The skin care, food, and nutrition industries have traditionally been independent of each other, but recent years have seen an increasing overlap. There’s been a dramatic rise in consumer awareness about what goes in and on their bodies, in addition to an influx of research focusing on the effects one’s diet can have on the skin. Food coach and founder of Wake Up and Read the Labels, Jen Smiley believes in the head-to-toe healing power of real food—not only for nourishing the body but also for feeding the skin.

Science has established that inflammation plays a role in countless diseases, disorders, and the overall aging process, beginning at the cellular level. Jen, who is self-taught, explained, “Inflammation is your body’s reaction to something that’s going on inside it. Although the effects of inflammation can vary from person to person, common skin-related signs can include rashes, puffiness, dry skin and more.” Studies have shown the role inflammation plays in acne[1] and atopic dermatitis (eczema)[2] as well.

“People are getting facials and spending so much money on skincare products to combat the visible effects of what’s actually going on inside their bodies, and many think the cause of their concerns is environmental. I believe the main source of inflammation is the foods we eat, specifically a handful of common ingredients that are found in what many believe are ‘healthy’ foods,” said Jen.

Where are we going wrong? Jen finds that many clients see “gluten-free” and “non-GMO” on food packaging and think that’s all the information they need. “Even if a food is gluten-free and non-GMO, it can still contain inflammatory ingredients,” she said.

Here, Jen shares what she said are the five top inflammation-inducers to look out for.

Enriched white and wheat flours

Most flours are processed to the point that the grains are stripped of all their beneficial fiber, in turn flooding the digestive system (and bloodstream) with sugar in the form of glucose.

In terms of the skin, excess blood sugar can promote a cellular process called glycation, which allows sugars to bind to collagen fibers within the skin. As a result, these proteins become brittle and lose their ability to provide the skin with the internal “scaffolding” necessary for smooth, plump, youthful-looking skin—and wrinkles ensue[3].

“The issue with gluten-free and whole-grain breads is that they usually assisted with other ingredients that aren’t the best for the body. We assume gluten-free and whole grain options are healthy, but we are overlooking other ingredients in the product that are generally inflammatory,” Jen explained.

In terms of anti-inflammatory flour alternatives, Jen suggests foods made with less-refined, higher-fiber, vitamin- and mineral-rich almond, cassava, or coconut flours—along with “good” oils.

Canola, sunflower and other “industrial” oils

Research has shown the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3 fatty acids[4], and the pro-inflammatory side effects of omega-6 fatty acids[5]. Jen said, “One issue with the American diet is that canola and other omega-6-laden industrial oils are found in everything. When you get too little omega-3s and too much omega-6s, the result is inflammation.”

It all comes down to the process used to extract oils from their primary source. According to Jen, “High heat and chemical-based extraction is going to lower levels of omega-3s and raise levels of omega-6s.” She recommends healthier alternatives such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and other oils that are labeled as “high oleic” or “cold-pressed.” (However, it’s important to cook with these oils on low heat to maintain their omega fatty acid balance.)

Artificial sweeteners

Similar to the inflammation-inducing blood sugar spikes associated with refined flours, it’s important to consider your sweeteners whether for your morning coffee, cooking, or baking. Splenda, Equal and Sweet’N Low all fall under Jen’s “no” umbrella, and she cautioned against a few “natural” sweeteners as well. Jen said, “Stevia requires a lot of chemicals to produce and they often leach into the final product. Agave nectar is about 85% fructose—a much higher percentage than that of table sugar—which puts this sweetener in the grey area between being healthy or not healthy.”

Instead, she recommends coconut sugar, raw honey (because traditional honey can be infused with high fructose corn syrup), pure maple syrup, date syrup (or whole dates), and non-GMO monkfruit.


“As a mom who breastfed both of her children, I know first-hand that anything I put into my body—whether alcohol or spicy foods—would be passed along to my babies. When you consume dairy, you are what those cows ate, and in the case of most dairy found in supermarkets, that means refined grains, GMO soy, hormones, and antibiotics,” Jen said.

In terms of the skin, “industrial” dairy (and its aforementioned processing) can stimulate the oil glands and contribute to acne[6]. Although Smiley’s first choice is vegan-based dairy alternatives, she suggests that products labeled as “grass-fed” are the next best option. She also said, “Milk and cheese from goat or sheep’s milk is less processed and contains less lactose, so these are healthier options as well.”

Sulfites in wine

Sulfites are a natural byproduct of the wine-production process, and these compounds can contribute to skin puffiness and swelling. If you have a choice between American and European wines, Jen generally recommends opting for European. Typically, big-scale American wines contain added sugars and sulfites to preserve the wine itself. As an alternative, she recommends opting for low-sugar, low-sulfite options such as Dry Farm Wines, that don’t promote inflammation or morning-after side effects.