This is not a news flash: Most likely you’ve already heard that what you put inside can affect the outside. Eat junk and it’s likely your skin, hair, or nails will reflect it. But if you put the right stuff in — and it’s actually pretty simple and straightforward what to consume, what to skip — then lush, shampoo commercial-worthy hair can be yours.
Meet the Experts
Jennifer McCowan is Luna Nectar's Official Trichologist Partner.
Wesley McWhorter, DrPH, RD, is the director of lifestyle medicine at Suvida Healthcare and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Sheila Farhang, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon, and member of Function of Beauty’s Expert Council.
Edibel Quintero, R.D., is a registered dietitian and medical content author.
How Hair Should Look
If we relied solely on a healthy diet — not shine sprays, volumizers, or deep conditioning masks — then what would hair look like? “When your body is eating right for its type, your hair should be shiny and voluminous,” says Jennifer McCowan, Luna Nectar’s Official Trichologist Partner. “Even if it’s thin, it will have some ‘life’ to it.” She adds that curls form better because “bonds within the hair shaft are stronger and the lipid barrier is healthier.”
When there’s a health issue “and things are out of balance, it can show up as hair that won’t grow or grows slowly, and is brittle and dry,” McCowan explains, adding that the scalp might be “tight and itchy” or overproduce oil. “Hair will begin to thin in cases of mineral deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and poor diet.” Adds board-certified dermatologist Sheila Farhang, M.D., “An unhealthy scalp is red, inflamed, and flaky — these are not good conditions for healthy hair.” We know that scalp health is key to healthy looking hair, but how do we ensure both are at their prime — does a green juice or a bag of Doritos actually matter?
What to Eat
As Edibel Quintero, R.D., a registered dietitian and medical content author, puts it: “What you eat has a direct impact on the health of your hair.” The first thing she recommends is protein: “It’s like a building block for your entire body, including your hair, so it can grow faster and healthier.” And not just protein, but from a variety of sources because there are different vitamins and minerals in each type of protein. “One day might be eggs, wild salmon and cottage cheese and the next day, it might be chicken, lentils and tuna.” Vegetarians and vegans need to be conscientious of getting complete proteins — ones that supply the body with all nine essential amino acids. Options for these include buckwheat, hemp, chia seeds, quinoa, and soy beans like edamame, tofu, and tempeh.
Biotin, a B vitamin, is another key to healthy hair because it “helps nourish hair follicles and prevents hair loss and breakage.” Get it from eggs, meat, sunflower seeds, and salmon. Dr. Farhang says that the other B vitamins are key to good hair health as well. Get them from meat, poultry, fish, whole grains, avocados, citrus fruits, liver and legumes. Spinach is a super-hair superfood thanks to its vitamins A and C and iron content, says Quintero. “These nutrients stimulate blood circulation in the scalp and prevent hair loss.” Zinc is another must, she says. “It ensures good circulation of nutrients in the scalp, participates in the processes of hair growth and development and protects them from the negative effects of free radicals.” Best sources of zinc include oysters, lamb, pumpkin seeds, cheese, almonds, and oats.
What to Avoid
So what should we not be eating and drinking? For starters, excessive alcohol. “There isn’t a direct correlation between alcohol and healthy hair,’” says Wesley McWhorter, DrPH, RD, the director of lifestyle medicine at Suvida Healthcare. “It’s usually the overconsumption of alcohol that leads to poor eating habits and loss of nutrients, loss of absorption, so then you’ll see problems with hair.”
Also, you know all those yummy foods that leave grease stains on a napkin? They can also reflect negatively on your head: “Oil-rich foods create excessive buildup on the scalp,” says McCowan. “This can block the pores and prevent healthy hair growth.” But healthy fats from flax oil, oily fish, and walnuts are a definite yes for shiny strands.
Another no-no for healthy tresses? Ultra-processed foods, says McWhorter. “Ones that are grain-based with all the fiber removed and sugars added in. They are inflammation-promoting and therefore cause problems for our bodies to do what it needs to do — to regrow, to heal.” Ultra-processed foods can also wreak havoc on the gut: “These foods don’t have fiber, which feeds the gut microbiota, and we know there’s a connection between overall health and the gut. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say there would be a problem with hair growth” when the gut is out of whack, says McWhorter. “You also don’t get all the vitamins and nutrients you need if you don’t have a healthy gut and you aren’t going to be able to grow your hair like you want to.”
But you could just pop a supplement, surely? Nope, says McWhorter. “You can’t make up for it with a vitamin.” That’s right — there is still no independent scientific literature proving that collagen supplements will lead to beautiful hair. (Any studies claiming so are paid for by collagen supplement producers.) That’s just not the way the body works — it creates its own collagen; it won’t consume it and use it. A nutrient-dense, balanced diet with plenty of fresh water is what will. Got that? Drink water. “It’s a magical drink,” says Quintero. Adds McWhorter: “You need water to help reduce inflammation, help regrow muscle — you need it for everything in your body. It’s very important to have enough water on a daily basis.”
Healthy Hair Results
You’re ready to dedicate yourself to healthier living for both your insides and your outsides. How long until you can expect to see improvements in your strands? “When you begin on a new approach to healthy eating, you should be able to see signs of new growth within three months,” says McCowan. “And a healthier hair shaft within about four to six months, plus a healthier scalp within weeks in some cases.” Start now and you’ll be mimicking nature, sprouting new life for spring. As McCowan says: “You are what you eat, so be good to yourself, your scalp, and your strands.”