Vegan Diet: Skin-Saver or Complexion-Killer?

Well, you really are what you eat (or don't eat).

You already know that a healthy diet is synonymous with healthy skin. But what about vegan diets? Can you chalk up a youthful, glowing complexion to ditching chicken and ice cream? Whether you nix animal products for health reasons, ethical reasons or both, we got the lowdown from our experts on how this affects your pretty face.

So what exactly does meat do to our skin?

QUIZ: Is Your Diet Helping or Hurting Your Skin?

For starters, it can be loaded with saturated fat, which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease. Unhealthy arteries means your skin isn't getting the glow-inducing nutrients it needs to stay healthy. One study found red meat consumption in particular is positively associated with increased inflammation in the body, which worms its way into your skin to break down collagen and elastin (the building blocks of a youthful complexion).

It may even contribute to breakouts, according to one study that concluded acne is linked, in part, to our western diet of excessive animal proteins. Researchers recommended we limit the total leucine-an amino acid found in meat-intake predominantly provided by animal protein to decrease acne on our skin.

Ditto for dairy.

MORE: The 30-Day Meat-Free Challenge to Help Your Skin

One study examined the diets of 47,355 women and found a positive link between milk and acne. That's because the majority of milk we consume is produced by pregnant cows, meaning there are high levels of hormones present. That can be an open invitation to oil secretion, breakouts and acne.

But if you think simply ditching the meat and dairy is the answer to a more flawless complexion, it's not.

"The benefits that you get from removing meat and dairy from your caloric intake all depend on the foods that you choose to replace those calories," explains Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., YouBeauty Nutrition Expert. In other words, a vegan who replaces the calories with more fruits and vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods will see a major benefit in her complexion and overall beauty.

That's because fruits and veggies have a higher water content than cooked meats, and eating foods with high water content (like cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe) help hydrate our skin, plump out fine lines and bring on a radiant glow.

MORE: Eat Carrots, Look Prettier

Same goes for essential nutrients. A well-balanced vegan diet is typically higher in vitamin C, says Kirkpatrick. "Vitamin C is needed for collagen metabolism, which increases the elasticity of the skin, providing a smoother and less-wrinkled complexion." You can get your highest dose in foods like papaya, strawberries, oranges, kale, lemon, cauliflower and garlic.

Beta-carotene, found in dark green leafy veggies and yellow-orange produce, can also be higher in vegan diets, and it protects skin against inflammation and helps with cell growth.

Not to say you can't get these nutrients without a vegan diet, but if your meals and snacks mainly consist of plant-based foods, you will boost your odds.

MORE: Surprising Sources of Vitamin C

Keep in mind, going vegan is not necessarily a surefire way to a better complexion, explains Kirkpatrick. "It is a myth that all vegan diets are healthy because there are plenty of vegans who do not replace their calories in the proper way, which puts them at a higher risk of bad complexion and more serious disease than the meat would ever provide."

While some beauty-boosting nutrients may be easier to get with vegan diets, others can be more difficult. Specifically, a deficiency in calcium, vitamin D, B12, iron and zinc are possible without animal products, says Kirkpatrick.

For example, one study showed that a vegetarian diet contributed to low levels of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant in our skin that offers protection against oxidative UV damage, environmental pollutants and damage from infection and inflammation. Low levels can lead to wrinkling and discoloration, according to Dr. Valori Treloar, co-author of "The Clear Skin Diet."

MORE: How Does Skin Fare on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Insufficient levels of certain vitamins is also a concern with a vegan diet. "Many vegans think that they can obtain B12 from spirulina, Klamath Lake algae and sea vegetables," adds Treloar. "However, these sources contain small amounts of human active B12 and larger amounts of analogs that compete with B12 in our bodies." In other words, it's very difficult to get adequate amounts of B12 without animal foods, which can lead to skin conditions like hyperpigmentation.

Deficiencies in zinc can also lead to acne and psoriasis, says Treloar. And low levels of the Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, can be attributed to a vegan diet. "Vegetable sources of omega-3 fats cannot really replace fish sources," Treloar adds. Less than optimal amounts can lead to inflammation, contributing to aging of the skin and acne, eczema and psoriasis.

But these potential pitfalls can be overcome with supplements and choosing the right plant-based foods for your skin. You just need to be smart about it if you want to go vegan, advises Kirkpatrick.

MORE: Hungry? Try These Skin-Nourishing Foods

"Before you eliminate animal foods from your diet, you have to do your research. Then sit down with a dietician and plan what is going to fit your body and your needs."

- by Deborah Dunham