Unless you’re under 21 years-old and trying to get into a bar, the prospect of looking a lot older than you are is a sobering thought. And while a fitness routine and high metabolism can help, what you eat will probably matter the most.
There are numerous factors that influence how you age—genetics, smoking, sun exposure, your environment, and many more. But what you eat plays one of the starring roles in how you look and feel as you get older. It can feel like it happens overnight, too. One day you’re being told you look five years younger than you are, and the next, no one blinks an eye when you share your age.
The good news is that you can take charge of what you see when you look in the mirror! We asked top nutritionists to reveal which foods are speeding up the wrinkles, dull skin, and aches and pains. Brace yourself—and then check out the 30 Most Effective Weight Loss Stories of the Year!
We hope you ditched this butter substitute years ago. But if not, listen up! “Not all fats are created equal, and margarine—more often than not—seems to give [other] fats a bad rep,” shares Dr. Tasneem Bhatia, MD, also known as “Dr.Taz,” a weight loss expert and author of What Doctors Eat and The 21-Day Belly Fix. “The culprit in margarine is trans fat, which destroys hydration. The less your skin is hydrated, the faster the wrinkles appear.”
Picture this: You just got out of a 7 p.m. hot yoga class and your good intentions to cook up a healthy meal now feels like a massive undertaking. With your energy zapped, you think about zapping your dinner, too. But consider this first: “Frozen meals are notoriously high in sodium. Sodium contributes to water retention and an overall ‘puffy,’ aged appearance,” shares Kayleen St. John, RD at Natural Gourmet Institute, a health-supportive cooking school in New York City.
Your grab-and-go Red Bull habit isn’t going to your future 60-year-old self any favors. “Energy drinks are very high in sugar and very acidic, which can damage teeth and leave them more prone to stains that will age your smile. Plus, their high caffeine and sodium content can lead to dehydration, especially if you are drinking them instead of water, offers Sarah-Jane Bedwell, RD, LDN, a Nashville-based nutritionist and author of Schedule Me Skinny: Plan to Lose Weight and Keep it Off in Just 30 Minutes a Week. “Since dehydration is one of the main factors that contributes to older looking skin, aim to drink the recommended 8-10 glasses of water per day…and even more if you’re consuming alcohol or working out.” If regular H20 just doesn’t do it for you, why not try a detox water?
We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but how many times must we urge you to step way from the bakery case at the grocery store? “Baked goods and other sweets are often rich in added sugars and fat, which can lead to weight gain and poor dental health,” says Alexandra Miller, RDN, LDN, Corporate Dietitian at Medifast. “Sugar promotes an unhealthy microbiome and it is also pro-inflammatory. All of these characteristics can accelerate the aging process,” she elaborates.
Bacon, Ham, and Sausage
That sizzling strip of bacon may be calling your name come brunch, but swap it for tempeh bacon instead. “Preservatives used in processed meats may create free radicals within the body,” says Lisa Hayim, MS, RD, and founder of The WellNecessities. “Free radicals lead to oxidation of your cells and DNA, and they can cause enough damage to lead to cancer or other health conditions.” No thank you!
High Fructose Corn Syrup
This icky additive is commonly slipped into processed foods and snacks and is something you want to steer clear of as much as you can. “Although excessive sugar intake is detrimental to looking young altogether, high fructose corn syrup is believed to be the worst kind for your skin (and overall health),” shares Deborah Orlick Levy, M.S., R.D., Carrington Farms health and nutrition consultant. “The sugar in your diet can damage your skin’s collagen and elastin, making you look wrinkled with skin that is no longer firm,” she adds. Find out the 150 Worst Packaged Foods in America to get a better handle on what to avoid at all costs!
Pour some sugar…down the drain. “While there have been countless studies arguing back and forth on whether or not sugar can cause breakouts, the case remains that sugar is simply harmful to your body as a whole,” states Dr. Taz. “Sugar causes inflammation, which is a major inhibitor to having clear, beautiful skin. To make matters worse, sugar also damages collagen and elastin, which keeps the skin looking soft and supple.”
High Glycemic Index Carbs
Pasta aficionados, you might want to start swirling zucchini strands on your fork. “Foods such as bagels, oatmeal, pretzels, pasta, and cereal, have been proven to accelerate the skin’s aging process and wreak havoc on the skin, causing acne and rosacea,” shares Dr. Taz. “Even the self-proclaimed ‘healthy’ cereals with whole grains, which are lower in glycemic index, can be stocked full of wrinkle-inducing glucose.”
Pina Coladas? Margaritas? Mojitos? Yup, they’re all part of the same crew that you don’t want to invite into your life on a regular basis. “When simple sugar is consumed in excess, the sugar molecules combine with proteins in the body and form compounds that can damage the skin’s collagen. This, in turn, has an aging effect,” explains Bedwell. “These sweet drinks can have over 50 grams of added sugar in a single cocktail! Plus, the alcohol in the drinks can dehydrate you, making fine lines and wrinkles more apparent.”
“The occasional glass (or two) of wine is no harm to you or your skin, but drinking to excess, especially sugary drinks [see above], causes free radicals. Alcohol also robs the body of vitamin A, an antioxidant that’s essential for cell renewal and turnover,” offers Dr. Taz. “If you do drink, reach for drinks without added sugars, such as wine, champagne, or a vodka soda with lime. Also, be sure to drink in moderation and alternate each alcoholic drink with a water,” advises Bedwell. Or, the next time a friend wants to grab a drink to catch up, suggest a green tea date!
Your skin just urgently texted: Please defriend that jerk the salt shaker. And its posse of high-sodium prepared foods, for that matter. “Foods that are high in sodium cause you to retain water and feel bloated. The water retention can make the skin look puffy and tired,” comments Orlick Levy. Dr. Taz also adds that “[High salt foods] trigger dehydration and some early studies show it damages DNA, shortening telomeres and accelerating aging.”
Deep-Fried State Fair Food
Corn dogs, elephant ears, onion rings, deep-fried Snickers…it’s obvious why these not-real-food fair foods are terrible for you, but we’ll hone in on the deep-fried part: “When we deep fry foods, we expose the oil and fat to extremely high temperatures. When this happens, free radicals, the primary culprit in aging, are formed,” offers Hayim. “These foods not only cause damage to our waistlines but to our organs and insides as well.”
Fried Fast Food
“Restaurants will typically use corn oil, one of the unhealthiest oils,” says Orlick Levy. “When consumed, it releases free radicals in the body. Free radical damage or oxidative stress has numerous effects on health and well-being, including heart disease and wrinkles.” If you just can’t avoid a fast food joint, look for one of these healthy fast food choices.
You might use it as a seemingly “better” option than sugar for baked goods, oatmeal, or even smoothies, but think twice before reaching for the bottle of sticky, sweet stuff. “Agave is often mistaken as a healthier alternative to sugar, but this sweet syrup is packed with fructose. Once the liver meets fructose, it not only turns it into fat but also breaks down collagen, making fine lines more noticeable,” says Dr. Taz.
Trans fats are about as bad for your skinny jeans as they are for your skin cells. “Fats that have been artificially hydrogenated are some of the most inflammatory substances out there,” says St. John. “Trans fats may even make us more susceptible to UV damage to our skin.” Double yikes!
“Processed sugar is quickly processed in the body and can lead to a high insulin response and fast weight gain,” says St. John. “Plus, high intakes of [candy] can negatively affect dental health and nothing ages you faster than a discolored—or missing!—smile.” The good news: Dark chocolate, everyone’s favorite anti-inflammatory superstar, is safe. Just make sure you look for varieties with no added sugar.
Creamy. Chocolately. Fruity. Green. Weight-loss has never been more delicious than with Zero Belly Smoothies!
Burnt meat might be a secret love of yours, but there’s good reason to give that up as fast as an engagement on The Bachelor. “Meat that has been cooked to a ‘blackened’ status is very inflammatory to the body,” St. John explaines. “Inflammation may actually break down collagen levels in the skin, leading to an aged appearance,” she continues.
Mmm, crepes, bananas, cheese, oh my! Not so fast. Alcohol, which you need for flambé, starts a chain reaction of problems: “Increased consumption of alcohol leads to the production of ROS (reactive oxygen species),” Hayim cautions. “High levels of ROS result in oxidative stress, which can cause severe damage to our bodies. While it’s easy to identify alcohol when it’s in a beverage, it’s not so easy to monitor its consumption when we are eating it. The USDA warns that ‘foods flamed with alcohol appear to have all the added alcohol burned off, but the food actually still retains 75 percent of the added alcohol.’”
If you’re craving something crunchy, try whole grain crackers or chopped veggies like zucchini sticks or celery—because the ingredients in potato chips will dry up your internal fountain of youth super fast. “Consuming trans fatty acids stimulate interleukin 6 within the body,” explains Hayim. Inter-what? “Interleukin 6 is a marker of inflammation, which is associated with aging. In addition, fried and deep fried oils, even those made with made with vegetable oils, can impair cell respiration and reduce immune functions within the body.”
This slice of comfort food might make you feel like a youthful 19 year-old again, but it will do the exact opposite to your body. “The nitrates and other compounds in processed meats, such as pepperoni, are known to be pro-inflammatory. Inflammation causes aging from inside out,” says Bedwell. “Plus, the saturated fat in it ages the heart. Opt for a meatless pizza—feel free to load on the veggie toppings!—whenever possible, or make the pizza yourself using pepperoni that is made without nitrites or nitrates.”
By Perri O. Blumberg