A Truly Healthy Glow

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Contrary to what the tanning industry might have people believe, the way to the most attractive glow is not via carcinogenic and skin-damaging sun exposure but by consuming fruit and vegetables that are high in carotenoids. Carotenoids, which include alpha and beta-carotene and other antioxidant compounds, give red, orange and yellow fruit their color, and also occur in green vegetables.

In an article published online on December 23, 2010 in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, Dr Ian Stephen, currently of the University of Nottingham, and his colleagues at Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews in Scotland found that individuals with a greater intake of carotenoids, fruit and vegetables have an increased yellow skin tone consistent with enhanced carotenoid absorption. When viewing photographs of Caucasian faces, volunteers judged the golden color associated with carotenoids as appearing healthier than tones typical of tanning. A preference for a yellow tone was also observed in research involving an African population.

“Most people think the best way to improve skin color is to get a suntan, but our research shows that eating lots of fruit and vegetables is actually more effective,” Dr Stephen said. “We found that, given the choice between skin color caused by suntan and skin color caused by carotenoids, people preferred the carotenoid skin color, so if you want a healthier and more attractive skin color, you are better off eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables than lying in the sun.”

The findings are consistent with the evolutionary benefit of selecting a potential mate whose appearance signals good health. “This is something we share with many other species,” noted coauthor Professor David Perrett, PhD, who is the head of the Perception Lab at St Andrews. “For example, the bright yellow beaks and feathers of many birds can be thought of as adverts showing how healthy a male bird is. What’s more, females of these species prefer to mate with brighter, more colored males. But this is the first study in which this has been demonstrated in humans.”

“Together our studies link skin carotenoid coloration to both perceived health and healthy diet, establishing carotenoid coloration as a valid cue to human health which is perceptible in a way that is relevant to mate choice, as it is in bird and fish species,” the authors conclude.

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