When it comes to trendy dietary supplements, collagen products are up there with the trendiest of them. Sales of collagen-rich powders, drinks and capsules have soared in recent years, promising healthier hair, skin, nails, bones, joints and muscles. Collagen occurs naturally in the body, but does taking a collagen supplement actually help increase its production and benefits? And many foods also support natural collagen production, are these any better?
Here’s why collagen is important in the body, whether dietary collagen (from food or supplements) produces the benefits you’re looking for, and some of the best collagen-boosting foods.
What is collagen and why is it good for you?
Collagen is the protein that gives structure to muscles, bones, skin, and tendons, says Bianca Tamburello, RDN, registered dietitian at FRESH Communications. Although there are technically five types of collagen, most sources of collagen will ultimately offer these benefits in addition to supporting organs, hair, nails, ligaments, eyes, and arteries. As such an important building block for these vital structures, collagen is found in abundance throughout the body. Our body produces collagen, but we can also get collagen through food and supplements, explains Tamburello.
As we age and are exposed to environmental factors such as ultraviolet (UV) light, the body’s collagen production begins to decline. This is where collagen supplementation, either through food or dietary supplements, can play a supporting role.
Is taking collagen effective?
Collagen supplements are somewhat controversial and questions have been raised as to whether they actually work. This is due to a lack of clarity as to whether ingested collagen will simply be metabolized like other types of protein, rather than ending up as body collagen in the desired locations.
However, research actually shows otherwise, and collagen supplements, especially those made with hydrolyzed collagen broken down for better absorption, have been proven to be effective. Research has shown that collagen intake is associated with increased skin elasticity, UV protection, heart health support, bone maintenance, improved muscle strength, and joint pain relief.
Taking collagen supplements can reduce joint pain by preserving cartilage, increase skin hydration and elasticity, and reduce age-related muscle loss and bone loss, Tamburello says. Although more research is needed, studies so far show that collagen supplements may also support hair, nail, and gut health.
Tamburello adds that hydrolyzed collagen supplements may have an advantage in this regard over food-based collagen, because collagen from food needs to be broken down before absorption, she says.
Nutrients that help the body produce collagen
Food-based collagen also has benefits for the body. The two most effective ways to increase your body’s collagen stores are to focus on consuming nutrients that support collagen production and to eat foods that are naturally rich in collagen.
Eating a varied diet is important to ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs to produce collagen, Tamburello explains.
Certain amino acids, including glycine, proline and hydroxyproline, serve as building blocks for collagen and thus support collagen production, she says. Vitamin C and zinc are also needed to help the body make its own collagen for body structure and function.
Copper and sulfur are two minerals that also aid in the natural production of collagen throughout the body.
Foods high in collagen and collagen-boosting nutrients
When it comes to natural collagen production, fish is one of the best foods to turn to. One study found fish collagen to be one of the most effective food sources of collagen, says Tamburello. I recommend salmon from Chile because it is especially rich in omega-3 fats and offers high-quality protein in the form of amino acids to support collagen production.
Other great options include some of the smaller fish, such as anchovies and sardines, as they are packaged with their skin, bones and connective tissue intact. And while these structures thankfully dissolve so you barely know you’re eating them, they’ll also provide amino acids and collagen to support natural production.
There are few foods that contain more vitamin C than citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, grapefruits and limes. Vitamin C helps preserve collagen in the body and plays an important role in the process of making your own collagen, says Tamburello. Whether you opt for a glass of freshly squeezed lemon water, half a grapefruit for breakfast, or make a festive citrus salad, all of these delicious citrus dishes will help support healthy skin, hair, nails, joints, and more.
Between the proline, zinc and sulfur found in eggs, these breakfast favorites support collagen building in the body. While zinc is mostly found in the yolk, proline and sulfur are highly concentrated in the egg whites, so those who watch their cholesterol intake by eating only egg whites can still reap some of these collagen-boosting benefits.
Whether it’s strawberries, raspberries, acai, blueberries, cranberries, or another delicious berry, these juicy fruits are absolutely packed with collagen-building vitamin C. There are an almost endless number of ways to enjoy them: in smoothies and smoothie bowls, oatmeal, baked goods, yogurt parfaits, savory salads, homemade jams, and more.
Bone broth is one of the most well-known foods high in collagen, says Tamburello. You can make your own bone broth at home, although the process can be time-consuming. There are tons of bone broth products available as well, which can make choosing from reputable brands a challenge for food shoppers.
Azulunas pasture-raised chicken bone broth is specially formulated for sipping and is packed with 8 grams of collagen and 14 grams of protein per serving. In addition, the brand supports regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture, says Tamburello.
There are many vegan sources of protein that provide the amino acids needed to support collagen production, including hearty legumes like beans. In addition to offering a range of collagen-building amino acids, many types of beans, including pinto beans and white beans, are also fantastic sources of copper.
This may be one of the few times you’ll find skinned poultry in a health-focused food collection, but when it comes to collagen production, meat and fish skin can actually be a game-changer. While we don’t always eat every part of the animal, poultry skin also contains collagen and shouldn’t be overlooked, Tamburello says.
Shellfish, especially clams and oysters, are very effective collagen boosters. Not only are these sweet treats packed with a variety of collagen-building amino acids, but they’re also some of the best food sources of copper and zinc to help you reap the full benefits of collagen.
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