The first meatball I ate after being a vegetarian for 10 years was probably the best thing I've ever tasted. Nobody makes a meatball like my mother, and I remember thinking that its delicious flavor made going back to meat completely worth it. But if I had known that my carnivorous ways would eventually give me the best hair of my life, I would have been chowing down on burgers a long time ago.
I originally stopping eating meat when I was 13 because I had a crush on a boy, who had sworn off meat. A short time after, I ceremoniously told my parents that I was a vegetarian now, and there was nothing they could do about it. So there. Thinking it would fade as quickly as the crush would, my mother relented. She sent me to a nutritionist just to be safe, but considered this one of my preteen phases.
A decade later, that passing phase had turned into a full-blown lifestyle. Meat wasn't even really on my radar anymore — it was just a food that I didn't like, like brussels sprouts or anchovies. But this past August, after a pretty nasty bout of pneumonia, I took a hard look at my diet. Truth be told, I wasn't taking very good care of myself. I was anemic from not incorporating enough iron into my diet, I wasn't taking many vitamins, and I was just all-around run-down. And while I ate fish, I was a very carb-heavy vegetarian. Turns out that I wasn't alone. "That's frequent with vegetarians," Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips, expert trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Clinic, says. "It's not a criticism; it's just very hard work being a vegetarian."
After that first meatball, I began incorporating meat into my diet more and more (I've since developed quite a taste for a good burger cooked medium-rare). Soon I noticed that my workouts were easier, I was sleeping better, and I had to eat less to be full. But about three months after my first bite of meat in a decade, I noticed that my hair felt weighed-down and greasy. I typically use a mix of leave-in conditioner and hair oil to give my hair some hydration and bounce. But using my normal amounts suddenly felt like too much. So I pulled back on how much I put into my hair until soon I was using just a pea-sized amount of each. Basically, my hair was gaining the qualities I had been trying to "fake" into it, so I needed less to make it look good.
I also started to realize my hair felt a lot stronger and looked a lot shinier. Instead of seeing a fair amount of hair in my brush after a few strokes, there were just a couple wayward strands. When I used my dryer and straightener on my strands, there were fewer hairs in the sink. Could this have something to do with me eating meat again? Was I headed into serious Kate Middleton territory with just the inclusion of a good steak salad here and there?
At my graduation with seriously lackluster hair in 2012 (right) and then again this past November with some high shine (left).
So I turned to the expert for some explanation. Phillips says that the two are absolutely related. "From the perspective of hair, one of the things that we ask is if there is a presence of protein. Just being a vegetarian isn't enough, meaning that we're not getting enough of what we need." Phillips explains that our bodies work in a type of hierarchy. When presented with nutrients, like protein and iron, our bodies divvy them up depending on what is most important. "Obviously cardio tissue, lung tissue, and endocrine systems need zinc, iron, and B12 the most. We need to replace those supplies," she explains. "But hair is last on the list. It's always going to get the leftovers, and the goal is: are there leftovers?"
For me, there were no leftovers. I was more than guilty of coming home each night and whipping up a bowl of pasta for myself because it was easy. And since I wasn't getting these nutrients during the day, my body was starved for them, which meant my hair suffered. "If there are areas where you're carbohydrate-heavy and there isn't enough emphasis on ensuring that there's enough sources of protein, you end up with hair where the quality is marginalized, which means you could be shedding a bit more," Phillips notes.
So is the answer to just give up the beast and say goodbye to vegetarianism forever? Of course not. My decision to start embracing steak frites doesn't mean I'm a healthier person than a vegetarian or that a vegetarian can't have nice hair. "The message for anyone who isn't going to alter may just be a wake up call to examine how, within their day, they can make healthier choices," Phillips says. This means that vegetarians need to be sure that they're getting enough zinc, iron, protein, and B12 from other sources, like beans, legumes, and eggs.
And just because you've started eating meat again doesn't mean you're doing it right. "A clean piece of red meat once or twice a week is a great source of iron," Phillips says. "The other thing to think about is getting protein at breakfast and at lunch. So make sure there is fish or chicken or something in your salad, or choose an egg-white omelet in the morning." Eating protein-rich foods in the morning sends a signal to your body that there are enough nutrients for everyone. Phillips also stresses that the change won't happen over night. For me, I noticed a difference in about three months, which she says is about the right timeline.
As a beauty editor, good hair is always going to be an important part of my life, but there might have been just a little too much foodie in me to go another day without my mother's meatballs (and I can't say I'm not enjoying a little extra pep in my step). And if that means I can have hair that looks and feels better too, I'll take that as a bonus.