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Image by Perception Lab, University of St. Andrews

Eating veggies high in carotenoid levels show a healthy change in pigmentation that could offer an alternative to tanning. Faces on the right (from top to bottom) are redder and yellower as a result of a high veggie diet.

From tanning bed to bed of lettuce: Veggies an alternative to sunbathing for a tan

by Tyler Moss
Jan 21, 2011

The Jersey Shore gang could soon be going from “gym-tan-laundry” to “gym-vegetables-laundry.”

Hip test subjects chose which "tans" they thought are more attractive: the yellowish skin pigmentation that comes from eating a heavy diet of fruits and vegetables, or the dark hue that comes from spending time in the sun or an a tanning bed.


The journal Evolution and Human Behavior published the findings in January.  


They made their choice by looking at pictures who had darkened their pigmentation by conventional tanning and those who gained a healthy hue by eating veggies.


The test was conducted by researchers at universities of Bristol and St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, England.  The study found that those tested preferred the “healthier” skin color of those who had high fruit and veggie consumption, said Ian Stephen, led the study as part of his PhD research and is now a psychologist at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus.


“We tell young people that they should eat more fruit and vegetables or they will have a heart attack in 50 years time,” Stephen said. “Now we can say that if you increase your fruit and veggie intake you will look healthier and more attractive in the course of a few weeks.” 


Nearly 165 individuals participated in the study. Some participated in the observation and others in darkening their skin color by either tanning or eating certain vegetables. 


Melanin is the cell that produces skin pigment, said Dr. Susan Stuart, a dermatologist in La Jolla, Calif., who did not participate in the study. The darkness of a person’s skin is dependent on the amount of melanosome produced by melanin cells.


Tanning produces melanin while pigmentation changes from eating certain vegetables results from carotenoids. Vegetables produce carotenoids: yellow, orange or red antioxidant pigments that are deposited in the intercellular lipids of the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin, Stuart said. The most well known carotenoid is carotene.


“Foods most dense in carotenoids include a number of fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, squash, kale, cilantro and thyme,” she said. “They are an excellent source of vitamin A.”


Though she found the study interesting, Stuart said she questioned some of the science.


“This article is not written by physicians but psychologists and is very subjective,” she said. “Volunteers were asked to subjectively evaluate the skin tone of healthy volunteers. [However,] it is certainly a healthier alternative than sunbathing, which can lead to premature aging and skin cancers, including melanoma.”


Subjects judged those who had ingested lots of carotenoids to be healthier looking and more attractive than subjects who had tanned, Stephen said. Skin color was measured using a spectrophotometer, which shines a light onto the skin and measures the color of the light reflected back.


Individuals must increase their carotenoid-containing fruits and vegetables to about five servings per day for six to eight weeks before they will  notice any difference in skin color, according to Stephen. Those who eat fewer servings of fruits and vegetables will see a more dramatic change.


Overconsumption of foods dense in carotenoids could cause discomfort, Stuart warned. Symptoms can come from excess ingestion of beta-carotenes in vitamin A because 90 percent of it is absorbed by the body.


“Symptoms of excess vitamin A ingestion include fatigue, irritability, vomiting, drowsiness, bone pain, dry, scaling skin, headaches, brittle nails, hair loss, gingivitis and visual disturbances,” Stuart said. “Someone who has ingested large amounts of carotenoids would have an orange pigmentary shade to their skin, especially the palms and soles of the feet.”


Simply reducing carotenoid consumption can treat symptoms.


Vegetable tanning overall may have a ways to go to be convincing.


“Do you believe in the Easter Bunny?”


That is how 42-year-old Matthew Turner, owner of Halsted Street Beach Tanning , responded when asked if he thought fruit and vegetable consumption could ever threaten his business.


“Vitamin D is only created by tanning, if you tan correctly and don’t sunburn,” Turner said. “Eating vegetables to get color in your skin? Who the hell is going to do that? Someone is going to try it and end up dying like that woman in Seattle who drank too much water.”


Carotenoid consumption is not an alternative to sunlight, as the sun provides some essential benefits to our well being, said Dr. Gerald Imber, a plastic surgeon in New York City.


Said Imber: “A bit of sun exposure is crucial for production of vitamin D, necessary for calcium metabolism, and preventing fractures and even diseases like rickets.”