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8 steps to healthy skin, hair and nails

As dietitian Cindy Williams explains, beauty really does come from the inside…

Glossy hair, strong nails and glowing skin may be signs of a great beauty regime, but the importance of a great diet shouldn’t be underestimated.  Food contains lots of beauty nutrients, which people have used for thousands of years, inside and out. Today we can wash our hair and moisturise our skin with honey, rosemary, rosehip, avocado or olives, to name a few. A French woman I know attributes her beautiful skin to the olive oil she rubs on her face and hands while cooking.

There’s no magic food that will keep us looking forever young, but diet (and lifestyle and attitude) does affect how your skin looks and ages. Take these eight food steps to strong, healthy skin, hair and nails.

Skin, hair and nails are mostly protein. These proteins – keratin, collagen and elastin – ward off wrinkles and provide strength and elasticity. Most of us eat plenty of protein from meat, chicken, fish, legumes, eggs and dairy foods. But remember the movie ‘The Devil Wears Prada’? Miranda Priestly’s assistant is desperately trying to lose weight and proudly describes her new diet: “Well, I don’t eat anything and when I feel like I’m about to faint, I eat a cube of cheese.” Chances are she was seriously low on protein and eventually her skin, hair and nails – the parts of the body she most wants to look perfect – would suffer.

If protein is so important, is more better? With serious burns or wounds, the body needs extra protein to repair the damage. And athletes in heavy training have higher protein requirements. But huge steaks and protein shakes don’t build bigger muscles or better skin. If we eat more protein than we need, our body converts it to fat and stores it – usually where we don’t want it.

  • HFG tip: Get your skin-boosting protein by including at least one serving of lean meats, chicken, seafood, legumes or eggs and two serves daily of low-fat dairy products.

The body needs fat. Not the greasy pastry and pie type, but the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fats. If you have a dry, itchy scalp or skin, you may not be eating enough of these. They are called ‘essential’ fats because the body can’t make them; you have to eat them.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats produce hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which then change into other substances that affect immunity and inflammation in the body. Omega-3 fats suppress inflammation, immune responses and blood clotting. Omega-6 fats are also essential for healthy skin, but too much can cause inflammation and allergic responses. For healthy skin we need a balance of both types of fat. Our Western diet tends to have a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 than ideal. Eating some fish each week, especially oily fish such as salmon, sardines and tuna, increases omega-3s for a better balance. Oily fish provide the long-chain omega-3s, EPA, DHA and DPA. If you can’t eat fish, try flaxseed. Flaxseed (linseed) oil is the richest source of α-linolenic acid (ALA) – another omega-3 fat. Some ALA can be converted to the long-chain omega-3s, but it provides less than fish.

Studies using large doses (3-4g) of fish oil found it improved dermatitis and psoriasis in some, but not all, people. They also found the higher amounts of omega-3 fats in the skin were prone to oxidation – just like oil going rancid when exposed to light – so we don’t recommend mega-dosing on fish oil tablets. Instead, eat a few fish and vegetable meals each week –
fish for the fat and vegetables for antioxidants.

  • HFG tip: Don’t think of fish as only fillets. Experiment with chunky fish chowders, fish curry and fish pie. Incorporate canned tuna, salmon and sardines for a boost of omega-3.

Tired and lacking in energy? This may be a symptom of low iron. Hair, nails and skin can also suffer if you’re lacking in iron. Skin may be very pale, become itchy, or there could be cracking at the side of the mouth. Nails can become brittle and develop vertical stripes, or even become spoon-shaped. You could shed more hair and it will be noticeably more dry, brittle and dull.

  • HFG tip: Meat is the best source of iron: the redder the meat, the more iron it contains. If you don’t eat meat, you can get iron from legumes and whole grains but it’s less readily absorbed, so add vitamin C (from fruit juice, fruits and capsicum) to meals to enhance absorption.

Swapping your croissant and cornies to oats and muesli will boost your intake of essential fats, B vitamins and the potent antioxidant, vitamin E. B vitamins could easily be called the ‘skin vitamins’ because a deficiency often shows up as itchy, dry skin. Whole grains have all three parts of the grain – the bran, endosperm and germ. Refined, white-flour based foods miss out on the bran and germ, which is where all these goodies are.

  • HFG tip: Make a tasty bircher muesli by combining whole grain oats, almonds and dried fruit. Soak overnight in low-fat milk and enjoy with extra fruit and yoghurt.

Nuts are little nutrition nuggets – packed with essential fats, vitamin E and B vitamins. I was once the dietitian for a heart disease study, where people who had had a heart attack were asked to eat 50g of peanuts a day for 6 weeks. Two women in particular noticed a huge improvement in their hair and nails. It’s likely that, after years on low-fat diets, the peanuts gave these women some much needed essential fats.

  • HFG tip: Nuts make a good snack: a small handful daily will give you energy and keep your hair and nails in good shape.

Vitamin C is essential to make collagen, the structural cement of the body. Under the skin, collagen is the fibrous tissue that plumps it up giving support and shape. As skin ages it loses collagen.

When we breathe car fumes, cigarette smoke and lie in the sun, harmful oxidation reactions happen in our skin and body. Vitamin C, E and beta-carotene are potent antioxidants that mop up the harmful by-products of oxidation and slow down damage to the skin. Large doses of vitamins C, E and beta-carotene help protect the skin from sunburn and improve its resilience to things that could irritate it. But when taken as supplements, sometimes the antioxidant activity shifts to harmful pro-oxidant activity. How to prevent this? Skip the pills and eat lots and lots of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables.

  • HFG tip: Eating plenty of kiwifruit, oranges, lemons and grapefruit may not have the same instant ‘plumping out’ effect as a collagen implant but with its vitamin C and hundreds of anti-aging antioxidants it is natural beauty therapy at its best.

According to its sticker, pawpaw is ‘super food for the skin’. It’s the beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, that gives carrots, pumpkin, mango and spinach their healthy skin image. If you have dry hair and skin, take a look at how much coloured fruit and vegetables and other vitamin A-rich foods you’re eating. Go for liver, oily fish and egg yolk.

Large doses of beta-carotene improve its resilience and to a certain degree helps protect skin from sunburn, especially when eaten with other carotenoids like lycopene (found in tomatoes and watermelon). So perhaps the way to get vitamin A is carrot and watermelon juice, although if you overdo it you’ll find your palms and eye whites going yellow from all that beta-carotene!

Dermatologists often use high doses of vitamin A to treat acne, but this needs medical supervision as it can damage the liver and cause birth defects.

  • HFG tip: For a real vitamin A boost, try an omelette or scrambled eggs with spinach and canned or fresh salmon.

Both carotenoids and flavonoids help protect skin against UV damage and can improve skin hydration and condition. For well hydrated skin, hair and nails, drink plenty of water. The fluids and flavonoids aid blood circulation and the delivery of nutrients, so give yourself a daily flavonoid dose with a few cups of black, green or white tea and, depending on your mood, a glass of red wine, a cup of hot cocoa or a few squares of dark chocolate.

  • HFG tip: Red wine does contain flavonoids, but more than two standard drinks a day will cancel out any positive health effects. Moderation is the key.

Never allowing your skin to be exposed to the sun may preserve your youthful skin, but the joy of having beautiful skin may be overshadowed by more pressing concerns if you develop weak bones as a result. There’s no doubt UV rays from the sun are damaging to skin, but our skin does need some sunlight so it can produce vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones because of its role in the absorption of calcium.

So balance the needs of your bones and your skin by not exposing skin to the sun when it is most intense; that’s between 10am and 4pm in summer. The winter sun is much weaker and won’t harm your skin. And remember, the darker your skin, the longer exposure it needs to produce vitamin D.

Save your skin: remember the S’s

  • Smoking – don’t do it
  • Stress – not good for skin
  • Sleep – is good for skin
  • Sunshine – limit exposure when it’s strongest

Omega-6 fats (linoleic acid)

Most of us get plenty of these.

  • Found in: safflower oil, sunflower oil, soya bean oil, corn oil, flaxseed  (linseed) oil, olive oil, borage oil, blackcurrant seed oil, walnuts, Brazil nuts, peanuts, almonds, oats.

Omega-3 fats (ALA, EPA, DHA, DPA)

Many of us need more of these.

  • ALA found in: flaxseed oil, canola oil, soya bean oil, walnuts, peanuts
  • EPA, DHA, DPA found in: oily fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel and kahawai

Does diet affect acne?

Some say yes, others say no. A recent study found an improvement in acne when the men studied ate a low glycaemic load diet. This means they ate a reasonable amount of protein and less high GI carbohydrate. The carbs they did eat were lower GI, so included more whole grains, pasta and fruit. The theory is that eating lots of white bread, cakes, refined cereal and other high GI foods increases insulin levels, which increases androgen (a male hormone) availability, which stimulates sebum production. So if you want the best skin you can, ditch the refined cereals and choose more whole grains, and fill up on vegetables and fruits rather than cake.


Rolled oats or muesli made with oats, almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, seeds, ground flaxseed (linseed), wheat-germ and dried apricots with low-fat yoghurt or milk.


Whole grain roll filled with tuna or salmon, tomato and cucumber and a kiwifruit.


Small handful raw nuts.


Small piece lean meat or chicken with 2 cups vegetables or soup with dried beans, celery, carrot, pumpkin.
Fruit salad – orange, kiwifruit, mango, rockmelon, watermelon.
Glass of red wine or dark grape juice.


Tea and water during the day

Not enough zinc shows up as slow wound healing, fragile hair, hair loss.
•  Foods to eat: Meat, eggs, seafood, oysters.

Not enough iron shows up as spoon-shaped nails, cracks at corner of mouth.
•  Foods to eat: Beef, lamb, liver

Not enough vitamin C shows up as scurvy, bleeding gums, wounds don’t heal, bruising, weakness.
•  Foods to eat: Kiwifruit, citrus, fruit, vegetables.

Not enough vitamin B2 (riboflavin) shows up as cracks at corner of mouth, waxy dermatitis around creases of nose, oily skin with dry, flaky patches.

Not enough vitamin B3 (niacin) shows up as flushed, sunburnt looking skin.

Not enough vitamin B6 shows up as skin rashes, dermatitis.
•  Foods to eat: Get B vitamins from whole grains, nuts, meat, liver, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, fruit, vegetables.

Not enough essential fats, omega-3 and omega-6 shows up as dry, itchy scalp and skin.
•  Foods to eat: Fish, nuts, linseed, whole grains.

Date modified: December 1 2022
First published: Jun 2008

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