A study out this month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that the golden skin tones attributed to diets rich in carotenoids appear more attractive to us than the "glow" of suntanned skin. It makes such good evolutionary sense--we will be more attracted to a mate who shows visible signs of good health. And a carotenoid "tan" is typically an assurance of robust health, as carotenes are potent antioxidants and promote healthy immune and reproductive functions. (See Eating Vegetables Gives Skin a More Healthy Glow Than the Sun, Study Says.)
We've known for some time that carotenoids have been linked to attractiveness and mating choices in birds, but this is the first study that looked at the link between carotenoids and perceived attractiveness in humans. In birds, males get the vivid coloration of their beaks from carotenoids in their diet, and it's been shown that female birds have a strong preference for the males with the brightest beaks. (See article: Bright beaks provide honest look at male immune system, Science says.) Now we have an indication that the same selectivity might be at work in humans too.
So how do you achieve a carotenoid glow? By eating a wide variety of yellow, orange, and red vegetables and fruits; dark leafy greens; and certain animal products. Some good sources of the various carotenoids (alpha- and beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, for example) are winter squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, mangoes, swiss chard, spinach, kale, collards, tomatoes, pink grapefruit, shellfish, salmon, butter, and egg yolks. Carotene-rich foods are best assimilated when eaten with a bit of fat, and light cooking often makes the carotenes more available than when consumed either raw or overcooked.
This study came to my attention at the perfect moment. All autumn long I was troubled by the fact that my skin seemed to be taking on a rather sickly yellow cast. This I confirmed at Thanksgiving when I took some photos of my son and me and it was obvious that compared to my rosy-cheeked kid, I was definitely looking a bit yellow. Then last week I had an RN say to me, "You must spend a lot of time outdoors." Well, that was a hoot because this time of year I'm soundly hibernating--but she meant that I looked tan. So the plot thickened. How could I look tan in January at 40 degrees latitude, when I've been in hibernation for four months? Fortunately, she didn't tell me that I looked yellow, sickly, or jaundiced. She perceived my coloration as a healthy glow. It puzzled me at the time, but now that I've come across this study, it all makes sense. I eat a lot of carotene-rich foods, especially over the winter months. In the past month alone, I've easily eaten five or six pounds combined of butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots. Add in all the other carotene-rich foods I've eaten and it's no wonder I'm turning yellow! I'm still not convinced I wear the beta-carotene tan very well, but even if I can't pull it off, I'm sure I'm reaping the health benefits. How about you--have you been working on your "tan"?