For most of us, taking care of our hair is a labor-intensive proposition. There’s the washing, the conditioning, the combing and styling, the cutting, and the blow-drying—and that’s if your hair is healthy and normal. If it’s dry, damaged, curly, frizzy, coarse, or thinning, haircare can turn into a full-blown obsession.
Should you use wide elastics or thin ones? Leave your hair down at night or secure it in a ponytail? Use a hot oil or a cream conditioner treatment? Use shampoo or not? Mousse or gel? Comb or brush? The stress of figuring out the best way to care for hair is enough to make you want to pull it all out.
The truth is that healthy, happy hair starts far before the shampoo and the pomade, with the foods we eat and the nutrients they contain. Our food provides the building blocks that keep hair healthy and looking fabulous. Dermatologists say that a well-balanced diet really can make a difference in how our hair looks and feels. When we eat a nutrient-deficient diet, our hair (along with our skin and nails) is one of the first things to suffer as our bodies shuttle vital nutrients to more important areas. A diet rich in the following foods and nutrients will not only nourish your whole system, but also ensure that your locks will never suffer nutritional neglect.
Protein is the most important component of hair, and a deficiency can lead to weak, dull, brittle strands that are prone to breakage. Choose lean meats, like chicken or turkey, or low-fat dairy if you’re watching your weight, but dieticians recommend a moderate intake of meats like beef or bacon as well, which are higher in B vitamins and other essential nutrients. Eggs (both the yolks and the whites), which contain B12 and biotin, also promote hair health.
Salmon is bursting with omega-3 fatty acids, along with B vitamins and iron. Other foods that contain these beneficial compounds include oily deepwater fish, such as mackerel, herring, and sardines, nuts (especially walnuts and Brazil nuts), flaxseed, and kiwifruit.
A study at the Cleveland Clinic associated low iron levels with baldness and hair loss. Make sure your diet includes plenty of lean red meat, beans, dried fruit, dark leafy greens (like spinach and kale), and shellfish (such as mussels, oysters, and clams).
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, so a deficiency in this vitamin can affect iron levels as well. It’s also important for the protection of sebum, the oil that coats and protects hair. The best sources of vitamin C come from citrus fruits, leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, papaya, and mango.
Some research has linked zinc deficiency to the production of androgens, hormones that can lead to hair loss. For healthy hair that doesn’t shed or fall out, make sure that you’re getting enough of this nutrient. Large quantities of zinc exist in foods like oysters, whole grains, nuts (especially pecans and pine nuts), and beans.
The best way to keep hair hydrated is to make sure to drink plenty of water, which comprises about 25 percent of each individual strand of hair. If your hair is already prone to dryness, you may want to drink extra.
Most experts and dermatologists recommend getting your nutrients via foods, rather than via supplements, which may or may not be effective. Taking too much of some vitamins—like vitamin A—not only could be dangerous but also may actually cause hair loss. As always, before you begin any sort of vitamin or supplement regimen, check with a doctor to make sure that you’re not at risk for an adverse reaction.
If you hate egg whites, that doesn’t mean your hair has to go without them. Eating the proper foods may be the best way to maintain hair health, but there’s no harm in using some of them as topical treatments as well. Homemade haircare potions include rinse-out masks of beer, mayonnaise, coconut oil, rosemary oil, eggplant, and avocado, all of which are said to make your hair shinier, stronger, and more resilient, albeit smelling strongly of your kitchen. While using one of these concoctions to condition hair can’t hurt, it’s important to remember that ingesting nutrients through food strengthens hair from the inside out, and any benefits gained by smearing your head with mayonnaise are purely cosmetic. After all, the hair that we groom and style is already dead, and even our best efforts can never truly repair damage, no matter what the shampoo commercials say.
In many ways, our hair is a reflection of what’s going on in the rest of our body. When we follow a healthy and balanced eating plan, we get hair that’s lustrous, shiny, and resilient. When we consume processed foods and other junk, our hair is lifeless and dull. The best way to ensure that your hair is the healthiest it can be is to maintain a well-rounded, complete diet—and lay off the blow-dryer.