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Healthier nailsWear Gloves or Learn to Love Your Stubs
by Lori A. Cascone

If you agonize over short, stubby nails that peel, break, and never grow, here's some good news: Getting adequate protein in your diet, as well as lubricating and protecting your nails, are important to promoting healthier nails. The bad news: If you already do these things, you may just have to learn to love your stubs.

Nails are made from the protein keratin. Thus, for nails to strengthen, a protein-rich diet is necessary. But, according to Anne Dubner, a registered dietician, nutrition consultant, and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, most people already get enough protein in their diets.

Thumbs Down for Extra Protein
"You do need enough protein in your diet to maintain integrity of your cells," Dubner says, "but extra protein won't do much [to help strengthen nails]."

People consume an average of 2,000 calories per day, Dubner says. An adequate amount of protein per day is 20 percent of those calories, or 400 calories of protein. Dubner says dividing this number by 4 determines the average grams of protein per day, which, in this case, equals 100.

Typically, people achieve this number because "protein is built into everything," she says. Many foods we eat daily -- such as meat, dairy products, and nuts -- contain protein, Dubner says, so reaching at least 100 grams is no problem for most people.

Dr. Mervyn Elgart, a clinical professor of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine, says ingesting a sufficient amount of protein per day indeed maintains healthy nails, but overindulging in protein-rich foods probably has no impact on growth.

"Good nutrition and a well-balanced diet are keys to nail health."

— Dr. Beth Mestman, chiropractor

"What you eat probably doesn't have a lot to do with [strengthening nails]," Elgart says. But, he adds, a diet lacking in sufficient protein can be the cause of weak, brittle nails. According to Dubner, this is typical of anorexics and others who are malnourished.

"Other than getting an adequate amount of protein in your diet, no specific foods or drinks enhance the appearance of nails," says Diane Quagliani, a Chicago-based registered dietician and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Put Down That Jell-O
Gelatin, a protein, is widely known in the food industry to gel, thicken, stabilize, emulsify, and bind. Tradition has it that if women consumed foods with large amounts of gelatin, their nails would reap the benefits. Not so, says Quagliani. She agrees with Dubner and Elgart that this is simply a myth -- there's no scientific evidence that gelatin makes nails stronger. Furthermore, says Dubner, "It's not even a complete protein."

Dr. Beth Mestman, a Long Island-based chiropractor and adviser of new product development for the health and wellness industries, says in addition to protein, calcium helps maintain healthy nails. For elasticity and shine, sulfur- and silicon-rich foods are important, she says.

"Good nutrition and a well-balanced diet are keys to nail health," Mestman says. Leafy green vegetables, seafood, whole grains, and molasses can help harden nails, she says, while onions, fish, and broccoli promote elasticity.

Tips for Stronger Nails
The general consensus to help strengthen nails is to keep them lubricated and well protected.
  • For weak nails, Mestman suggests dipping them in warm olive oil five minutes a day for a month. Elgart recommends lotions with alpha hydroxy acid.

  • Wear gloves when washing dishes and gardening. Exposure to water and the stresses of daily wear and tear cause nails to become prone to chipping, splitting, and breaking. And many alkaline detergents, soaps, and cleaners cause a loosening of the fibers of the keratin proteins that form the nail.

  • Avoid using your nails as hand tools. Use a quarter to scratch off those daily lottery cards!

  • When you file your nails, file in one direction only.

So, if you eat well and protect your nails, you may be basking in the glory of healthy, strong nails or you may be throwing up your hands in frustration. If you're the latter, fret not: It's a myth that a fingernail biter will become insane. But don't tell anyone I said that.


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