Indulging in a pint of ice cream while binge watching Netflix may satisfy your sweet tooth, but it can come at a cost. Simply put, sugar is bad news for your health, especially the processed kind. Added sugar can lead to weight gain, increased risk of heart disease and even speed up the aging process.
“Sugar in and of itself doesn’t age our skin but foods with a higher glycemic index can cause our insulin levels to spike, which may lead to inflammation within the body,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD a Connecticut-based board certified dermatologist. “This can cause the breakdown of collagen and elastin.” In other words, depletion or damage to those two proteins is part of the reason that our bodies prematurely wrinkle and sag. Since it’s nearly impossible to avoid all forms of sugar and it is the fuel that keeps us keep moving, it’s important to understand why and how we need to limit our consumption.
Sugar, in all forms, is a simple carbohydrate that triggers a glycemic response within our bodies — though different types of sugars have a different effect on blood sugar levels. Foods such as beans, sweet potatoes, most fruits, oats, pasta and converted rice are better for us because they break down and digest slowly. Alternately, white bread, corn flakes, russet potatoes, and processed foods should be eaten in moderation because they produce a rapid rise in insulin and then fast fall.
“Chronic insulin spikes result in inflammation and can lead to roughness, redness, breakouts, and wrinkles of our skin,” says Anthony Youn, M.D., F.A.C.S., and host of The Holistic Plastic Surgery Show podcast. Avoid the sugar roller coaster ride by aiming for balanced meals and snacks. “Pair healthy proteins with carbs as that can slow the body’s glycemic response,” says Robinson. Also, foods that contain fiber and fat take longer to digest and can help stabilize blood sugar to avoid the spike and crash effect.
But that’s not the only process we have to worry about — there’s glycation, which also plays a role in premature aging. Glycation refers to the bonding of sugar molecules onto fats and protein. When this happens it forms Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs), which morphs protein fibers. Collagen and elastin are the protein fibers that keep us looking young and they’re the most vulnerable. Once they are damaged, they are less resilient and dry. “This can age our skin, making it thinner, rougher, and more wrinkled in appearance,” says Youn. In fact, research has shown that these effects usually start at around age 35, and increase rapidly after that. Though you can’t stop the process of glycation altogether, eating fewer sweets will reduce the number of sugar molecules looming in your body, thus slowing down this process.
But don’t worry — we can mitigate the effects of inflammation and glycation on the skin by making small changes. “We can reverse the signs of aging with a variety of strategies like eating a healthy, antioxidant-rich diet,” Robinson says. Stock up on veggies, fruits, dark chocolate and healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, and nuts) because they will nourish your skin from the inside out. Although it is impossible to skip all forms of sugar and carbs, there are some we need to avoid. “Start by removing processed and refined sugars and limit your carbs to whole grains,” says Youn. “And definitely stop drinking soda — it is the worst thing for the skin,” he warns. Check food labels, especially low-fat versions, for sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, which are found in crackers, yogurts, cookies, cakes, tomato sauce, and salad dressings.
Luckily, there are things you can add to turn back time. “Adding a vitamin C and vitamin E serum every morning and a retinol moisturizer every night is a good first step,” says Youn. You can also trigger collagen growth with laser therapies. While we have yet to find the fountain of youth, taking small steps daily can go a long way in curtailing early signs of aging.