There's a lot that goes into luscious locks: Good hygiene, regular cuts and non-damaging products. But did you know that the food you eat can also contribute to strong strands? And one macronutrient that may be particularly helpful is protein for hair growth and health.
Most of your hair is made up of protein (with a little bit of fat and a few other components), specifically a protein called keratin. And the protein you get in your diet can help your hair grow and stay healthy, says Shani Francis, MD, MBA, medical director and chief wellness director of Ashira Dermatology.
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Here's everything you need to know about protein for hair growth, including the relationship between protein and hair loss, the best protein-rich foods for healthy hair and whether protein shakes and powders are good for hair growth.
Protein restriction can certainly lead to hair loss, Dr. Francis says. But other factors can contribute to thinning hair, per the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). So before loading up on protein, you may need to rule out (with the help of a doctor) high levels of vitamin A, low levels of iron, thyroid disease, infection, stress or malnutrition from an eating disorder.
Does Protein Help Hair Growth?
In order to grow, your hair needs the building blocks of protein, called amino acids. Your body can produce 11 of the 20 amino acids, but that means you have to get the remaining nine — called essential amino acids — from food. That's why eating enough protein does make your hair grow, in addition to supporting overall hair health, Dr. Francis says.
On the flip side, does a lack of protein cause hair loss?
According to a January 2017 report in Dermatology Practical & Conceptual, if your diet is low in complete proteins, which contain all nine essential amino acids, you may experience hair loss. So in other words, yes, low protein can cause hair loss.
What's more, biotin, a B vitamin found in protein you eat, helps metabolize amino acids and can support strong, healthy hair, Dr. Francis says (although you probably don't need biotin supplements unless you're deficient in it, according to March 2019 research in Dermatology and Therapy).
One of your body's priorities when it comes to using protein, Dr. Francis says, is to support healthy muscle tissue. That's why protein deficiency can lead to hair loss: If your body isn't getting enough of the nutrient to maintain basic muscle function, your hair will suffer first, she says. "The body is using everything it can to keep what's most important [going]," she says.
Keep in mind that some hair loss is normal — most people lose between 50 and 100 hairs per day, according to the AAD.
How Much Protein Do You Need for Healthy Hair?
Protein deficiency is incredibly rare in the U.S., even among those who follow vegetarian and vegan diets, according the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Still, it's important to make sure you're getting enough of the nutrient. Here's how much protein is needed for hair growth and overall health, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for adults:
- People assigned female at birth: 46 g
- People assigned male at birth: 56 g
After about two to three months of not getting enough protein, a person may start to notice hair loss, according to the AAD.
Eating protein does help with hair loss, Dr. Francis says. So if you consistently have a hard time getting enough of the nutrient and are experiencing thinning hair as a result, work with your doctor or registered dietitian to create an eating plan that includes plenty of high-protein foods.
Protein-Rich Foods for Healthy Hair
The best way to harness protein for hair growth is to eat plenty of the nutrient through natural food sources, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Nutritious sources of protein include:
- Lean poultry like chicken
- Dairy products like low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese
- Nuts and nut butters
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Whole grains like whole-wheat pasta and quinoa
- Soy products like tofu and tempeh
Together they'll provide the complete proteins your body needs to perform normal functions, including hair growth. Friendly reminder: A serving size of animal protein isn't very large — about three ounces, or the size of a deck of cards, in most cases.
Animal products — including chicken, fish and bone broth — also contain large amounts of another type of protein naturally made in our bodies called collagen, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The amino acids that make up collagen, once ingested, can re-combine to create keratin, per October 2014 research in PeerJ, thereby supporting strong hair.
Dr. Francis says that even those following a protein-restrictive eating plan, like a vegan diet, can still meet their protein requirements from plant-based protein. That said, she does recommend people who follow a vegan diet work with a dietitian to make sure their nutritional needs are met.
Protein Shakes for Hair Growth
Although she recommends getting your nutrients from whole foods whenever possible, Dr. Francis says what's most important is getting enough protein, period. "Some people choose protein bars or shakes, and if it's easier for them to get protein that way, I don't discriminate."
If shakes are your preferred form of protein, you can still pick or make ones with natural sources of the nutrient. Here are some recipes to get you started:
- Herbed Avocado Shake (19 g protein)
- Raspberry-Covered Peanut Butter Shake (16 g protein)
- Vegan Chocolate Nut Shake with Sea Salt (11 g protein)
How Can You Add Protein to Your Hair?
While there are some supposed strategies for how to add protein to your hair topically, the best way to use the nutrient to support healthy strands is from the inside out, per Kaiser Permanente. Get enough protein — which you can remedy with a natural protein drink or by eating protein-rich foods — to help sustain your overall wellbeing.
Protein Powder for Hair Growth
While it's generally best to get your protein through food, some people may benefit from supplementing their diet with protein powder, per the Cleveland Clinic, including those who:
- Are trying to build muscle
- Are recovering from injury or surgery
- Need to put on weight
- Need extra nutrition due to underlying illness
Similarly, if you're chronically low on protein, adding a protein powder to your meals can help you get enough of the nutrient if food alone isn't cutting it, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This may help reverse symptoms of a deficiency, like hair thinning or loss.
However, that doesn't mean it's a magical hair growth powder: It's unclear if protein supplementation helps your hair grow if you don't have a deficiency in the nutrient, per the Dermatology Practical & Conceptual research.
Still, Dr. Francis says the most important thing is to get enough protein. One popular supplement is whey protein, which is a type of protein found in milk, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It typically comes in the form of powder that you can add to drinks, oatmeal, yogurt and your other favorite dishes.
It's generally safe to eat. However, the following groups should avoid it, per the Mayo Clinic:
- People with a milk allergy
- People with lactose intolerance or dairy sensitivity
- People taking certain medications, including antibiotics, certain osteoporosis drugs and certain parasite-killing drugs
Here are some protein powder shake recipes to help you pack in the macro:
- Green Protein Smoothie (36 g protein)
- Blueberry Protein Power Smoothie (32 g protein)
- Pumpkin Protein Smoothie (18 g protein)
Does Whey Protein Cause Hair Loss?
Perhaps you've heard that whey protein induces hair loss or has side effects on hair. But there's no evidence to show you can experience hair loss due to protein powder.
While protein powder doesn't cause hair loss, whey protein may have some side effects that aren't hair loss, per the Mayo Clinic, such as digestive upset. In general, though, it's considered safe to eat for those who don't fall into the aforementioned risk groups.
- Dermatology Practical Conceptual: "Diet and Hair Loss: Effects of Nutrient Deficiency and Supplement Use"
- Dermatology and Therapy: "The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Hair Loss: A Review"
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Hair Loss"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Dietary Proteins"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Whey Protein Good for You?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "The Best Way You Can Get More Collagen"
- PeerJ: "The structure of people’s hair"
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Do You Have Hair Loss or Shedding?"
- Kaiser Permanente: "Hair Loss Caused by Lack of Protein"
- Mayo Clinic: "Whey Protein"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.