"Just like every other part of your body, the cells and processes that support strong, vibrant hair depend on a balanced diet," says New York nutritionist Lisa Drayer, MA, RD, author of The Beauty Diet.
It can take longer to notice changes (both good or bad!) in your hair than in your skin. For example, "just one week with a poor diet can yield acne flare-ups or dry, sallow skin within days," says New York City dermatologist Cybele Fishman, MD, "but with hair, it can take a few months for a nutritional deficiency or the effects of a crash diet to show up."
The nutrients you eat today help fortify the hair follicle -- from which each strand is born -- and the scalp that surrounds it. "Healthier follicles? Healthier hair. Healthier scalp? Healthier hair!" Drayer says.
Of course, there's more to your hair than what you eat. Smoking, hormonal imbalances, and not enough sleep can also affect how your hair looks and feels. No magic nutrient can make up for those concerns.
Still, you have a lot more leverage than you might think. If you eat a balanced, varied, protein-rich diet that focuses on the following 10 foods, you'll be giving your hair the TLC it needs and deserves.
1. SalmonBesides being rich in protein and vitamin D (both are key to strong hair) the omega-3 fatty acids found in this tasty cold-water fish are the true superstar. Your body can't make those fatty acids, which your body needs to grow hair. About 3% of the hair shaft is make up of these fatty acids, Drayer says. Omega-3s are also found in cell membranes in the skin of your scalp, and in the natural oils that keep your scalp and hair hydrated.
Other options: If salmon doesn't thrill you, you can also get essential fatty acids from fish like herring, sardines, trout, and mackerel, as well as avocado, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts (see below for more wonderful things about walnuts.)
2. WalnutsThese are the only type of nut that have a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids. They're also rich in biotin and vitamin E, which helps protect your cells from DNA damage. Since your hair rarely gets much shielding from the sun, this is especially great, Drayer says. Too little biotin can lead to hair loss. Walnuts also have copper, a mineral that helps keep your natural hair color rich and lustrous, Fishman says.
Other options: Try using walnut oil in your salad dressing or stir-fry instead of canola or safflower, Fishman says.
3. OystersOysters are rich in zinc, a lack of which can lead to hair loss (even in your eyelashes), as well as a dry, flaky scalp. Three ounces has a whopping 493% of your daily value. You can get some zinc through fortified cereals and whole grain breads, but oysters can boast a good level of protein too. "Remember, hair is about 97% protein," Drayer says. Without enough protein, your body can't replace the hairs that you naturally shed every day and what you do make can be dry, brittle, or weak.
Other options: Get your fill of zinc with nuts, beef, and eggs.
4. Sweet PotatoesSweet potatoes are a great source of the antioxidant beta carotene, which your body turns into vitamin A. "Basically, every cell of the body cannot function without enough A," Fishman says. It also helps protect and produce the oils that sustain your scalp, and being low on vitamin A can even leave you with itchy, irksome dandruff.
Other options: Carrots, cantaloupe, mangoes, pumpkin, and apricots are all good sources of beta carotene.
5. EggsA great source of protein, eggs are loaded with four key minerals: zinc, selenium, sulfur, and iron. Iron is especially important, because it helps cells carry oxygen to the hair follicles, and too little iron (anemia) is a major cause of hair loss, particularly in women, Drayer says.
Other options: You can also boost your iron stores with animal sources, including chicken, fish, pork, and beef.
6. SpinachThe iron, beta carotene, folate, and vitamin C in spinach help keep hair follicles healthy and scalp oils circulating.
Other options: Try similarly nutrient-rich dark, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and Swiss chard.
7. LentilsTiny but mighty, these legumes are teeming with protein, iron, zinc, and biotin, says Fishman, making it a great staple for vegetarian, vegans, and meat eaters.
Other options: Toss other beans such as soybeans (the young ones are called edamame) and kidney beans into your soup or salad.
8. Greek yogurtCruise the dairy aisle for low-fat options such as Greek yogurt, which is high in hair-friendly protein, vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid -- an ingredient you'll often see on hair care product labels), and vitamin D. Emerging research links vitamin D and hair follicle health, but exactly how that works isn't clear, Fishman says.
Other options: Cottage cheese, low-fat cheese, and skim milk also fit the bill.
9. BlueberriesExotic super fruits may come and go but when it comes to vitamin C, "It's hard to top this nutrient superhero," Drayer says. C is critical for circulation to the scalp and supports the tiny blood vessels that feed the follicles. Too little C in your diet can lead to hair breakage.
Other options: Kiwis, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and strawberries.
10. PoultryThis everyday entree is extraordinary when it comes to protein, as well as hair-healthy zinc, iron, and B vitamins to keep strands strong and plentiful. Because hair is nearly all protein, "foods rich in protein are literally giving you the building blocks for hair," Drayer says.
Other options: Lean cuts of beef are another good source of lean protein.