The biggest compliment anyone can pay Wendy Powell is to call her a liar. The mother of two absolutely adores it when people refuse to believe she is all of her 40 years.
‘Better still is when I bump into people who I haven’t seen for a long time,’ she says. ‘It’s not unusual for them to say “wow you look better than you did 20 years ago”, which is wonderful.’
And the reason for this sudden turning back of the years? It’s not weight loss, expensive cosmetic surgery or the glow of a new and exciting love affair.
Wendy, a personal trainer and mother-of-two from Truro, in Cornwall, puts it all down to cutting sugar from her diet. She swears it has helped rejuvenate her skin more effectively than any so-called miracle cream ever could.
Now it seems Wendy’s findings have the backing of science. For the first time, a direct link has been established between the amount of sugar circulating in the blood and how old a person looks. Scientists from the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, and Unilever in the UK, measured the blood sugar levels of 600 men and women aged between 50 and 70.
They then showed photographs of these people to a board of 60 independent assessors and found that those with higher blood sugar looked older than those with lower blood sugar. In fact for every 1mm/litre increase in blood sugar, the perceived age of that person rose by five months.
‘We took into account other factors such as whether or not that person smoked and yet still the effects were clear — the higher the blood glucose, the older the person looked,’ says Dr David Gunn, a senior scientist at Unilever who helped conduct the trial.
‘Those who looked the oldest of all were the diabetics in the group. Because of their condition, they will have had the high levels of glucose for a long period of time.’ The skin experts agree. A diet high in sugar is a disaster for the face.
‘There is no point in spending lots of money on expensive skin creams if you are eating a diet high in sugar,’ says Dr Aamer Khan, a cosmetic dermatologist who is also medical director of the Harley Street Skin Clinic. 'Yes, you can protect and moisturise your skin from the outside with creams, but you need to feed and stimulate the growth of good strong skin cells from inside too and sugar will sabotage that.’
Wendy says she initially cut sugar from her diet 11 years ago, not because she wanted to look younger, but because she was studying to become a personal trainer. ‘The more I learned about fitness, the more I realised that my diet, which was based, I’m ashamed to say, on sugary soft drinks, beer and curries, was not good.
‘I wasn’t overweight — to be honest I never weigh myself — but I suffered from very dry, sensitive skin. I looked pasty and not great for my age. I wanted to feel fitter and more energetic and decided to focus on cutting down on sugar, as it has no nutritional value.’
Wendy adds: ‘I cut out the obvious sugary items and then started checking foods for added sugar. I was surprised how many have it: even savoury foods like crisps and cheese spread. Rather than drinking beer, which is high in sugar, I switched to the odd glass of red wine. Almost instantly, my skin looked better, it was less dry and within a few days looked clear and, yes, younger.’
So why should this be? Well, the problem with sugar is that it makes the skin lose the plump, elastic qualities that underlie a youthful appearance.
‘This is due to a process called glycation,’ explains Dr Ross Perry, a cosmetic doctor at the Cosmedics clinic in London.
'Essentially what happens is that sugar attaches itself to any protein in the body and produces harmful molecules called ‘advanced glycation end products’. These reduce the effectiveness of elastin and collagen, proteins in the skin that help maintain its youthful appearance.
‘Normally collagen bulks out the skin and gives it a younger plump look,’ says Dr Perry. ‘Elastin gives the skin recoil so that when you smile or frown your skin goes back to how it was. If you persistently eat a high-sugar diet, then as a result, the collagen and elastin will become more rigid, so it will become easier for wrinkles to form and the skin will lose that youthful plumpness. It also makes it harder for the cells in the skin to repair normal damage.’
A high-sugar diet reduces the quality of the collagen in the skin, too. ‘There are different types of collagen, known as I, II and III, and for healthy looking-skin you need the correct blend of all of these,’ says Dr Perry. ‘Sugar encourages type III collagen to become type I which is more brittle. Consequently, the skin breaks down and looks thinner and more wrinkly. It also becomes more prone to the damaging effects of the environment and UV rays.’
A study published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that these ageing effects typically start at age 35 and increase rapidly after that. Kirsty Price, a divorcee from Beckenham in Kent, drastically reduced the sugar in her diet four years ago and credits it for making her look younger. The 50-year-old says she frequently gets mistaken for someone ten or 15 years younger, and it’s not just because of the effect the diet has had on her waistline.
The mother of two says sugar used to play a huge part in her diet. ‘I’d eat anything and everything. I always had cakes and biscuits in the house. Then four years ago, I decided to go on a diet to lose the weight I had gained and never lost. I lost four stone and it kick-started my interest in nutrition. My research led me to some information about how sugar affects your cell regeneration.
Kirsty says: ‘To start with, I cut out things like sugary drinks, cakes and biscuits. Then I started to become interested in the added sugar in food like tomato ketchup and cut back on that too. I am certain it has made me look younger. I used to have big dark shadows under my eyes but they have gone and my complexion looks brighter. I also have far more energy. Before, when I ate sugar, I used to have an afternoon nap whenever I could, but I don’t need to any more. Best of all, whenever I tell people how old I am they say “no way”. I love that, and I don’t even miss sugar.’
So how easy is it to cut sugar from your diet? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as resisting the lure of the biscuit tin, according to Dr Khan. Any food with a high glycaemic index — which means that it is quickly broken down into sugars by the body — will cause a spike in blood glucose, the same as a sugar ‘fix’.
‘Sugar should be avoided altogether and refined carbohydrates, things like cakes, biscuits and white bread, should be kept to a minimum,’ he says. Instead, stick to lower GI options such as brown rice, pasta and bread. The aim should be to ensure that sugar makes up less than ten per cent of your total diet.
‘How much you can tolerate before glycation occurs depends on your age, metabolism and how much you exercise,’ he says. ‘If you’re an active 25-year-old, your body can tolerate more sugar than if you are a sedentary 45-year-old.’
The good news is if you change your ways and cut down on sugar, you should quickly see benefits. ‘The skin may seem less dry within days,’ says Dr Khan. The other good bit of news is that the odd treat here and there is unlikely to do too much harm. As Wendy can testify: ‘I’m no saint, I still have a bit of a sweet tooth, but these days I try to make do with a few pieces of dark chocolate rather than a fizzy drink. I think the benefits show for themselves.’