Cellulite. It’s what happens when the connective tissue within the dermis layer of your skin weakens and allows fat—the subcutaneous kind—to bulge through, ultimately creating that dimpled appearance we all know and love to hate. And a lot of women who have it want to know not only what exercises will help fight cellulite, but whether there are foods that cause cellulite in the first place. Before we get to that, understand this: 80 to 90 percent of women, including super-fit athletes, are affected by cellulite, and there are a hell of a lot of things that can contribute to it. But, yes, the biggest one may just be your diet. (Also, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about cellulite.)
Weight gain contributes to cellulite—this is true. But just because you have cellulite doesn’t mean you’re overweight. (Make sure you’re up to snuff on these five cellulite myths you should get out of your head.) That said, the same types of foods that can cause you to pack on the pounds are the same foods to avoid for cellulite.
Before you purge your pantry, though, understand that this isn’t just about swearing off pizza and tossing all those snack bags. There’s no magic list of foods that cause cellulite, mostly because there isn’t a ton of research connecting diet and cellulite, whether for prevention or treatment. (Though these foods can help fight cellulite.) But if you educate yourself about what exactly is in the food you’re eating, you may be able to make some healthier decisions that could come with the bonus of helping you fend off that pesky dimpled flesh. These are the things to watch out for.
One of the most important ways to know if foods cause cellulite is to look for foods that cause inflammation. Why? “With chronic inflammation, your fat cells start to enlarge and retain fluid and toxins,” explains Stefanie Mendez, R.D., cofounder of Matriarch, a women’s fitness and nutrition service. “As the fluids accumulate, circulation worsens and those toxins start contributing to the breakdown of the collagen and elastin that keeps the skin smooth and firm.”
Refined carbs, or foods that are missing one or more of the key components that make a grain a whole grain, is one of the main inflammation-causing food groups, says registered dietitian Maya Feller. “In refined carbs, the bran (outer layer), germ (inner layer), and/or endosperm (middle layer) have been removed, stripping the grain of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” she explains. “They’re quickly digested into simple sugars and readily absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in a glucose spike.” You’ll find refined carbs in foods like white bread, white flour, and white rice. (Are you sensing a theme here?) It’s also best to avoid a subset of refined carbs—refined sugars or simple carbs—because they’re just as inflammatory, says Mendez. Those you’ll find in baked goods, cereals, sugary drinks, candies, and pasta.
Processed foods are another cause of inflammation. They’re even more ubiquitous and some of the worst foods for cellulite. (But should you really hate on all processed foods?) Most foods that you find in the supermarket have been processed to some extent, whether that means bagged, canned, or cleaned. But from a health perspective, “processed products often have inflammatory foods such as sugar, fat, and salt added to them to preserve the food and enhance flavor,” says Kristen Smith, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That’s going to be foods like chips, snack foods, baked goods, sodas, meat products like hot dogs and sausages, and convenience meals and foods.
Here’s what all that has to do with cellulite: “There’s evidence that suggests that cellulite may occur in response to hormonal changes,” says Feller. Insulin, for example, is a hormone that regulates how the body uses and stores sugar and fat. “When you have a diet that’s really high in refined carbs, you’re going to have a lot of spikes in your blood sugar, because there’s no fiber to keep it even,” explains Mendez. “To counter those spikes, your body needs to produce huge amounts of insulin. That can trigger the process of the fat cells enlarging, retaining fluid and toxins, and breaking down collagen.” And so we’re back to inflammation, stuck in a vicious cycle.
There’s one other major ingredient to watch out for: salt. While it hasn’t been linked to foods that cause cellulite specifically, it could be making any pre-existing cellulite appear worse. “Salt makes your body hold on to fluid in the fat cells and tissue, which creates this puckered and sort of inflamed look,” says Mendez. “It’s one of the main causes of that rippling effect.” Now here’s the real bummer: Most Americans consume an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day—about 1,100 milligrams over the American Heart Association’s recommendation—and that increases the risk of fluid retention, says Smith.
The Good News
Just like there are certain “cellulite foods” to avoid, there are foods that may help prevent it. You’ll want to pack your diet with anti-inflammatories—foods that are full of antioxidants and polyphenols, which help reduce inflammation and damaged cells in your body—including berries, vitamin C–rich foods like citrus fruits, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens, and foods that have really healthy fats, like nuts, salmon, tuna, and olive oil.
Oranges—and other foods high in vitamin C—may be particularly helpful. “Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and helps your body produce collagen,” says Mendez. “We know that with cellulite, collagen and elastin begin to deteriorate, so potentially having a lot of vitamin C–rich foods in our diet could help us counteract that.” And since collagen is a protein, making sure you’re eating enough lean proteins—think chicken, turkey, egg whites, and low-fat dairy—could help as well, says Smith. (Here are 10 plant-based proteins that are easy to digest.)
Bottom line: Remember, cellulite is more the norm than something to be ashamed of. (This plus-size model is determined to stop seeing her cellulite as ugly.) And no matter what your weight status, your goal should just be overall health. “There really is no quick fix for cellulite,” says Mendez. “Focus instead on making changes for a more natural, more balanced diet—and that just may help with the prevention of and the appearance of cellulite.”