Shortly before the holidays, something inside of me snapped. I can't pinpoint the exact moment when it happened, but one day, I decided to start getting very serious about fitness. For almost a year prior, I'd work out maybe a couple of times a month (if that), but given the choice between becoming one with the couch or running on a treadmill, I'd almost always choose the former, and what's worse is that I'd eat like a complete garbage human while in my horizontal state: I was drinking almost nightly, eating way too many processed foods and sugar, and weighed the most I ever had in my life. The tipping point was probably when, after meeting with a personal trainer for a story, he told me, verbatim, "Your body fat percentage is pretty high, young lady." Not only did I feel like I was being scolded, but I was actually deserving of it. I immediately started researching the best fat-loss exercises (cardio, resistance training, and HIIT) and meal plans for toning my body, which included eating a protein with every meal, lots of veggies, and whole grains. I started finally losing weight and am currently in the best shape of my life. But aside from the physique aspect, one surprising side effect of this new lifestyle was that I noticed my brows and hair were growing insanely fast.
You might remember my lob saga: I cut my hair shoulder-length and immediately missed the length, so I started wearing extensions daily. But after the significant uptick in protein in my diet, my hair started gaining inches before my eyes, and I no longer needed to wear someone else's hair. One day, I walked into a meeting with my hair flat-ironed, no extensions in, and senior editor Hallie Gould asked me, "Is your hair actually that long? What the fuck?" It was hysterical, but in reality, I was just as shocked as she was. See the transformation below.
On average, hair grows about 0.50 inches in one month—it's been about seven months since I cut my hair, and I've definitely gained more than 3.5 inches. I even found myself not having to fill in my brows as much, whereas before, I was spending five or so minutes trying to disguise patchiness. Curious to know more about how my diet was affecting my hair, I turned to science.
"Hair grows from the hair bulb (root), where the cells group together to form a keratin known as hair protein," says Marina Perkovic, master stylist and scalp treatment expert at Alessandro Mangerini. "The hair bulb/follicle is surrounded by and feeds off of tiny blood vessels while it grows—hence any lack of nutrients or hormonal imbalance will affect our hair growth and health." Therefore, by eating protein (which is what your hair—and skin and nails— is composed largely of), you're helping your strands grow longer and stronger.
Additionally, my pizza- and beer-heavy diet was clearly an incriminating source of my sparse brows and stagnant hair growth—according to a report in the Dermatology Practical & Conceptual, the absence of iron, zinc, niacin, fatty acids, selenium, folic acid, antioxidants, biotin, protein, and vitamins A, D, and E can lead to poor hair health and hair loss. Being particularly low in one or a few may pinpoint why your hair isn't reaching its full potential.
Lately, my main sources of protein have been shakes made of unsweetened almond milk and Olly protein powder, eggs, avocados, chicken, and natural peanut or almond butter. If you're a vegetarian or vegan and want to get more protein into your diet (or you just want a quick fix), try some of the below products.
Protein powder isn't for everyone, so if you'd rather have a more refreshing drink, Fizzique is about to be your new "summer water." There are a whopping 20 grams of protein in one can, 80 calories, no sugar, no colors, and no artificial flavors or preservatives.
I'm completely obsessed with these powders. They come in delicious flavors like chocolate, salted caramel chocolate, sweet vanilla maple, and super berry (a superfood blend of veggies and fruits). They don't have a chalky taste like most protein powders, they're plant-based, and they're low in sugar. I love mixing them with almond milk and adding blueberries, chia seeds, a tablespoon of almond butter, and spinach when I want to make it more of a meal replacement. Olly also recently came out with protein bars (so delicious that you wouldn't know you're essentially eating a protein bar) that team Byrdie's grown to love.
While Muscle Milk has long carried the stigma of heavy, body-building fuel, it's since been rebranded as a more accessible way to consume protein for all body types and genders. This non-dairy coffee offering is the perfect filling breakfast meal replacement (or post–morning workout snack to build your muscle fibers). It's also got—wait for it—zero grams of sugar. Score.
Blue magik, a live, nutrient-dense aqua botanical that's packed with antioxidants, is combined here with protein-rich soaked cashews (11 grams of protein, to be exact) for a creamy (and colorful) boost. It's lightly sweetened with maca and vanilla with just a touch of spice from cinnamon and nutmeg.
Another one of my favorite powders is this gluten-free, plant-based offering from fan-favorite brand Vega One. It blends seamlessly into smoothies and shakes, adding just the right amount of sweetness and flavor (it's all-natural, no sugar added).
One thing to keep in mind with protein, though: While protein breaks down slower than carbs and keeps you feeling fuller for a longer period of time, one study found that participants who ate more than 20% protein in their everyday diet were more likely to gain more than 10% of their body weight compared to people whose diets contained less than 15% protein. Plus, if your protein intake consists largely of fatty meats, cheeses, and sugary drinks, you're obviously on a path to weight gain more so than eating low-sugar, lean, or plant-based protein.