What’s the deal with collagen? Is it just another trend, or should I actually be seeking it out?
Collagen is celebrated for everything from supposedly improving joint health and curing digestive problems to giving you firm, glowing skin. But before you empty your wallet on the latest cure-all and start adding collagen powder to your morning smoothie routine, let’s take a look at what’s behind some of these claims.
In our bodies, collagen supports internal organs and skin by strengthening our tendons. As the major insoluble fibrous protein in our connective tissue, collagen serves an important purpose by acting as the “glue” that helps give structure to our bones and teeth. Our bodies can make collagen, but human production of collagen decreases slightly as we age. That lower collagen production is the reasoning behind the beauty industry adding collagen to many products with claims of reducing wrinkles. More recently, the wellness community has realized other important functions of collagen, such as maintaining the integrity of our gut lining, which is part of the reason for its recent surge in popularity.
We do produce less collagen as we age, but there are many nutrients that support collagen production and may lessen the effects of aging. Eating vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts (to name a few) is one way to aid production, as vitamin C plays a major role in the synthesis of collagen. Zinc (found in many foods such as oysters, beef, baked beans, cashews, and chickpeas) and also copper (found in shellfish, organ meats, beef, and cocoa) can boost collagen production.
Outside of our own production, we can consume collagen by eating certain cuts of meat, specifically animal skin and tendons like beef chuck. Bone broth has also become a popular (albeit spendy!) way to consume collagen, though benefits are not well supported by research.
Collagen supplements exist and may provide a small benefit for some very specific populations such as older adults with skeletal muscle mass loss, but research findings on oral collagen are inconsistent and controversial. It’s thought that oral collagen is likely digested and broken down before it makes it to your cells, meaning it wouldn’t reach your tissues as intact collagen. So, turning to supplements is probably not the answer, despite what online wellness ‘influencers’ want you to believe.
While collagen is an important protein for health, there is no research to suggest that low collagen production is a common health problem. In addition, research on the effectiveness of consuming outside sources of this protein is limited and shows that it most likely provides little benefit. However, if you do choose to test out a collagen powder or supplement, do your research and consult with your doctor or dietitian as supplements are not well-regulated. A less expensive, less risky, and more sustainable way to boost your collagen intake would be to make your own bone broth using bones from a whole roasted chicken, for example. But don’t expect any health miracles. A cup of chicken soup (essentially) will not outdo a poor diet and is less effective than consuming enough of the important collagen-boosting nutrients above.
Bottom line? Save your money and focus on eating a well-rounded, plant-forward diet for overall health.
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected].