My skin and I haven't always been on great terms. It has pimpled, puffed, flaked, and fried countless times in the 25 years I've been around, and I've treated it with all manner of medications and treatments. But it wasn't until I had a chat with Nicholas Perricone, MD, that I started questioning whether the food I was eating was contributing to my general lack of enthusiasm for my face.
You see, Dr. Perricone has made a name for himself in the world of skin care — and not just because of his cult-favorite line of products. He's a board-certified dermatologist as well as a fellow at both the New York Academy of Sciences and the American College of Nutrition. Oh, and he happens to have several New York Times best sellers under his belt. His ethos? That inflammation in the body is behind every skin issue you could possibly have — and that you can change that with your diet.
The idea first came about when Dr. Perricone was in medical school studying cancer cells. "I noticed there was inflammation present because of pathology, but I also saw inflammation in aged skin versus youthful skin," he explains. "I realized that regardless of where a disease originated, regardless of its cause, anti-inflammatories often solved the problem, or at least diminished the symptoms." He began to wonder whether an anti-inflammatory diet could have a similar effect. "I'm also a nutritionist, so I looked at food, and saw that food can cause inflammation," he says. So he began to develop a diet that would reduce inflammation in the body, which he hypothesized would also help improve your skin.
I was intrigued, so after some research, I decided to give the good doctor's 28-Day Plan a go. It allows you three meals and two snacks a day, and requires exercising for about 30 minutes six days a week, drinking as much water as possible, and maintaining a fairly intense supplement habit. While the diet doesn't specify which supplements you should take, I opted for Dr. Perricone Skin Clear Supplements, since clear skin was my end goal. (He's got packs for everything from good metabolism to gorgeous hair, so you can pick what's right for you.) You're also supposed to follow a skin-care regimen laid out by Dr. Perricone, but since I really wanted to see if what I was eating affected my skin, I kept my regimen the same as a control.
I consider myself a fairly healthy individual. I eat pretty well, I go to the gym four or five days a week, and I drink so much water that I visit our office bathroom more than the conference room. So I went into this a little cocky — even after I leafed through the diet's meal plan. For something that's considered a "diet," it's full of things that I was eating anyway. There's an emphasis on green, leafy veggies, nuts, olives and olive oil, and lean protein like turkey and white-meat chicken. Salmon and other fish high in omega-3s are the cornerstone, because those fatty acids are clutch for your skin.
"The key is to avoid starches and sugars, because those are the things that cause rapid rises in blood sugar," says Dr. Perricone. These spikes cause the inflammation. We know that sugar obviously plays a big role, but a lot of people forget about simple carbohydrates and starches — think white breads, pastas, and potatoes. The body metabolizes these foods into sugar almost immediately, which causes your blood sugar to rise.
Even though I typically take it easy on the sugar, growing up in an Italian family means I've been programmed to eat all of the pasta. And since I live alone, it's super-easy for me to just throw together a bowl of the stuff with a bunch of veggies sautéed on top and pretend it was healthy. I'm also the biggest pizza fangirl in the world — so much so that I was probably averaging four slices a week. Add to that my sushi addiction (and all the rice that comes along with it), and I was eating simple carbs basically every day.
The diet also calls for no alcohol — which was probably for the best. My two-glasses-a-weeknight wine habit was doing no favors to my waistline or my wallet. But the biggest bitch? No coffee — even when I begged and pleaded with the doctor. In his book about the diet, Dr. Perricone explains that, aside from causing blood-sugar spikes, coffee increases insulin and stimulates cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Too much cortisol causes your abdomen to store fat. No good. So I ditched my three-a-day habit cold-turkey.
Aside from the inevitable caffeine withdrawal, I was stoked to see how this diet would affect me. "Your skin will be the most impressive," Dr. Perricone predicted. "You'll gain incredible radiance, greater contours, decreased puffiness, and higher cheekbones. People put on muscle mass and have more energy." How could I not be excited?
Even so, I treated the week leading up to the first day of my diet (or D-Day, as I started calling it) like I was about to be put to death — I took in all the booze, cheese, coffee, and carbs my stomach could handle.
I almost gave up on day one (yep, day one) for a myriad of reasons. First of all, I was exhausted — quitting coffee so abruptly was not the smartest move for me. I also wound up spending $200 on my first trip to the grocery store. My grocery bill never tops $80 a week, so this didn't seem sustainable. But instead of quitting right then and there, I gained my composure and made the decision not to follow the exact meal plan and recipes on the site. Instead, I used the "approved foods" list as my jumping-off point and cooked for myself.
My day would typically go like this: I'd wake up, drink a glass of water, and go to the gym for an hour. Breakfast would be a one-yolk-and-two-egg-white omelet with some kind of veggie in it, blueberries, and turkey bacon or smoked salmon. Lunch would be a big salad full of veggies and tuna or salmon flaked over it. I'd have an afternoon snack of turkey breasts, olives, nuts, and/or celery, followed by a dinner of lots of roasted vegetables and broiled salmon. Sounds tasty, right?
Well, on day two I started bartering in my head. Big time. I would have done anything for a cup of coffee — streaked naked through Whole Foods, gone to lunch with all of my ex-boyfriends' mothers, you get the idea. I couldn't get out of bed because I was so tired from the caffeine withdrawal. Basically, my body was detoxing in a major way, and my brain didn't know how to handle it.
But on day four, I turned a corner — and that streak lasted for a while. I woke up for my 6 a.m. workout and wasn't fatigued at all. I started noticing a vast improvement in my skin. I didn't have to load up on moisturizer to make myself glow, and my acne was receding. I started craving the foods I was eating, and was able to decline the never-ending barrage of sweets that comes through my office. My workouts felt easier, I was toning more quickly, and I was thinking more clearly. It was like I'd turned into Wonder Woman overnight.
That's not to say this wasn't without its drawbacks. My social life dwindled because I wasn't drinking. Eating out was fine; I could find something at just about any restaurant (thanks to some good guidance from Dr. Perricone). But my friends were hyper-aware of the fact that I had dietary restrictions, so it felt like my eating habits were under a microscope, which is no fun.
What's worse, about two weeks into the diet I was struck down by a horrible cold. I’m not one to get sick all that often, but this got me. I was home in bed for nearly a week, I could barely work, I couldn’t work out, and all I wanted was a goddamn BLT and macaroni and cheese. After one day of eating only “approved” foods, I relented and allowed myself some orange juice and chicken noodle soup. I consulted my doctor, who couldn’t say with certainty whether my diet had contributed to my illness. It was likely a combination of a drastic uptick in my workouts, the quick change in my eating habits, and the fact that just about everyone in NYC was getting sick. But I was miserable — just ask my coworkers.
After the sickness cleared, I started feeling good about the diet again. My workouts improved, my energy returned, and I started thinking that I could eat like this for the rest of my life and be okay. Friends and family had started commenting on my appearance. I glowed, my cheekbones stood at attention, and my clothes fit me a little bit better. For the first time since I started working out, I saw the beginnings of abs definition — something that had eluded me before.
But I didn’t see true results until I placed my before and after shots (above, in which I'm not wearing a stitch of makeup) side-by-side. I couldn’t believe it — it looked like I’d just gotten a facial and a mini facelift. My undereye bags were gone, the contours of my face were more defined, and I was radiant. Plus, even my hair looked shinier. Dr. Perricone was right — the difference was obvious.
So where am I now? Sticking to the diet — mostly. I’ve allowed myself to start drinking again, but it’s way reduced, and I’m not drinking at home like I used to. I only eat pasta when I’m out, and pizza is a treat. I haven’t touched a cup of coffee since I started the diet, and sugar just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Even though I didn’t do it for weight loss, I dropped about 10 pounds since the start of the diet. Dr. Perricone said that would likely happen, since I’d be losing most of my water weight. I feel incredible, and my skin continues to glow — even with the minor allowances.
I now recognize that what I put into my body directly affects how I look — and how I feel. And while I do love a carb fest, I’m perfectly content with keeping those as special-occasion meals because that’s what makes me feel my best. I’m not here to tell anyone how to eat. We’re firmly against that at R29. All I’m saying is that what we eat can and will show up on our faces — for better or worse. So perhaps the cure for your skin dullness or acne isn’t at the bottom of a cleanser bottle — it’s on your dinner plate.
Ed. note: Please consult your doctor before trying this or any other diet.
The grown-up guide to dealing with acne. Read more from The Acne Diaries here.