How to Eat for Healthy Hair (aka. The Rapunzel Diet)
How would you like to get gorgeous hair? Shiny, luscious, Instagram-worthy locks? Who wouldn’t! A lot of products promise it, but truly gorgeous, healthy looking hair, starts within. With what you eat!
Like so many things in life, you get out what you put in. So it makes sense that a lackluster diet is likely to give you… lackluster hair. But a diet rich in essential vitamins and nutrients? That’s how you shine ;-)
Now, you know I’m all about feeding your body what it truly needs to thrive. So for me, great hair is also about a healthy lifestyle. You see, hair cells are some of the fastest growing cells in your body. Right after the cells lining your gastrointestinal tract (although hair is a lot more fun to style). And, you can actually see your hair everyday. Why does that matter? A part of your body that grows fast and is visible externally can give you a window into your overall health. Your hair won’t give you away if you slipped and went on an ice cream binge… and then like, three more ice cream binges… but it can send up warning signs that your body is lacking in key nutrients.
Let’s get super basic…
What is hair? Hair strands are made of a protein called keratin. That’s the part you see above your scalp. Below the scalp, each hair strand has its own hair follicle and what’s called a hair bulb. These below-the-scalp elements are alive, connected to blood vessels and nourished by your body. The strands above your scalp are not alive.
On average, hair grows at a rate of about ½ an inch per month, but this rate can vary greatly from person to person. The colour, texture, thickness and growth rate of your hair are largely determined by genetics. Diet and lifestyle can have an impact on growth rate and the appearance of hair health, but not on things like colour or curly vs. straight (wouldn’t that be fun though?).
Causes of hair loss and unhealthy looking hair
We all know that too much chemical processing and heat styling can be bad news for our hair. But what else impacts it?
Stress (Namaste that hair back to life!)
Hormonal changes (from pregnancy, menopause, thyroid problems, etc.)
You see those three in bold? These can be serious issues and if you’ve noticed a sudden change in your hair - one that can’t be traced back to a recent bottle of bleach - you should see your doctor immediately.
And that last one - restrictive diets - let’s talk about that. When I talk about restrictive diets, I’m not talking about things like veganism or vegetarianism. Done right, you can get all the nutrients your body needs on either of these diets. What I’m talking about are diets that aim to virtually eliminate key nutrients like fat or carbs, which your body needs in order to thrive.
Can a better diet give you better hair?
It really can. And, since we’re talking about a better diet overall and not “quick tips” or “magic bullets”, a better diet that improves the appearance of your hair is going to improve your overall health and wellness in many ways.
Before we move onto “hair healthy foods”, there’s one thing you should know: this will take time!
As I mentioned earlier, the only part of your hair that’s alive is the part under the scalp - the follicle and hair bulb that the strands grow from. There is no blood flow to the strands outside your scalp so, as much as I wish a few salmon salads could change hair overnight, any changes to your diet will not impact already grown hair. It can impact new hair growth though. So, improving your diet, sticking with it, and being patient are key. If you can do that, the payoff is really good.
So without further ado…
What to Eat for Healthy Looking Hair
Your hair needs fat! But good fats like omega 3 fatty acids. The science behind this is a little heavy for a blog post, but if you’re into that kind of thing, here’s a study published with NCBI that really digs into it. Note that this study specifically looked at fermented fish oil from mackerel, but through several studies, we do know that omega 3 fatty acids have the potential for amazing health benefits, including healthier looking skin and hair. You can read more about omega 3 here.
Sources of omega 3:
Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
Hempseed and hempseed oil
Fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and even caviar
Nuts, especially walnuts
Eggs fortified with omega 3
Hair is literally made of protein, so getting enough protein in your diet is good for your hair and your body overall. Now, protein isn’t all that hard to get. Even vegetables have protein. The key is to get GOOD protein. When I say “good”, I mean getting it from healthy, nourishing food. Yes, a bacon cheeseburger is packed with protein. But it’s also packed with salt, not-so-good fats and probably a ton of sugar in that bun and condiments.
All that to say, bacon cheeseburgers are delicious. As a very occasional treat.
But your day-to-day protein should be coming from healthier foods, and should be spread out during the day for optimal absorption. So a really good tip is to try to have a source of protein with every meal and snack. Sources of protein include:
Legumes like chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils
Low fat dairy like cottage cheese or yogurt (choose Skyr or Greek yogurt to level up on your protein intake)
Fish and seafood (protein-omega 3 double whammy!)
Eggs and lean meats
Tofu and other soy-based products (so long as they aren’t packed with salt and added sugar or fats)
Iron helps your body make hemoglobin, which helps your red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body. So… yeah, iron’s pretty important for things like all of your organs functioning properly and… staying alive. You need iron.
It’s also important for healthy looking hair! Long story short, all that oxygen efficiently running through your body helps all the parts of your body function at their best, including your hair follicles and hair bulbs. And iron is a big player in that.
Sources of iron:
Red meat, ideally lean and in moderation
Shellfish, especially oysters and mussels
Tofu and other soy-based products
Nuts, beans and lentils
Dark leafy greens like spinach, swiss chard and kale
Fortified cereals, pastas and breads (just check for added salt and sugar)
Vitamin D plays a key role in the functioning of your hair follicles and can be tricky to get, especially if you live in a place with long winters. Places like, oh, I don’t know… Canada!
Sun helps our bodies produce this key vitamin, but you can also get it from foods like:
Fatty fish, especially wild salmon or mackerel (packed full of protein and omega 3 too!)
Oysters and shrimp
Fortified milk (if you’re on a vegan diet, note that many vegan milks are not required to be fortified like cow’s milk, so check those nutrition labels)
Now, unless you’re eating 3 to 4 full servings of these foods every single day, there’s a good chance your body is low in vitamin D, so it’s a good idea to get your levels checked and consider taking a supplement.
One important thing to note is that, contrary to popular belief, so far no studies have found a link between sunscreen use and a decrease in vitamin D. It seems that while sunscreen protects us from harmful, cancer causing UV rays, it does not inhibit our vitamin D producing abilities. So don’t forgo the sunscreen!
VITAMIN C & MORE!
For your body to be healthy and, therefore, able to grow healthy looking hair, you need a range of vitamins and nutrients. If you aim to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, you’ll get those. So do that. But I’m going to focus on vitamin C here because of its role in iron absorption - vitamin C helps your body absorb iron! This is especially important if you’re on a vegan or vegetarian diet as plant-based iron sources (of which there are plenty!) are more difficult for your body to absorb.
Eating foods rich in vitamin C at the same time as you eat iron-rich plant foods will give you optimal iron absorption for optimal health. So, a spinach salad with chicken, topped with mandarin oranges with a lemon juice dressing is a great choice, as are bean fajitas with red peppers, or a black bean burger with grilled pineapple (great alternative to that bacon cheeseburger!).
Luckily, vitamin C is really easy to get from foods like:
Oranges and other citrus fruits
Berries, especially strawberries and blackcurrants
Tomatoes and tomato sauce
Peppers like bell peppers, chilli peppers, etc.
You guys, even potatoes have vitamin C. It’s such an important nutrient and so easy to get from food. Don’t skip it!
Ultimately, our hair is largely determined by genetics. So yes, I jokingly call this the Rapunzel Diet, but the truth is, you won’t get Rapunzel-style locks from any amount of salmon or bell peppers. What you will get is the best possible version of your hair. And, when your hair grows in strong and healthy looking, that’s a big time indicator that your body is strong and healthy on the inside, too. Focusing on the nutrients above is a great start. But remember that these are part of a larger picture. Your body also needs good levels of B vitamins, biotin, zinc and more. Not just for great hair, but for a healthy body that you feel good in.
If you aren’t sure how to make that happen, or you’re struggling with creating new habits that work for your lifestyle, contact a dietitian. It’s what we live for :-)