THOUGH A DEFICIENCY IN DIET IS RARELY THE DIRECT CAUSE OF HAIR LOSS, THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT WHAT WE EAT AFFECTS OUR HAIR HEALTH.
A dietary deficiency is rarely the cause of hair loss. But all forms of hair loss are affected by diet to one degree or another. The hair that’s there can be brittle or thick, dull or shiny, in part due to what you eat. Following is a primer on the nutrients and their sources necessary to maintaining healthy hair.
Protein – About 99 percent of hair is keratin, a protein that is also a component of skin and nails. Adequate protein is essential to hair health, and it can come from animal, fish and vegetable sources. To the advantage of hair and the rest of your body, those should be sources that are lower in saturated fat and higher in beneficial fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Robert Shmerling, clinical chief of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an associate professor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, cautions that more is not more where it comes to protein. “It’s true that severe protein malnutrition may cause hair loss. But people with adequate access to food, a normal appetite and normal digestion should not lose hair due to low protein intake.” How much is enough? “About 50 grams of protein daily, representing about 10 percent of the total calories,” he says. You can get that in a serving of black beans (one cup), 3 ounces of tuna and an 8-ounce serving of low-fat yogurt.
Best sources for protein: Cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies), skinless poultry, legumes (black, kidney, garbanzo beans and lentils, among others), nuts (especially walnuts, cashews, pecans and almonds and low-fat dairy. Beef and eggs are good as well, but higher in saturated fat.
Omega-3 fatty acids – Whether you have hair or proudly sport a naked pate, Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to scalp health. Because modern living has removed us from most natural sources of Omega-3s (grass-fed beef, fish), most people are deficient in it.
Best sources for Omega-3 fatty acids: Cold water fish; flax and its derivative, linseed oil; eggs from chickens fed greens, insects and fish oils; grass-fed beef and lamb.
Zinc, balanced with copper – Important to health in many ways, zinc is essential to protein synthesis and, in men, to sexual function. Copper is an essential metal too, but an imbalance of these in relation to each other can affect androgen levels, the hormones that can promote hair loss.
Best sources for zinc: Carnivores generally get adequate zinc through animal protein, but zinc is most abundant in plant foods that include chickpeas (garbanzos), pumpkin seeds, muesli, cheddar cheese, yogurt and whole-grain bread. Because imbalances are problematic, supplementing the diet with pill forms should be done only under medical supervision.
Iron – A deficiency in iron leads to a host of skin and hair problems, as well as fatigue and compromised immunity. Persons with anemia and anorexia nervosa often have brittle hair because of poor iron levels.
Best sources for iron: All meats, poultry and fish – including organ meats such as liver – are iron rich. But so are leafy greens from the cruciferous family (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) and legumes (including lima beans and green peas), leavened breads and enriched pastas and cereals.
Vitamin A – More often associated with eyesight, vitamin A also promotes a healthy scalp.
Best sources for Vitamin A: Widely available in fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood and dairy foods, this vitamin still can be deficient in individuals whose diets consist of processed foods or who overcook all their vegetables. Steam instead of stir fry, or just eat raw (carrots, cabbage, sweet peppers) as much as possible. Orange colored produce (apricots, pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, sweet peppers) are particularly good sources.
Vitamin C – Just because we think it prevents colds doesn’t mean Vitamin C doesn’t have other functions. Vitamin C aids circulation and therefore enables nutrients to reach where they are supposed to go, including the scalp and hair.
Best sources for Vitamin C: Vitamin C levels are depleted every four hours, so snacking on fruits highest in it is optimal. They include all citrus and tropical fruits, berries, cherries, bananas, green peppers, artichokes, leafy green vegetables, cabbage, cauliflower and peas.
Vitamin B12 – Essential to the metabolic function of all cells, a deficiency of this vitamin will affect hair health along with the nervous system (mental confusion and fatigue).
Best sources for Vitamin B12: Meat, fish, poultry and dairy are abundant sources. But deficiencies are likely due to intestinal problems, sometimes linked to certain medications that also cause anemia. People over the age of 50 may lack digestive secretions that enable Vitamin B12 absorption.
The perfect hair food day
You can probably see where this is going. A well-balanced diet – what you’re eating for all kinds of other reasons (cardiovascular health, weight management and muscle building) is good for hair, skin and scalp. Here are some terrific food choices every day:
- Fortified cereal or oatmeal with walnuts and berries, side or topping with low-fat yogurt.
- Yogurt with nuts and fruit
- Whole grain bread with almond butter and apricots
- Turkey or chicken sandwich with avocado spread and leafy greens
- Bean soup, green salad, low-fat dairy (cottage cheese)
- Sardine sandwich (on whole grain bread, also on avocado spread)
Late afternoon snack
- Fruit or carrots
- Herring sprinkled with roasted soy nuts
- Lower-fat cheese (e.g., mozzarella)
- Salmon, generous sides of vegetables
- Toploin, sirloin or tenderloin (portion size smaller than one’s hand)
- Lamb chop, with generous sides of cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower
- Beans and brown rice, with a large green salad
Eat up smart – your head will thank you for it.