Risks of a plant-based diet: ditching meat can lead to hair loss

With going plant-based all the rage, and supported by a host of nutritionists, there’s one big reason men in particular should think long and hard about making the switch: their hair. Plant-based, vegan and vegetarian diets can be low in iron, which is important for strong and healthy hair growth, and a lack of it can make your hair start to fall out.

In our diets, we mostly get iron from meat sources: red meat, pork, seafood and poultry are all high in iron. Taking that out of our diet without replacing it with another high-iron source can lead to anaemia (low iron).

Iron is necessary for producing haemoglobin in the blood – the component that carries oxygen for growth and repair to your body cells. When you’re anaemic your body can develop (among other things) telogen effluvium, a condition where your hair stops growing and falls out, causing hair thinning and baldness. Unfortunately your hair is often one of the first things affected in iron deficiency.

So what do you do? You want to eat healthier and there’s no doubting the benefits of a plant-based diet, but you’re attached to your locks. The solution is to make sure you get enough iron in your diet from other sources, such as spinach, beans and chickpeas, lentils, nuts and dried fruit, as well as some wholegrains.

Unfortunately, iron from non-meat sources isn’t as easily absorbed as iron from meat. Iron in meat (haem iron) has a protective feature called a porphyrin ring, which tends to block other substances in your gut from interfering with its absorption.Plant iron (non-haem iron) doesn’t have this porphyrin ring and is more prone to interference from other foods in the diet, such as dairy, eggs, tea and soy.

When getting iron just from plants, try not to have it with eggs, tea and soy products, and aim to have a bit more than you would need. To improve your iron absorption, pair iron-rich foods with a food high in vitamin C, including citrus fruits, broccoli, leafy greens, chilli and capsicums, strawberries and tomatoes.

Nutrition Australia recommends that men get 8mg of iron each day — and for women over 50, 8mg is fine, but if you’re younger you should amp this up to 18mg per day.

Here’s some high-iron sources to help you meet your intake:

  • 100g spinach = 2.7mg iron
  • 100g chickpeas = 6.2mg iron
  • 100g tofu = 3mg iron
  • 100g kidney beans = 8.2mg iron
  • 100g lentils = 3.3mg iron
  • 100g cashews = 6.7mg iron
  • 100g almonds = 3.7mg iron
  • 1 cup cooked wholemeal pasta = 2.3mg iron