How what you eat can improve your health, mind, and appearance.

Credit: Randy Mayor

For many, the new year means revamping exercise regimens, improving appearance, reading more books, taking on a new hobby, and improving dietary habits. Great news is that following good-for-you food goals will help your whole body―from your skin to your brain―so you can tackle those other resolutions with ease. “The best way to have healthy hair, eyes, and skin is to take good overall care of yourself. That means eating well,” says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center at Yale University. So whether it’s your heart, brain, bones, eyes, skin, or hair you seek to nurture, there are foods up to the task.

“The more colors you get into your diet, the better,” Katz says. A variety of fruits and vegetables supplies antioxidants and vitamins that are most powerful when working together. Daily servings of whole grains, lean protein, and dairy round out your body’s needs. A diet rich in fresh, whole foods, full of colors and rich textures, satisfies with abundant flavor, and nourishes every part of your body.

For Silky Skin and Hair

Antioxidants like lycopene and vitamin C, as well as soy protein and omega-3 fatty acids, help keep skin glowing. Antioxidants have long been the rage in topical skin care, but those same nutrients work even better from the inside out. When skin (the body’s largest organ) is exposed to the sun’s rays, free radicals can develop, Katz explains. “These free radicals attack the skin and impair blood flow to the area, causing premature aging. Antioxidants fight that process.”

Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, facilitates collagen production, a critical component for vibrant skin. Another antioxidant, lycopene, found in foods like canned tomatoes and red grapefruit juice, also promotes skin health. Tofu is a good option since its omega-3 fatty acids help regenerate new skin cells and reduce inflammation, while its soy protein has been shown to boost collagen.

Shiny, healthy hair starts with the vitality of cells in the hair follicle, where hair is manufactured, says Katz. Eat foods high in calcium and quality protein like eggs, dairy, or fish. Eggs also provide biotin, a structural component of both bone and hair. Vitamins B6, B12, and folate nourish follicle cells, too.

Eat For Your Eyes

According to a study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology, people who ate two servings of fish weekly benefited from an almost 50 percent decrease in the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), says Emily Chew, MD, deputy director of the division of epidemiology and clinical research at the National Eye Institute. Eggs, leafy greens, broccoli, winter squash, and Brussels sprouts all contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin (both associated with eye health), as well as vitamins C and E, zinc, and beta-carotene.

Scientists are still investigating how these foods promote eye health. Observational studies show they likely reduce the risk of AMD, Chew says. No one knows exactly what lutein and zeaxanthin do for the eye, but it’s thought they filter damaging light and support cell structure. Expect more answers in 2012, when Chew and colleagues hope to publish research on the effects of lutein, zeaxanthin, and omega-3 fatty acids from a study following 4,000 patients for five years.

Build Better Bones

Calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus work together to build strong bones. Even though green leafy and cruciferous vegetables (like spinach and broccoli) contain calcium, the body absorbs it best from dairy products, says Joan Lappe, PhD, RN, a bone health researcher and professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Dairy products offer a package deal: they are abundant in phosphorous, and vitamin D added to milk and dairy products aids in calcium absorption. Some nondairy foods high in calcium include canned salmon, sardines, and calcium-fortified firm tofu.

Greens are still good bone foods, however. Broccoli, kale, and bok choy may provide little calcium, but they offer plenty of vitamin K. Research is showing promise that vitamin K―or some antioxidant or phytochemical in foods high in the vitamin―boosts bone mineralization. Research published last year in Osteoporosis International followed postmenopausal women for three years, and found that those taking supplemental vitamin K maintained or enhanced bone strength, compared to those on a placebo.

Heart Helpers

Whole grains, fatty fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables are the keys to keeping your heart in prime condition.

A recent review of seven studies showed that two and a half servings of whole grains per day reduced heart attack and stroke risk by 21 percent, according to lead author Philip Mellen, MD, MS, then an assistant professor at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants, especially vitamin E (also found in almonds, peanuts, and green leafy vegetables), which helps maintain healthy blood vessels. And soluble fiber from fruits, vegetables, and nuts helps lower harmful LDL cholesterol and control weight, both of which have a positive impact on heart health.

Further cut your risk of a heart attack by eating fish, especially those high in the omega-3 polyunsaturated fats like salmon, mackerel, or rainbow trout. Omega-3s make platelets in the blood less sticky, reducing clotting and the likelihood of a heart attack.

Brain Boosters

Omega-3 fatty acids and whole grains are good for your heart―and they’re good for your brain and mental health, too. “People who are heart healthy are brain healthy,” says Joseph S. Kass, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Kristen E. D’Anci, PhD, a research psychologist in the Nutrition and Neurocognition Laboratory at Tufts University and professor of psychology at Tufts, notes, “Diets rich in vitamins C and E are consistently associated with lower levels of cognitive impairment in aging.” Abundant in fruits, vitamin C may also reduce the risk of stroke.

Additionally, vitamins B12, C, E, and folate may play a direct role in keeping your mind sharp. Research shows that B12 (found in lean protein like turkey) and folate (found in many grains fortified with the vitamin) help improve memory and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. They may also help people over age 60 with learning, attention, and response speed, according to study results from Tufts University.