We know that what you eat is paramount for hair growth; as celebrity hairstylist Laurabeth Cabbot, notes: “The saying you are what you eat is no joke,” – and doctors agree. “Eating a balanced, well-rounded, nutritious diet is essential for the health and growth of your hair,” adds Lauren Penzi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at New York City’s MDCS Dermatology.
But have you ever considered that your diet could actually be hindering your hair growth? There can be a number of reasons why women can lose hair, from female pattern hair loss – whether hereditary or caused by conditions like PCOS – to stress, the contraceptive pill, and even some lack of nutrients in your diet. In fact, there are some diets that can hinder hair growth.
“You are what you eat, and very often this is reflected in the quality of your hair,” Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy tells GLAMOUR. “Hair growth is dependent on many variables. Probably the most important is your genetic makeup, but other factors greatly influence hair growth including diet and nutrition, stress, smoking, sleep deprivation, excess alcohol, excessive fitness regimes, UV light, and pollution.”
Dr Lee explains that good nutrition is ‘vital’ for hair growth, but that it cannot reverse changes due to genetic factors. “Nevertheless, for your hair to grow optimally, you do need a healthy diet,” she adds.
How certain diets hinder hair growth
Before we understand how a diet can impact hair growth, we first need to understand the life cycle of a strand of hair. Dr Lee explains that each human head contains around 100,000 hair follicles, of which the majority (90%) are in the ‘anagen’ phase. This is the growth phase which can last anywhere from three months to 10 years.
For hair to be supported during this phase and to grow, it needs oxygen, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
“Without a doubt, a poor diet slows hair growth and even causes hair loss,” Dr Lee explains. “History reminds us of sailors dying at sea of scurvy, with skin haemorrhages and hair loss due to vitamin C deficiency. Children with protein-deficient malnutrition from kwashiorkor and marasmus suffer hair loss. Severe carbohydrate deficiency can also cause hair loss.”
A 2019 review of the link between nutrition and hair loss found that a deficiency of the following micronutrients can result in hair loss:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
According to NICE, women who menstruate have a higher chance of having an iron deficiency due to the loss of iron in their blood during their periods. In fact, up to 12% of premenopausal British women have iron deficiency anaemia – which is when your iron levels are severely low. This rises to 23% in pregnant women.
The diets that hinder hair loss the most
While you may think that it’s only diets high in UPFs (ultra-processed foods) that lead to hair loss, there are several diets that can hinder hair growth – including a vegan diet.
“Frequently eating high-sugar foods leads to spikes in insulin, adrenaline and cortisol levels,” Dr Lee explains.
A high consumption of sugar can lead to systemic inflammation which can be disastrous for hair growth. High cortisol levels – or the stress hormone – can result in extreme hair shedding called telogen effluvium (TE), while high sugar foods can also lead to build up of end-glycation products which can reduce the protein content of hair by as much as 50% and increase the risk of hair breakage.
A high fat diet such as the popular ketogenic (or keto) diet can shock the body into TE, Dr Lee explains. This is due to the lack of carbs consumed.
Clinical studies have shown that a vegan diet is often low in vitamins B12 and D, as well as iron, zinc, iodine and calcium. “Deficiencies of many of these can affect hair growth and cause hair loss,” Dr Lee says. “Vegetarians are also potentially at similarly increased risk.”
Like many major dietary changes, intermittent fasting – when you only eat between a certain window of time each day – could cause hair loss as the change in eating pattern can shock the body into TE.
Dr Lee stresses the importance of dieting sensibly and safely – and not trying any fad diets.
“These never last and simply shock your body, encouraging hair loss,” she adds. “Always eat a well-balanced diet full of protein, fruit and vegetables. It’s not the calorie count that will affect your hair, it’s the quality of the food you are eating. When dieting, it’s sensible to take a multivitamin every day.”
Best diets and food for hair growth
If you are hoping to achieve more hair growth, don’t stress – there are certain foods and diets you can follow.
While the general rule is to eat a healthy, balanced diet filled with all the essential vitamins and minerals you need (you can get most of these from the food you eat so often no supplements are necessary), several studies have shown that hair grows best when a diet is high in anti-inflammatory foods. Anti-inflammatory foods can include those rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as oily fish, also vitamin E, berries, nuts like walnuts, olive oil, avocados and green tea.
Proteins (be it animal or plant-based) are also essential for hair growth, as is vitamin D and zinc – the latter which can prevent the catagen phase which is when the hair separates from the follicle and drops out.
“One good option is the Mediterranean diet,” Dr Lee explains. “This is a balanced, varied diet with numerous delicious healthy recipes and contains all the correct nutrients for healthy hair growth.”
As for what specific foods to eat for hair growth, Dr Lee recommends the following:
- Eggs: A source of zinc, selenium and biotin. The latter helps make keratin, the hair’s protein.
- Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries – any bright coloured berries as these are packed full of vitamin C which is needed to produce collagen.
- Greek yoghurt: High in protein and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) which can aid hair growth.
- Green leafy vegetables: Can help make nitric oxide which is vital for healthy blood supply to the scalp.
- Oily fish: Salmon, mackerel and trout all contain omega-3 fatty acids that aid hair growth.
- Sweet potatoes: Rich in beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body.
- Avocado: A source of the antioxidant vitamin E which lowers inflammation in the scalp.
- Nuts: A source of vitamin E, B, selenium and essential fatty acids.
- Seeds: Packed with vitamin E, zinc and selenium.
- Meat: Contains iron which is vital for hair growth.
“For the best results choose a varied, balanced diet that is not restrictive and allows you to eat all different food groups,” Dr Lee says. “Avoid fad diets. Avoid high-sugar, high-fat diets. Avoid processed foods and cook from scratch using fresh, good-quality ingredients. If you have to restrict your diet for any reason, seek medical advice on what supplements you should be taking. Don’t waste money on vitamin supplements if you are eating a healthy diet – spend the money on good quality food instead. I would recommend the Mediterranean diet as an excellent choice for many aspects of your health, including hair growth.
“Remember for healthy hair you also need to think about all the other aspects of your health, and follow a good hair care regime. Stop smoking as smoking damages the hair root causing hair to break and fall out. It also dries out the hair gain increasing the risk of breakage. Take regular exercise to stimulate your blood circulation to the scalp. Use the right hair care products – speak to your hairdresser. Use a wide-toothed comb and be gentle with wet hair. Deep condition it regularly. And protect your hair from excess UV light and pollution.”
While diet is important for hair growth, sometimes it can also be down to a medical issue. If you are worried about persistent hair loss, it’s best to make an appointment with a GP or dermatologist.
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