Food and Nutrition

The 9 Types of Protein Derms and RDs Recommend Eating for Healthy, Glowing Skin

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Photo: Stocksy/Nadine Greeff
21st century innovation has served us a myriad of techniques to try, all aimed towards ensuring that our skin can always look its best. From high-tech at-home skin care devices to resurfacing products to derm-backed acne treatments, there exists no shortage of widely-touted, scientifically-engineered methods to keep the largest organ in your body at its peak.

While we’re endlessly grateful for the many modern miracles that can help promote healthy skin, there are times when natural solutions can be equally effective. And according to many dieticians and dermatologists, there are few ways to keep your skin looking better than by maintaining a well-balanced, protein-rich diet. “Skin is an excellent indicator of what is going on within the body,” says Janine Mahon, a doctor of Chinese medicine. “Food therapy enables us to nourish the skin directly, and protein-rich food will build the integrity of the skin and create a luminous glow.”

So alongside your beloved facials and stockpile of serums, our experts also recommend something simple for glowing skin: eating healthy, protein-packed foods (and of course, drinking plenty of water). To get started, Alicia Zalka, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep, recommends using this handy calculator to check how much protein your body requires on a daily basis. Next, she says that it's important to pile your plate with skin-friendly forms of protein. "Not all protein-rich foods are created equal in the nutrition or skincare department. Just like forms of protein that promote a healthy heart or help build muscle tissue, for instance, you want to pick foods that are nutrient packed and low in preservatives, saturated fat, hormones, and antibiotics.” Here, Dr. Zalka and an array of expert registered dietitians helped us round up a few of the best forms of protein for healthy skin.

Protein for healthy skin: Best animal-based options

Animal proteins are considered “complete,” meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids, Zalka notes. (Of course, you can still get plenty of protein from a vegetarian or vegan diet; you can even get complete protein from the selection of plant-based foods here.) “Most Americans already have a high intake of protein, largely due to our love of burgers, bacon, and barbeque,” Zalka says. “However, keep in mind all of the above are high in fats, sodium, and nitrates. So the best protein sources for optimal health and skin care are those that contain much-needed amino acids and vitamins but don't have unwanted preservatives or saturated fats that can derail the benefits you seek.” To that end, Zalka says that the best animal-based protein for healthy skin is lean and free of additives, hormones, and antibiotics.

1. Salmon

“Salmon is a great choice because it not only has about 20 grams of protein per three-ounce serving but also has omega-3 fatty acids that few people eat enough of,” says Samantha Cassetty, RDN. “These fats are crucial for lowering inflammation, and studies suggest that people who eat more omega-3s experience beauty benefits, like younger-looking skin with less dryness and wrinkling. The best seafood strategy is to seek variety—say, salmon one night, tuna another—and to eat it twice a week. This will help ensure you get the omega-3s your body and skin need for optimal benefits."

2. Eggs

“Eggs are a very solid source of protein, and they contain two powerful antioxidants: lutein and zeaxanthin,” says Keri Gans, RDN. “Scientific research suggests that these two antioxidants may help protect the skin from UV damage.”

3. Plain Greek Yogurt

Packed with protein and B vitamins, plain greek yogurt (meaning varieties that don't contain added sugar) is also a great source of calcium, Zalka says. “A cup has about 25 grams of protein, plus it contains beneficial bacteria for your gut,” adds Cassetty. “The bacteria that live in your gut collectively form your microbiome, and a healthy microbiome helps manage your body’s inflammatory response. Calming down this response may help improve skin conditions, like acne and eczema, promoting healthier-looking skin.”

Protein for healthy skin: Best plant-based protein options

Plant-based proteins are generally lower in saturated fats and additives than their animal-based counterparts, and there are so many delicious options to choose from. “If you follow a vegan diet, try to combine legumes with brown rice or soy in order to achieve all the daily amino acids your body needs,” Zalka adds. These are known as complementary proteins, and pairing them means you pack all nine essential amino acids into one meal.

1. Almonds

“Almonds are a great source of protein, vitamin E, and monounsaturated fats,” says Gans. “There is research to support that daily consumption of almonds may help reduce the severity of facial wrinkles in postmenopausal women.” So whether you snack on almonds by the handful or prefer some almond butter on your apple slices, keep up your nutty habit and your skin will thank you.

2. Tofu

“Tofu is made from soybeans, which provide isoflavones. Isoflavones may be a key contributor in skin health as it may help reduce the effects of aging, specifically wrinkles,” says Gans.

3. Lentils

“Lentils are a powerhouse food packed into a tiny package. They contain plenty of plant-based protein and provide your diet with much-needed fiber that all the other above mentioned protein sources lack,” Zalka notes. In addition, lentils add folate and potassium to your diet, and have no saturated fat or sodium.

4. Goji berries

“Goji berries have been staples in Chinese medicinal food therapy for centuries and offer 11 grams of protein in a 100-gram serving,” says Mahon. This is ten times the amount of protein you’ll get from blueberries or raspberries. Mahon recommends adding goji berries to soups, porridge, granola, trail mix, or just snacking on them on their own.

5. Walnuts

“Walnuts, also high in protein, helps to nourish our brains, keeps our hair glossy and strong, and helps to bring moisture to our skin,” says Mahon.

6. Hemp seeds

“You can’t beat a serving of hemp seeds as a plant-based source of protein that also helps with skin health,” says Cassetty. “A three-tablespoon serving of hemp seeds has about ten grams of protein. Plus, hemp seeds are a plant-based source of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory fats similar to those found in fish.” Hemp seeds are a great option to add to smoothies, stir into oatmeal, or use for some texture in salads or sauteed greens.

Learn more about the benefits of plant-based protein from an RD here:

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