Bad news for sugar-lovers: Turns out the more trips you make to the candy jar, the faster your skin will age, thanks to a phenomenon we'd never even hear of, until now. “Glycation is a series of chemical reactions that lead to the bonding of a sugar molecule to amino acids in proteins or lipids,” says Jaime Uribarri, M.D., professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “This occurs spontaneously wherever and whenever you put together the components of the reaction: sugar, protein, and lipids.”
The not-so-pretty result? “Excess sugar molecules that we consume attach to collagen and elastin fibers in skin, causing them to harden and become more fragile and prone to damage,” says Fredric Brandt, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist and founder of the Dermatology Research Institute in New York City and Coral Gables, FL. “Eventually, this causes skin to lose elasticity and wrinkle more easily.”
Are you thinking what we’re thinking? We knew too much sugary goodness could lead to bigger fat cells over time, but less than stellar collagen and elastin? Say it with us now: WTF. Brandt explains that there are essentially two ways this not-sweet (at all) process occurs: Endogenous and exogenous glycation. The former being a diet bombarded with high fat (i.e. butter, red meat) as well as processed foods such as cereal, chips, and sweets like brownies, cupcakes, cookies, etc. “An overabundance of sugar in the blood creates AGEs (advanced glycation end products), harmful molecules that trigger inflammation and damage throughout the body, including skin,” says Brandt. Coincidence that their name explains exactly the kind of havoc they wreak? We think not.
But, it’s not just your sugar fix that you need to worry about: “Exogenous glycation is how we prepare our foods — barbecuing, broiling, searing, roasting in a very hot oven; the combination of fat and protein cooked over very high heat creates a surge of AGE levels that then cause premature aging.” Why, you ask? “Heating of food has a significant effect in creating AGEs, which are then partially absorbed by the gastrointestinal system, contributing significantly to the body’s total AGE burden,” says Uribarri, who has led researchers in several clinical trials studying the effect of a low AGE diet in healthy subjects as well as in individuals with diabetes and chronic kidney disease.
Photo: Courtesy of Lookbook Cookbook
So, besides swearing off all things sweet and living on steamed veggies, what can you do about this whole glycation thing? Brandt reinforces what we already know: Skip foods that have high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) when possible — or drastically lower their presence in your diet. And of course, loading your plate with as many whole grains and fruits, which though do cause some level of glycation, it's way less than that of the aforementioned highly processed kind.
Now, we are being a little superficial here only talking about how glycation affects our looks when in fact, it also greatly impacts our health (and most of the info on it is related to, not surprisingly, diabetes). So, you might as well know: “AGEs are reactive compounds with inflammatory and oxidative actions that can lead to tissue abnormalities and chronic diseases,” says Uribarri. “And the rate AGEs form in the body is dramatically increased in diabetes because of the high blood glucose levels.”
What else do AGEs, well, age? Our eyes, veins, and brains. Too many lurking around in the body can lead to cataracts — basically a cloudiness of the eye lenses — as well as stiffness in the arteries (a.k.a. atherosclerosis), and cognitive impairment. “Preventing glycation is especially important in blood vessels that carry necessary nutrients to all body cells,” says Brandt. “Glycation prevents this process from happening efficiently and produces chronic micro inflammation reactions — also, low sugar intake helps to maintain a healthy insulin metabolism or insulin resistance.” Darn you, donuts.
Uribarri’s super-healthy suggestion to curb the negative effects of glycation both superficially (yay, youthful skin!) and on the inside (yay, healthy body) besides nixing soda and Swedish Fish from your daily diet: Change the way you cook. “Boil, poach, stew, or steam food while avoiding frying, baking, or grilling,” he says. “These practices allow modification only of the AGE content, but not the nutritional content of food.” What we say: Sweet.