects of saturated fats. To the extent that you might now find it difficult to accept that they are not as problematic as their reputation suggests. We have after all been exposed to some pretty effective marketing machines over the years, selling us a whole host of low-fat polyunsaturated processed foods. The fact remains that saturated fatty acids are an integral part of our body and skin and are in fact fundamental building blocks of the brain. Recent studies have even shown that cholesterol actually promotes the production of new brain cells. This in turn promotes the communication between neurons and studies have shown that this can lead to better cognitive function. Importantly for your skin, saturated fats have been shown to reduce oxidative damage.

But haven’t we been told saturated fats are bad for us? We have, but we seem to be in the process of a gradual re-think about their effects on our health.  In fact, the British Heart Foundation recently published the results of a meta-study that concluded:
“Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats”.

What we do know is that the body and our skin evolved over a 4.5 billion year period and that we are definitely not designed to eat a modern western diet high in sugar and carbohydrates.

What does this tell us about what we should be eating? Well, the truth is nobody really knows for sure. Research is constantly updating the received wisdom of the day. What we do know is that the body and our skin evolved over a 4.5 billion year period and that we are definitely not designed to eat a modern western diet high in sugar and carbohydrates. The most appropriate diet seems to me to be the Palaeolithic diet. We’ve not evolved much since the Palaeolithic period so it would seems logical that this is the diet we should eat. What does that include? As far as we know it includes healthy lean meat and fish, vegetable, fruit and some nuts.

My advice is to try to eat Palaeolithic food only 80% of the time and there are plenty of Paleo recipes on the internet that you can follow. You do however have to live a little and some modern dishes do taste wonderful, but just remember they must be consumed in moderation. Daily healthy smoothies are a great way of consuming fruit and green leaves and you can also add rice protein to increase their beneficial protein content.  I particularly recommend the Nutri-Bullet as it is so quick and easy to use and clean. Ultimately it’s important to keep reading and researching the latest studies because as we have seen received wisdom is an iterative concept.

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