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What is the best kept secret to healthy hair? Experts agree, it is not that exotic European potion nor that exclusive high-priced salon conditioner. Protein and iron and a few other nutrients in your diet is all it takes.

"To a doctor," says Amy McMichael, MD, "healthy hair is hair that's growing appropriately out of every follicle, not easily broken, and connected to a healthy scalp. To a patient, it's hair that's as long and full as you'd like it to be. It's bouncy, shiny, and manageable." McMichael is the director of the Hair Disorder Clinic at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, N.C..

A strand of hair is composed of mostly , which means your hair needs protein to grow. "Some people mistakenly take extra calcium," says dermatologist Paradi Mirmirani, MD, of the Permanente Medical Group in Vallejo, Calif., and a member of the North American Hair Research Society. "But hair and nails are both protein fibers."

About 90% of your hair is in the growing phase, that means,each individual hair,has agrowing phase that lasts 2 to 3 years. At the end of that time, hairs enter a resting phase that lasts about 3 months before they are shed and replaced by anew hair. If you do notget enough protein in your diet, alarge number of hairs may go into the resting phase. Bummer.

Nutrients, protein isn't the only nutrient needed to maintain healthy hair. Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, tells WebMD that you also need iron, vitamin E, and trace minerals, such as selenium, copper, and magnesium to help keep your hair in good shape. "These are all involved in the production of the various proteins that make up your hair."

Iron may be themost difficultof nutrients to get in effective amounts, especially for women and vegetarians. Not getting enough iron, like not getting enough protein, can cause hair loss.

The best source of iron in your diet is meat," Gerbstadt says. At the top of the source list for iron are clams, oysters, and organ meat. "But there are problems with eating a lot of organ meat." "Lean meat is agood source."

Good vegetarian sources of ironare fortified cereals, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, white beans, lentils, and spinach. The problem with iron from non-animal sources is that the body absorbs iron less efficiently from plants. "It's possible to eat a vegetarian diet paying attention to iron and still not get enough," Gerbstadt says.

, another important nutrient is Vitamin D. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, and cereals.

Any vitamin deficiency will cause hair loss

Mirmiranisays she is often asked about adding zinc or biotin supplements to a diet. "It's very hard in an American diet for those things to become deficient. And there hasn't been any good evidence that taking zinc or biotin supplements actually offers any benefits for hair."

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