How to Eat to Boost Your Natural Sun Defenses and Keep Your Skin Healthy

|Updated Aug 6, 2020
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We all know we should slather on sunscreen before we head out to the beach, hop on our bike for a long ride, or spend any significant time in the sun. But when it comes to sun protection, there is a role that our diet can play, and very few people fully understand that.

Of course, minimizing your exposure to UV rays, a proven carcinogen, is a wise idea, especially considering that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. What’s more, having just five sunburns in your lifetime doubles your risk for melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

How Plants Can Defend Against the Sun

Yet by noshing plants, you can shore up your body’s internal defenses. “Eating a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds can boost your skin’s natural sun protection,” says Jessica J. Krant, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center who has a private practice in New York City where she follows a plant-based diet. “Antioxidants, vitamins, polyphenols and other molecules pervasive in a widely varied plant diet help prevent UV damage from sun exposure, help mitigate it while it’s happening and help actively repair damage once it’s occurred.”

When UV radiation, pollution and other environmental insults damage the skin cells, your body releases reactive oxygen species, molecules to help repair the damage, and free radicals, which trigger inflammation. That can lead to what Krant calls “inflammaging” and a greater risk of skin cancer, which occurs when DNA damage goes too far and can no longer be naturally repaired by the body. In response, your body launches a defense with antioxidants that fight these triggers and repair the damage. When that happens, the more plants in your diet, the more your body is armed with antioxidants to repair the damage.

Eating to Protect Your Skin

This month, to minimize sun damage, make sure you’re eating the rainbow – choosing all different colors of fruits and vegetables – and a variety of plant foods. By doing this, you’ll not only add an additional layer of UV defense, but you’ll also improve your skin’s overall appearance and give it a natural glow, Krant says. “Additional benefits include improved circulation to the skin surface, which not only gives natural color but also helps remove toxins, and increased cell turnover, which helps naturally exfoliate to reveal younger, juicier skin cells that are more translucent and glowy,” she explains. Even better, those plants will help improve your skin’s tightness and elasticity, which will result in younger tone and shape with less sagging and hollow, shaded areas.

So what foods are particularly protective against the sun? Krant breaks it down by nutrients, noting that these foods should be part of your daily diet and not something you eat the day before your beach vacay.

Foods to Boost Your Natural Sun Defense

Lycopene:  Tomatoes, watermelon

Carotenoids: Red, orange and yellow foods like carrots, bell peppers, squash, grapefruit, oranges and apricots

Polyphenols: Green tea, the darkest chocolate you can tolerate and dark berries like cherries and blackberries

Vitamin C: Strawberries, dark leafy greens, broccoli, citrus and red bell peppers

Vitamin E: Spinach, almonds, sunflower seeds, avocados

Truth be told, nothing, even the most robust of sunscreens, can prevent sunburn if you bake out there. Yet with a body loaded with what Krant calls “nutritious radiation mitigators,” you can step into the sun with a greater sense of protection.