Everyone knows a lucky so-and-so who hates the gym, eats junk food and drinks wine every night, yet somehow maintains an enviably tiny and firm figure.
But some experts are warning that, in fact, there really is no such thing as a free lunch — because regardless of what your body looks like, your face will tell the truth about your bad habits.
‘You can tell a lot about someone’s lifestyle from their face, including what their diet is like and how much they smoke or drink,’ says Dr Tabi Leslie, dermatologist and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation.
Alcohol seems to be one of the worst offenders for the face. Dr Michael Prager, a Harley Street cosmetic surgeon, says he is treating increasing numbers of women whose faces have become podgy, pallid and wrinkly because of their nightly wine habit.
‘They often say to me: “My mother looked so well at my age, I don’t understand why I look so much older.” I tell them it’s probably because their mother didn’t drink so much,’ he says. But that’s not the only lifestyle habit that could be damaging your looks — stress, over-exercising, and even becoming vegetarian have an impact, as we reveal here…
THIN AND GAUNT
Culprits: Over-exercising, yo-yo dieting.
Although exercise is crucial for healthy body and skin, too much can leave us with hollow, saggy cheeks, says Dr Aamer Khan, medical director of the Harley Street Skin Clinic.
‘It’s known as the runner’s face but any excessive cardiovascular exercise that raises the heart rate will do it — cyclists have the same look.
‘Initially when you start running, the face goes red as the blood vessels widen to get oxygen flowing round the body.
‘But after 15 minutes, as the muscles start to require more oxygen, the blood starts to be diverted away from the face, meaning the fat pads in the cheeks are deprived of oxygen and start to die off slowly.
‘If you run excessively, you’ll have a great heart and lungs, but you’ll lose the plumpness in the cheeks, and look emaciated.’
Varying your workouts with different types of exercise, such as weight-training or yoga, will help prevent this. Ditching cigarettes will also have an effect, he adds, as toxins in cigarettes also attack the blood supply to the fat pads in the cheeks, exacerbating the narrowed face.
And avoid faddy crash diets, as these can take their toll on your looks, warns dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe of the Cranley Clinic. ‘Yo-yo dieters regularly lose weight on the face then quickly put it back on. This rapid fluctuation in weight causes the skin to stretch and lose elasticity — so you start to have excess skin and jowls.’
PUDGY AND SAGGY
Culprits: Alcohol, lack of exercise.
Cosmetic surgeon Dr Prager says alcohol ‘stresses the body, causing you to produce the hormone cortisol’. This hormone causes more fat to collect around the face, as well as triggering water retention around the cheeks, leaving a ‘bloated-looking face’.
Furthermore, alcohol is also known to overstimulate the parotid — or salivary — glands, which sit on either side where the neck meets the jaw, adds Dr Khan. ‘Excessive drinking causes these glands to become bigger which gives that chubby, jowly look. If you stop drinking or cut down, you’ll soon notice an improvement.’
Alcohol is 50 per cent sugar, and there’s growing evidence that a diet high in sugar can age the skin by a process called glycolisation. Here, molecules produced when sugar is broken down slow the production of collagen and elastin fibres, the building blocks of skin.
‘The face becomes saggy and loses elasticity, facial muscle and shape in general so it looks podgy,’ says Dr Prager. ‘Between 20 and 30 you can get away with murder, but if you carry on drinking like that, by your 40th birthday the damage will be done.’
Regular exercise is also essential for keeping the skin on the face healthy and youthful.
In 2010, researchers at the University of St Andrews released images of three people showing what they would look like in 20 years’ time if they did no exercise — inactive people were more at risk of sagging, loose skin on the neck and fattening in the forehead and eye area. Exercise keeps blood circulating to the skin, maintaining collagen production.
Culprit: Not wearing sun block.
You can tell what’s caused a wrinkle just by looking at it, says Chris Griffiths, professor of dermatology at Manchester University and an expert on ageing. ‘Fine, crepey wrinkles occur with age, but coarse, deeper wrinkles tend to be from the sun.’
Dr Aamer Khan adds that lines and ridges under the eyes tend to be a sign of too much time spent in the sun. ‘The whole face will be hit, but the hair will protect the forehead, so generally it’s the areas under the eyes that are most affected.
‘The skin is thinner here, too, and so more vulnerable to wrinkling.’
Culprits: Not eating your greens, being overweight.
In March last year, researchers at the University of St Andrews published research showing that eating just three portions of fruit and vegetables a day can give skin a natural glow akin to a suntan within weeks. Ross Whitehead, research fellow at the university, who led the study, explains: ‘Fruit and vegetables contain pigments called carotenoids, which give carrots their orange colour, for example, and tomatoes their red colour. When we eat them, these pigments get deposited on the skin, creating a glow.’
He adds that an overweight person may have to consume more fruit and vegetables in order to get the glow. Carotenoid pigments are fat-soluble, meaning they are absorbed by fat in the body.
‘The more fat a person has under the skin, the more the visibility of these pigments might be obscured.’
Meanwhile, a natural flush to the cheeks can also indicate cardiovascular fitness, adds Whitehead.
‘Oxygenated blood has a redder tinge to it than deoxygenated blood, so someone who exercises and has a strong heart will have a permanent redness to their cheeks. So a pale complexion might indicate someone who doesn’t do a lot of exercise.’
DARK RINGS ON THE NECK
Culprits: Sugary food.
Discoloured, brownish-grey patches on the neck can be a warning sign for type 2 diabetes, a condition linked to a diet high in sugars and carbohydrates.
Known as acanthosis nigricans, the patches suggest high levels of the hormone insulin, involved in breaking down sugar in the body. They can start small, but if the underlying cause is not treated, may spread to take over the whole neck. ‘It’s very much a feature of obesity and diabetes, and tends to appear on the armpits and sometimes the neck,’ says Dr David Price, a diabetes expert at the Morriston Hospital in Swansea.
‘It suggests the insulin is not working very well, so the body is having to produce a lot more of it. Losing weight is the best treatment for this.’
Culprits: Caffeine, lack of sunlight.
Dr Aamer Khan says drinking too much coffee can dehydrate the skin, giving it a red and parched appearance. ‘If you drink more than three cups a day, for each one you need to drink an extra glass of water to counter the effects,’ he advises.
Low levels of vitamin D, formed in the body when sunlight hits the skin, can also cause redness in the face, adds Dr Khan. This is because the vitamin is vital for the creation of new skin cells, so a deficiency can lead to flaky, red skin.
Around one in ten of the population is thought to suffer with some degree of rosacea, a chronic skin condition that starts with flushing in the face and can progress to permanent redness, spots and blood vessels in the skin becoming visible.
Rosacea can run in families, but the condition is triggered or made worse by alcohol, coffee and spicy food, says dermatologist Dr Tabi Leslie. ‘Alcohol and caffeine seem to dilate the blood vessels, which can aggravate the rash on the face.’
Culprits: Dairy foods and Atkins-style diets.
It’s now widely recognised that acne is genetic rather than lifestyle related.
‘However, there is increasing evidence that in some cases excess dairy intake or high-calorie diets may be a contributory factor to the severity of the condition,’ says Dr Leslie.
The reasons are unclear, but some experts suggest that the compound insulin growth factor-1, which is found in milk (and is also naturally occuring in humans), might be to blame.
Dr Khan adds that Atkins-style diets that promote high protein and low carbohydrate intake may trigger acne, too.
‘Protein contains certain amino acids which encourage production of hormones such as testosterone which can cause acne,’ he says. A diet high in omega-3 (found in oily fish such as salmon or mackerel), fresh fruit and vegetables is thought to be the best way to prevent or reduce acne.
Omega-3s have been shown to control the production of sebum — the oil produced naturally by the skin that can cause acne.
CRACKS AT SIDE OF MOUTH
Culprit: Not eating your greens.
Cracks in the corner of the mouth — angular stomatitis — can be a sign of vitamin B deficiency, says dermatologist Dr Leslie.
Vitamin B has anti-inflammatory properties and too little is linked to redness and cracking. ‘You may also have a thickened tongue. Meanwhile, a vitamin C deficiency can result in sore, cracked lips.’
Dr Leslie adds that both these vitamins are found in many fruit and vegetables, with vitamin B particularly high in peas and wholegrains and vitamin C high in oranges and peppers.
Culprits: Stress, fatty and spicy foods.
‘A person’s dental age can be quite distinct from their chronological age,’ says Dr Ben Atkins, principal dentist at Revive Dental Care in Manchester.
Stress can cause people to grind their teeth at night or clench in the day, which can reduce the length of the teeth, he explains. ‘Often people don’t realise they’re doing it. I see people who’ve lost 50 to 80 per cent of their teeth because of this, causing the actual face height to shrink in size, too.’
Mouth guards can be worn at night, but Dr Atkins says clearly it’s also vital to work out the cause of your anxiety.
Excess stomach acid from a fatty diet or drinking too much alcohol can also wear away the teeth, he adds.
‘Eating lots of high-fat and spicy foods like curry means you’ll produce more acid, and if you suffer reflux, where there is a weakness in the valve between the gullet and the stomach, the acid can splash up the gullet into the mouth and damage the teeth.
‘You’ll see your teeth shrinking in size and may notice the back surfaces of your teeth feel very smooth.’
PALE, RECEDING GUMS
Tooth decay is usually linked to sugary snacks, but gum disease is more strongly linked to smoking, says Dr Atkins.
‘The damage to the blood supply in the gums from smoking may cause them to recede, and they can also start to look pale and leathery — in the same way a fish does when you smoke it. That’s essentially what you’re doing to your mouth when you smoke a cigarette.’
Culprits: Too much screen time, lack of sleep.
Watery eyes are usually, surprisingly, a tell-tale sign that you actually have dry eyes — this is because the tear glands react by overproducing tears, says Shamina Asif, from the College of Optometrists.
Often this is caused by spending too much time at a computer. ‘When you’re concentrating on a screen you’re less likely to blink, and it’s blinking that generates tears and lubricates the eyes,’ she says.
‘This is why a lack of sleep also contributes to dryness — during sleep your eyes repair themselves and produce tears.’ Constant blinking and watery eyes are the most common symptoms, she says.
‘If you suffer from dry eyes, make sure you take regular screen breaks, and consciously remember to blink regularly,’ she says. ‘And drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.’
Culprits: Vegetarian diet, lack of sleep.
A lack of iron — anaemia — may be to blame for dark circles under your eyes, suggests Dr Aamer Khan. This problem can be common in vegetarians, as meat is a major source of the nutrient.
‘Iron is needed for the turnover of tissue, so a deficiency slows down the creation of new skin and can cause the face to look pale and dark under the eyes.’ Furthermore, Dr Khan adds that tiredness can cause blood vessels in the skin to dilate.
The skin under the eyes is particularly thin, meaning that the blueish tinge of these blood vessels will be seen more acutely (the skin makes blood in vessels appear blue, although it is actually red), adding to the dark circles.
RINGS AROUND THE IRIS AND LUMPS ON THE EYELID
Culprits: Fatty diet.
White rings in the iris, known as arcus senilis, and yellow plaques or lumps around the eyelids, known as xanthelasma, can both be signs of high cholesterol, often linked to a diet rich in high-fat foods.
The excess cholesterol is deposited around the eye because it has a rich blood supply.
‘Studies have shown that people with arcus senilis and xanthelasma have a higher risk of developing heart disease,’ says Ms Asif.
She recommends seeing your GP for a check if you are worried about your cholesterol levels.
‘PEARL’ ON YOUR EYEBALL
Culprits: Not wearing sunglasses, surfing.
Not shielding your eyes in bright sunlight can leave you at raised risk of a condition called pinguecula. This causes a whitish-yellow ‘pearly’ lesion or blister on the eyeball, that’s usually just next to the iris on the side closest to the nose.
It may remain small or grow large enough to interfere with vision. If it starts to extend over the iris, and becomes triangular-shaped, this is known as a pterygium.
These growths, also known as Surfer’s eye — due to the fact they are more common in people who spend a lot of time in the sun — can sometimes interfere with vision.
‘Both pinguecula and pterygiums are pretty common — I see around two patients a day with this,’ says Shamina Asif. ‘UV light is one of the main risk factors, so it’s important to wear sunglasses to stop it from getting worse or preventing it from occurring in the first place.’
The condition tends to be slow-growing, and does not usually require treatment, but if it starts to cause irritation, lubricating eyedrops or a short course of steroid eyedrops can help.