You know the basics of sun protection: slather on a waterproof sunscreen well before you head out for your run; wear a hat and sunglasses; cover as much skin as you can stand; and, ideally, run before 10am or after 4pm (when the sun is less intense). But runners – who are particularly susceptible to skin damage caused by sun exposure – need to do more to look after their skin. Skin cancer is among the most common forms of the disease. And an Austrian study found marathon runners have an increased risk for melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer – thanks to a double whammy of increased sun exposure and suppressed immune function caused by high-intensity training. But all types of runners who enjoy summer runs are more at risk of skin cancer because sweat causes your skin to absorb more harmful ultraviolet rays, according to the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund.
However, research suggests runners can further protect their skin by focusing on diet. ‘Food alone will not protect your skin,’ says Rachel Weinstein, a holistic health coach who runs Wooden Spoon Wellness. ‘But studies have shown some foods can better support your largest organ than others.’ Load up on the foods on the pages that follow to boost your body’s sun defences.
Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant – it helps prevent DNA damage that can result from sun exposure. It’s found in red fruits and vegetables – watermelon, strawberries, red peppers and – in its highest concentrations – in cooked and tinned tomatoes.
Adding 55g of tomato paste to your daily diet – pizza, anyone? – could cut your risk for sunburn and increase your skin’s natural sun protection by one third, according to research conducted at the Universities of Manchester
And research by The National Cancer Institute in the US found that when it comes to lowering your melanoma risk, the more lycopene you eat, the better. So load up on watermelon and strawberries, be generous with the ketchup and go big on small fresh tomatoes. ‘Smaller tomatoes, like Roma, pack in more lycopene than larger, beefsteak tomatoes,’ says Weinstein.
2/ Tea and coffee
Your morning pick-me-up of choice can also give your skin a boost. Various teas have been found to fight skin ageing through both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, while research has also shown that drinking at least one cup of black tea per day can help cut your risk for squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.
A study reviewed in the journal Clinics in Dermatology found that EGCG, one of the major polyphenol compounds found in green tea, reverses UV-induced sun damage. Getting a little more exotic, lotus seed tea was recently found to ‘drastically’ protect skin from a loss of moisture caused by UV exposure, according to a study published in Preventive Nutrition and Food Science.
If you’re more of a coffee drinker, your chosen brew can also help protect your skin from the elements – especially if you drink a lot of it. A Norwegian study published in the International Journal of Cancer found women who drink five or more cups of coffee per day were less likely to develop melanoma.
Dark-green leafy veg, such as spinach and kale, contain powerful cancer-fighting antioxidants. One Australian study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, found that people who had previously suffered from skin cancer who ate at least one serving of antioxidant-rich leafy greens per day cut their risk of developing new growths by more than 50 per cent.
And a large-scale study from Italy found a correlation between the number of servings of dark leafy greens consumed per week and risk of developing melanoma. In short, the more you eat, the greater the protection.
‘We often hear about papaya in skin creams and scrubs but it also offers a number of benefits to your skin when eaten,’ says Weinstein. ‘Papaya is rich in nutrients, such as beta carotene and Vitamin C, so it delivers similar anti-ageing benefits to those you get from tomatoes and citrus fruit. Papaya also contains enzymes that reduce inflammation in the body and aid with digestion, so it helps your body to absorb many nutrients.’
Research published in Experimental & Therapeutic Medicine earlier this year found that participants who took a supplement made from papaya (FPP, or fermented papaya preparation) twice a day for 90 days showed a ‘significant improvement in skin evenness, moisturisation and elasticity’.
5/ Dark chocolate
Highly palatable research has shown three squares of dark chocolate a day may keep your skin healthier and looking younger. A study published in Nutrition Journal found the flavonoids in dark chocolate help fight ageing caused by UV damage. After eating three 10g pieces of dark chocolate per day for 12 weeks, the elasticity of participants’ skin was greatly improved.
But before you embark on a guilt-free Dairy Milk binge, it’s important to note that the type of chocolate matters: the study found the higher concentrations of flavonoids found in darker chocolate led to greater skin elasticity.
‘Chocolate is most often mixed with sugar – sometimes a lot of sugar – as well as fillers and binders such as hydrogenated oils and soy lecithin, which can inflame your system,’ says Weinstein. ‘The more pure the chocolate – think 70 per cent cocoa and above – the lower the sugar, and the fewer the additives, the more benefits you will receive.’
6/ Prawns and lobster
The same Italian research that championed leafy greens found eating at least one serving of fatty fish or shellfish per week could double your melanoma protection.
And shellfish – such as prawns and lobsters – contain both high amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and a second skin-saving nutrient: a powerful carotenoid called astaxanthin. Astaxanthin gives these shellfish their distinctive reddish-pink colour, and has been found to fight inflammation and cancer up to 10 times more powerfully than other antioxidant carotenoids, according to a review published in the Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
7/ Citrus fruits
Many studies have shown that citrus fruits – including oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes – help prevent inflammation, premature ageing and several forms of cancer. This is in large part due to their high levels vitamin C, which boosts immunity and combats skin cancer. ‘Citrus fruits contain phytonutrients that have been shown to protect skin from sun damage and melanoma,’ says Weinstein. But while you’ll get some benefits from citrus juices, she stresses that it’s far better to eat the whole fruits.
Don’t be overzealous on your peeling prep, either. ‘The secret spot for phytonutrients in oranges is in the skin, the pith (the fleshy white part between the skin and the segments) and the translucent membranes around each segment,’ says Weinstein. The spongy white layers that cling to the outside of each segment, which you probably often pull off, contain the bulk of the fruits’ fibre and biotin, a B vitamin critical to skin health.
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