Many people turn to dieting to reach or maintain a healthy weight. While some people choose modern diet plans like intermittent fasting, low-carb diets have been a staple in the weight loss industry for decades. The Atkins diet grew in popularity in the 90s and early 2000s. More recently, people are turning to carb-limiting ketogenic diets to manage their weight.
Low-carb diets can help people reach a healthy weight, and there is evidence to suggest they can have a positive effect on other conditions like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease [1-3]. But low-carb diets may also impact your hair health.
In this article, you’ll learn:
Substantial dietary changes can trigger telogen effluvium — a kind of shock hair loss that occurs after a stressful or traumatic experience.
Telogen effluvium is a well-known side effect of rapid weight loss and low protein intake [4-5]. When your protein levels are too low, your body prioritises other critical bodily functions over hair growth, causing your follicles to remain in the telogen phase of the hair growth cycle:
Without the right nutrients and vitamins for hair growth, follicles stop growing and move quickly to the catagen and telogen phases of hair growth. In these phases, hair follicles shrink, and growth stops. Follicles won’t return to the anagen stage of the hair growth cycle until your energy stores reach healthy levels again. Learn more in this hair transplant growth chart.
But while research shows that protein has a significant role in hair growth, a link has yet to be established between carbohydrates and this kind of shock hair loss. But some evidence suggests that high sugar consumption has a more long-term impact on your hair health.
So what’s the link between simple carbs and hair loss — and can eating fewer carbs affect your hair?
Sugar — perhaps the most widely consumed simple carbohydrate — has been linked with androgenetic alopecia [4-5]. This type of hair loss — also known as male pattern baldness or female pattern hair loss — is mainly caused by genetics and a hormone known as dihydrotestosterone (DHT). But a high sugar intake leads to insulin release. This stimulates the body to produce testosterone, allowing more of it to be converted to DHT .
A diet high in sugar can also lead to insulin resistance. Sustained insulin release can cause you to develop type 2 diabetes and hypoxia — both of which can make pattern balding worse . One study found that type 2 diabetes was a key risk factor for hair shedding in African American women — suggesting that high intake of sugar and other simple carbs can put you at greater risk of hair loss . If you eat a high-sugar diet, switching to sweeteners like sucralose, stevia, or aspartame may reduce the risk of hair loss. Learn more about diabetes and hair loss.
Eating too much sugar also stimulates scalp sebum production. While some sebum is healthy, it can lead to skin inflammation that ultimately causes hair loss . So reducing sugar intake may improve your hair health. But is adopting a low-carb diet the best way to reduce hair loss?
Although a high-sugar diet can put you at risk of longer term hair loss conditions, there’s no real link between telogen effluvium and carbohydrates specifically. Instead, it’s the nature of a calorie-restricted diet that endangers hair growth.
Because fast weight loss often leads to sudden hair loss, any kind of diet that involves significant calorie restriction is a risk factor for telogen effluvium. That’s why eating disorders like anorexia nervosa cause hair loss. Any kind of diet — including keto and low-carb diets — can lead to temporary hair loss if they’re not undertaken in a slow, controlled way.
Because of this, cutting out or drastically reducing large food groups like carbs from your diet isn’t a recommended way to promote hair growth. While simple carbohydrates like sugar are bad for your hair (and your general health), complex carbohydrates can be good for hair growth . As well as providing energy for your follicles, the components that make up complex carbohydrates — such as dietary fibre and wholegrains — can minimise the risks of type 2 diabetes, theoretically reducing your chances of developing hair loss .
Speaking to the Telegraph, our principal surgeon, Dr Michael May, says, “A vast amount of energy is required to keep up with the cell turnover of hair follicles. This energy comes from carbohydrates. A low-carb diet or keto diet can deplete the body of these vital sources of energy and can lead to increased hair shedding.”
Yes — low-carb diets can cause sudden hair loss. But this isn’t due to the nature of carbohydrates. Instead, it’s down to not eating enough calories and/or protein.
Weight loss without hair loss is achievable on a low-carb diet — you just need to ensure you’re getting enough calories on a daily basis, and eating protein-rich foods. Learn how to prevent hair loss during weight loss.
Reducing your sugar intake while keeping some complex carbohydrates in your diet will help your body get the nutrients and calories it needs while eliminating the more harmful simple carbs that can lead to diabetes. Healthy sources of complex carbs include wholewheat pasta, beans, porridge, potatoes, and wholewheat bread.
Your diet isn’t the only factor that contributes to hair loss. So it’s important to find out exactly what’s causing your hair to shed. Learn more about getting a diagnosis, and which female hair loss treatments and male hair loss treatments are available.
While hair loss from telogen effluvium isn’t always noticeable to others, you may notice more hair loss in the shower or on your pillow. But the good news is that telogen effluvium is generally temporary. When you start to eat enough calories, the hair will regrow.
However, androgenetic alopecia is irreversible. Since high sugar intake can exacerbate this type of hair loss, reducing your sugar levels may stop your condition getting worse. The only way to regain hair from androgenetic alopecia is with a hair transplant.
The Wimpole Clinic specialises in diagnosing and treating all kinds of hair loss. If you’re worried about hair loss caused by your diet, or you need advice about maintaining your hair while trying to lose weight, book a hair loss consultation with our trichology team.
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