Like everything else regarding the human body, hair growth and health are strongly tied to a person’s diet. While vegetarian diets have been linked with improved overall health and lower risk factors for a variety of chronic diseases, they do present unique challenges in the realm of hair health.
Because some nutrients are harder to obtain and absorb from plant sources than from meat and seafood, it can be easy to under-consume certain vitamins or minerals if you’re not paying attention. That said, there is plenty of great vegetarian food for hair growth, and coming up with a diet plan you’ll stick to can help you maximize your meals and snacks.
The first step in optimizing your vegetarian diet for hair growth is understanding some of the key macronutrients (fat and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that support and bolster hair health, and knowing the foods in which they’re found.
Key Minerals for Hair Growth
Iron and zinc are among the most important minerals for supporting hair growth and health. Iron deficiency has been linked to hair loss in women. Zinc plays a major role in metabolism and protein transformation for the building of healthy hair follicles, and being deficient can be a factor in hair loss and lack of adequate growth. Both iron and zinc are most abundant in — and easily absorbed from — meat sources (red meat, seafood, poultry), so vegetarians can be susceptible to deficiencies.
Vegetarian foods high in iron include: spinach, soybeans and soy products (like tofu and tempeh), and other legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas, and black, lima, and kidney beans), and potatoes. Iron from plant sources is exclusively non-heme iron, which is harder for humans to absorb than meat-based heme iron. As a result, it’s not enough just to eat iron-packed foods, if you’re not eating them in conjunction with foods that aid in iron absorption (more on that in a moment).
Zinc is found in beans and legumes, as well as oats, cacao, and nuts and seeds (cashews, pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts, and chia seeds, just to name a few).
Key Vitamins for Hair Growth
Vitamins A, C, D, and E, along with B group vitamins, are all critical for hair growth. Research shows that a Vitamin A deficiency can lead to “sparse and fragile hair”. Many vitamins in the B group (especially B12, biotin, niacin, and folate) are important to blood flow, healing, regeneration, and are therefore crucial for hair health and growth. Vitamin C is an antioxidant powerhouse vital to the construction of the hair shaft and — among numerous other functions — aids in the absorption of non-heme iron. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, and low levels of it have been linked to hair loss and slowing of hair growth.
Although B vitamins are most readily available in meat and seafood products, there are a number of great vegetarian sources, too. Eggs and cheeses have plenty of both biotin (B7) and vitamin B12. Almonds and spinach also rank high in biotin, whereas milk and yogurt are excellent sources of B12 (and many non-dairy milk alternatives like soy and nut milks will often be fortified with B12, as well).
Citrus may be synonymous with Vitamin C, but strawberries, mangos, kiwi, and papaya have even higher concentrations. Vegetable sources of Vitamin C include kale, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.
Vitamin A-rich foods include sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, cantaloupe and bell peppers.
Our bodies produce vitamin D as a result of skin’s exposure to the sun. However, months with less daylight, and jobs that keep us indoors for much of the day can hinder that natural production. Vegetarian sources of vitamin D include egg yolks, shiitake mushrooms, milk, oatmeal and fortified breakfast cereals.
Key Macronutrients for Hair Growth
Hair is largely protein (keratin, to be exact). So it should be no surprise that getting sufficient dietary protein, which can then be synthesized by the body into keratin, is crucial to healthy, strong hair. Fat, especially in the form of Omega-3 fatty acids, also plays a role in hair growth. A lack of Omega-3 fatty acids can lead to hair loss.
Tofu, tempeh, soybeans (and most other beans), nuts, seeds, and quinoa are just a few excellent sources of protein for vegetarians, with the protein in soy products containing all the essential amino acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, canola oil, wild rice, eggs, and walnuts. Some dairy products are also additionally fortified with omega-3s.
How to Plan a Diet and Stick to It
Variety is king: Make sure that you include a variety of nutrient-dense plant-based foods in your vegetarian diet plan. A diverse diet not only ensures you get more nutrients, it also keeps mealtime from getting boring. Things like legumes (beans), nuts and seeds, leafy greens, and plenty of fruit, along with eggs and low-fat dairy like yogurt should be on your weekly meal plan.
Plan your meals and make a list. Sticking to your vegetarian diet for hair growth will be easier if you plan meals and shop for ingredients ahead of time. This will keep you from feeling overwhelmed and potentially missing out on key nutrients. Here is a quick checklist of some vegetarian foods that promote hair growth, which you may want to add to your shopping list and learn how to incorporate into your diet:
- Nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews)
- Seeds (flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds)
- Sweet potatoes
- Soybeans (aka: edamame), tofu, or tempeh
- Wild rice
No nutrient is an island. It’s not just about getting the right individual nutrients, it’s also about getting them in the right combinations. For instance, incorporating strawberries in a spinach salad helps improve iron absorption, thanks to the assist from the vitamin C. Similarly, a breakfast of oatmeal or yogurt with fruit, will give you multiple vitamins that promote hair growth in one meal.
Photo source: Stacy Spensley