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Beautifully Healthy


Ok, so you know eating fruits and vegetables is good for you. But if that hasn't been enough to get you eating more of them, maybe I can appeal to your vanity: a study has found that people who have the skin colouration typical of those with a high intake of carotenoids from fresh produce, are perceived as healthier and more attractive than those who are either pale-skinned or tanned.

Dr John McDougall likes to tell the story of how, when he was in his teens, his father noticed him checking out all the pretty girls. His dad said to him, "Son, the reason you're attracted to those girls is that they're healthy." Naturally, teenage John scoffed at his old man and shot back, "Dad, that's not why I'm looking at them!" Years later, he realised the truth of what his father was saying: as humans, we're biologically programmed to find healthy-looking people attractive, because a healthy mate is a better investment for our genetic material than an unhealthy one.

Of course, on a conscious level we don't necessarily want to mate and produce offspring with every member of the opposite sex we see (although some might beg to differ, at least on the mating bit!), and individuals can and frequently do make the choice to love people for something other than their personal appearance and health status. But when we form our first impressions of others, attractiveness matters; and there is a remarkable consistency across cultures and eras in what is generally rated as attractive. The features that we find attractive signify good nutrition: a symmetrical face with a well-developed jaw; straight, evenly-spaced teeth; well-proportioned limbs; clear, glowing skin.

The new research, which was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, demonstrated that people who eat more fruits and vegetables (and hence, have a higher carotenoid intake) have significantly more yellow tones in their facial skin. They also found that, when showed photographs of people with a variety of skin tones (pale, sun-tanned, carotenoid-yellow) both white Brits and black South Africans found the people with the most carotenoid-hued skin, the most attractive. They then instructed subjects to use a computer program which allowed them to manipulate the skin tones of people in photographs, with the aim of making them look as healthy as possible. Most subjects chose to increase the carotenoid (yellowish) tones, rather than make the skin appear more tanned, in order to make the people in the photos look healthy. The photos below show an example: the skin tones in the centre photo have been lightened, while the photos to the left and right show increased melanin (the pigment produced in skin from suntanning) and increased carotenoid pigmentation, respectively.


"We found that, given the choice between skin colour caused by suntan and skin colour caused by carotenoids, people preferred the carotenoid skin color," Dr. Ian Stephen, the study's lead researcher, commented. "So if you want a healthier and more attractive skin color, you are better off eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables than lying in the sun."

Dr Stephen's coauthor, Professor David Perrett, PhD also commented that in various fish and bird species, yellow colouration is a sign of good health and attractiveness to the opposite sex. "For example, the bright yellow beaks and feathers of many birds can be thought of as adverts showing how healthy a male bird is. What’s more, females of these species prefer to mate with brighter, more coloured males. But this is the first study in which this has been demonstrated in humans.”

So it turns out John McDougall's dad was way ahead of his time. We're not so different to non-human animals: we are hard-wired to sense signs of good health in others, and to find healthier-looking people more attractive than unhealthy-looking people. What does this mean if you're single and looking for love, or want to revive the sparkle in your partner's eye when he or she looks at you? Eat more carotenoid-rich red, orange and yellow fruit, and green vegetables!

This article was previously published on the Empower Total Health website

RobynRobyn Chuter is a university-qualified naturopath, with a Bachelor of Health Science (and the Dean's Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement) from the University of New England, and a Diploma of Naturopathy from the Australasian College of Natural Therapies. Robyn runs the website Empower Total Health; and she has a naturopathic practice in Sydney, Australia where she specialises in chronic, medically 'incurable' health problems such as IBS, CFS, migraine, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

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