I Added THIS Super Anti-Inflammatory Food To My Diet—And My Skin Got So Freaking Glowy
I never understood what dry skin was before I moved to New York. I have two vivid memories of my first winter after moving from the West Coast: getting constant headaches from freezing wind icing my ears, and having lips so chapped they peeled off in chunks, regardless of how much shea butter or paw paw ointment I smeared on them.
My skin in the summer is that one friend who’s always eager to accommodate: Retinols? Sure. Cheap drugstore creams? Okay. Don’t wanna wash your face before bed? I’ll deal; you do you. In winter, faced with the winning combination of stress of SAD-inducing 3 PM darkness, sub-freezing temperatures, and a tonic I like to call "car exhaust meets everyday urban pollution,” it becomes more like a friend everyone tiptoes around, lest one wrong move cause an explosion. It burns. It turns red. It peels. Frankly, I’d rather stop hanging out with it but it is, unfortunately, an important part of my face.
And then I heard about olive oil. Okay—I already knew about the stuff (I am, after all, the food director at mindbodygreen and the author of two healthy cookbooks). It’s part of the Mediterranean diet, it tastes good as a dunking medium for bread, you can use it to dress salads… But on a recent trip to Tuscany, I found myself touring an olive oil producer that had been in a single family since the 1500s. The three generations of women I met all had skin that veritably glowed—a product, perhaps, the faded, 50s film set sunshine that Tuscany is so famous for, but also a side effect of their daily diet. Two tablespoons a day, one of the women told me, is enough to change your skin completely. “The olive oil is why the Italian women are all so beautiful, and stay beautiful forever,” said the grandfather of the family, but then again, all Italians are charmers. Would it actually work for me?
"Healthy fats are über-important for radiant, glowing skin," explains Will Cole, D.C. and best-selling author of Ketotarian. "The essential fats in olive oil keep skin supple and well-moisturized from the inside out. Olive oil is also rich in vitamins and polyphenol antioxidants vitamin E, squalene, and oleic acid, which all promote skin cellular renewal."
Olive oil also contains a phenolic compound called oleocanthal, which has been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory effects throughout the entire body1. Inflammation is the root cause of a number of bodily ailments, including many skin issues like acne, redness, and more. By decreasing overall inflammation levels, you decrease the inflammation in my skin, making it healthier not only in appearance but in reality.
It's not just olive oil—it's the type. Much of what we call olive oil in the United States is from black olives that are picked late in the season, which produce up to 70 percent more oil. The problem? That oil is far lower in polyphenols, the compounds that give olive oil the majority of its health benefits (more on that later). Beyond that, the olives are left to sit before being pressed, which causes them to ferment and contributes to the rancidity. The resulting olive oil is called "lampante" or "lampa"—literally derived from the Italian word for "lamp oil," because that was considered its best use. That oil must go through industrial refining processes to be suitable for human consumption and results in much of the lesser-quality olive oil on grocery store shelves.
According to industry experts, the best way to avoid refined olive oil is to always look for extra-virgin olive oil. Beyond that, though, you want a fair number of the olives in your oil to be green, picked early in the season. These early harvest olive oils yield far less oil than their more ripened counterparts, but they also contain significantly more polyphenols2 (this variability in oil output accounts for a large part of the price variability in olive oil). An early harvest olive-rich oil will be grassy, vegetal, a bit bitter, and elicit a sharp taste in the back of your throat that will literally make you cough. As one of the olive oil experts I met in Italy said, "A one-cough olive oil is good, a two-cough olive oil is better, but three coughs…" He laughed and kissed his fingers before exploding them outward in delight. "A three-cough is some of the best you can get." Olive oil shouldn't taste buttery or meaty or anything affiliated with animals. Olive oil should smell like plants. It should, at its best, reflect the terroir of the land from which it came.
I added two tablespoons of high quality extra virgin olive oil (I used Lucini, which sources its oils from the aforementioned multi-generation Italian producer) to my daily diet, leaving the rest unchanged. While you can cook with high quality olive oil (those same antioxidants that make it so good for skin protect it from degrading at high temperatures), I used mine mostly as a finisher, to add vibrancy to everything from salads to veggie roasts. After two weeks, I asked my husband if my skin was glowing.
"Like in a radioactive way?" he asked. He laughed and I sighed, but then he begrudgingly admitted: My skin did look different. More supple. Healthier. Happier. My lips had stopped peeling, and the angry redness on my cheeks had all but disappeared. My skin also felt more resilient; a trip to the bodega in the biting cold in weeks prior would make it resemble a half-grated tomato, but now, it looked plump, full, and more or less unchanged.
I've stopped being strict about my olive oil additions, but I use it far more frequently and liberally than before, and my skin continues to feel the positive effects. My skin and I have reached an accord, it seems, even in throes of winter. All we’d had to do was invite olive oil to come hang out with us.
Want to try my glowing skin diet yourself? Pick up a bottle of high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil. Remember, you're looking for a vegetal flavor and a clean mouthfeel, with no greasy finish—and if it makes you cough a bit, all the better. Try Lucini, which is reasonably priced (and it's available at CostCo!); Brightland, which comes in bottles you'll want to leave out on your counter; and California Olive Ranch, which is produced in the U.S. Try to consume 1 to 2 tablespoons a day, which is what most experts recommended to see real skin benefits. Enjoy! This is my favorite kind of remedy—one that, whether it works or not, will make your food more delicious and your overall life thus better.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.