Collagen Protein Health Benefits
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Collagen supplements and protein powders have flooded the market, and many people are turning to collagen for beauty and gut health, among other benefits. But is collagen worth the hype? The short answer is yes.
Today’s article will walk you through the ins and outs of collagen and why this protein can help you fill in vital nutrient gaps for benefits inside and out.
Keep reading to answer your burning collagen questions:
- What is collagen?
- What foods contain collagen?
- What are the different types of collagen?
- What is collagen good for in terms of health?
- What do I need to know about collagen protein powder?
- What about vegan collagen?
- How do I increase my collagen?
Let’s get started!
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. You find a lot of collagen in the skin, joints, tendons, organs, and connective tissue throughout the body. It helps build the structure of the body. Think of it as the glue that holds everything together.
The body synthesizes collagen with the help of vitamin C. For effective collagen production, we need to have an abundance of the building blocks in the diet.
Like all proteins, collagen is composed of a series of amino acids. Collagen is exceptionally high in glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.
Collagen production declines with age, and it’s harder to replace the collagen protein that has been lost. Collagen loss is also associated with smoking, toxin exposure, and a diet low in essential nutrients.
Collagen Food Sources
The modern diet is lower in collagen than a traditional diet because humans no longer eat the whole animal, including the high collagen parts like the skin, bones, tendons, and cartilage. Culturally, we now prefer muscle meat and often skip the other parts of the animal.
Natural food sources of collagen include:
- Bone broth – Bone broth is a long-cooked broth made from bones, skin, and other discarded parts of chicken, beef, pork, fish, or shellfish. The tough skin, bones, connective tissues, or shells break down into the broth, releasing nutrients including minerals and collagen.
- Gelatin – is the gelatinous substance you find in the bottom of a pan after roasting meat or when bone broth cools. Gelatin breaks down into collagen.
- Skin-on meat – Eating the chicken or fish skin provides collagen in the diet.
- Bone-in meat – Choosing cuts of meat with bones and cartilage means that when you cook the meat, collagen is released into the drippings.
- Tough cuts of meat – Tougher cuts, like brisket, are higher in collagen and may need to be slow cooked for a tender result.
- Whole fish – Eat the bones and skin when you are able. Examples included canned salmon with bones, sardines, and anchovies.
There are at least 29 identified types of collagen, although just a few are the most abundant. (note that in the bone and joint article, I said 28 types, but have since found a reference stating 29 in case you want to update the bone article before posting) Here are the top types:
- Type 1 is found abundantly in connective tissues and declines with age.
- Type 2 is concentrated in cartilage and is beneficial for joint health. You’ll find this type of collagen in Twenty2 Nutrition Joint Pill.
- Type 3 is found mainly in the skin and organs. Type 3 collagen loss is also associated with age-related changes.
Dietary and supplemental collagen has many benefits for health. Let’s look at some of them.
The collagen matrix gives skin structure and allows it to hold onto moisture. Collagen makes skin look firm, smooth, and plump.
As we get older or skin is damaged by UV light, pollution, or toxins, collagen loss accelerates. A decline in collagen is associated with physical signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of firmness.
Improving collagen in the skin is the ultimate beauty supplement and works from the inside out. In one 12-week study, collagen supplementation improved hydration, elasticity, density, and smoothness of skin compared to a placebo. In a meta-analysis of several studies, collagen improved skin hydration, elasticity, and wrinkles.
Collagen is an abundant source of the amino acid glycine. Glycine becomes conditionally essential in pregnancy, meaning that the body cannot produce enough glycine to meet the demand, so it must come from the diet.
Collagen formation is critical for a healthy pregnancy. Collagen is involved in creating a healthy endometrial lining and placenta. Collagen is needed to support the changing body of the mother and as a structural protein in the growing baby.
Bones and Joints
I covered bone and joint health in a previous article, Nutrition for Bone and Joint Health. (add link) Collagen is a critical structural protein for the skeletal system. It’s found in tendons, ligaments, and bones.
Increasing collagen in the diet supports bone and joint health and prevents or minimizes bone loss with age. In addition, collagen may be used as part of the management of osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other bone or joint conditions. Please work with your doctor for guidance.
Hair and Nails
Hair and nails are protein structures, so it makes sense that collagen is involved. Hair follicles in the skin require collagen for structure. In addition, collagen intake boosts the production of a protein called keratin, which is vital for hair and nail structure.
There isn’t much research on collagen intake and hair health, although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that increasing collagen in the diet improves hair quality. One study of oral collagen supplementation showed improvement in nail growth and strength.
Like other organs, collagen is essential for the structure of the digestive tract. It plays a role in maintaining a healthy gut lining, also called the intestinal barrier, which maintains separation between what’s in the gut and the rest of the body.
When gut health is compromised, collagen may be beneficial in promoting healing. Bone broth is a traditional remedy for gut healing and a rich source of collagen.
Collagen also contains the amino acid glutamine, which fuels the cells that line the intestines, maintains a healthy gut barrier, and helps manage inflammation.
For more information on gut health, please read How to Improve Your Gut Health.
Collagen protein powder, also called collagen peptides, helps fill the nutritional gap when we aren’t eating the whole animal or consuming a diet lower in collagen. Most of the studies referenced in this article looked at collagen supplements (instead of food sources) for their health benefits.
Collagen powder is also a convenient way to help meet your daily protein needs. A typical daily serving is around 10 to 20 grams of protein from collagen.
With the popularity of collagen, many products are on the market, and some are remarkably better than others. When vetting brands, consider the source of collagen, the integrity and transparency of the company, and if the product has been tested for contaminants.
Twenty2 Nutrition Collagen-Egg Protein is made with collagen peptides from grass-fed, pasture-raised bovine hides.
As a nutritionist, I get asked about collagen all the time. Let’s answer some of the most-asked questions about collagen.
Q: What do you recommend for vegan collagen?
A: Collagen is a protein made by humans and animals; plants don’t make collagen. So, there is no true vegan source of collagen.
If you are vegan and want to boost collagen in the body, make sure you are consuming enough of the protein building blocks needed to synthesize collagen, along with vitamin C to facilitate collagen production.
Q: Is collagen a complete protein?
A: A complete protein refers to a protein source containing all nine essential amino acids humans require in the diet. While most animal protein is complete, collagen protein doesn’t contain tryptophan.
To skirt this issue, Twenty2 Nutrition combines collagen protein with egg protein for a complete stand-alone protein source.
Q: How do I increase collagen?
A: Here are some tips for increasing collagen:
- Eat collagen-rich foods like bone broth, whole fish, and tougher cuts of meat as a regular part of your diet.
- Increase vitamin C-rich foods, including kiwi, bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, and broccoli for collagen support.
- Use collagen protein powder to balance amino acids in the body.
Curious about what collagen can do for you? With collagen as the most abundant protein, it’s no wonder it benefits the whole body. Give it a try and notice how your hair, skin, nails, digestion, and joints respond with consistent use.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.