Collagen is all around us, from our groceries to cosmetics to pills, and even in the unlikeliest places like our cup of coffee. Suddenly, they are touted to be the best thing for your health, especially for your joints and skin.
But what’s the truth about collagen? Is collagen worth your money and health? Should you buy collagen-rich foods without paying attention?
Breakdown of Collagen and Types of Collagen-Rich Foods
Collagen gets its name from the Greek word “kólla,” which means “glue.” Collagen is the most important protein in our body, with the primary role of gluing it together.
The most abundant protein found in our body is, in fact, a family of proteins with a primary fiber-like structural framework of connective tissues.
It is most commonly found in our:
- Blood vessels
There are several types of collagen, categorized by their amino acid composition.
The most common type of collagen is Type 1, mostly found in the skin, tendons, internal organs, and organic parts of the bone.
The vast majority of the remaining collagen in the body is categorized either as Type 2 collagen, which is found in the cartilage, and Type 3 collagen, which is found in the bones and lymphoid tissues.
How Is Collagen Linked to Joint and Skin Health?
Collagen is the building block of your body and supports joint health. It helps maintain healthy cartilage and tendons to keep your joints moving smoothly, absorb shocks, and reduces the risk of injuries. It can also help reduce joint pains and aches.
We often mention collagen in skin care, especially aging. Collagen makes up most of your skin’s weight. It renders youthfulness to your skin as it maintains your skin’s structure, suppleness, texture, and resilience.
When Should You Be Concerned About Collagen?
The collagen production in your body decreases with aging. The collagen levels start dipping as you get older and can further be accelerated because of other factors, such as poor diet, lifestyle, genetics, and excess sun exposure.
Also, each year after you hit 30, your body not only loses collagen but also its ability to produce high-quality collagen.
So, now, the collagen in your body goes from a tightly organized network of fibers to a disheveled maze. Environmental exposures can damage collagen fibers, reducing their thickness and strength, leading to wrinkles on the skin’s surface.
Collagen comprises nearly 60% of the cartilage, which surrounds your bones and protects them from the shock of high-impact movements.
A deficiency in collagen could lead to a loss of cartilage and joint problems. Some signs include:
- Wrinkled and crepey skin
- Stiffer, less flexible tendons and ligaments
- Shrinking and weakening muscles
- Injuries, joint pain, and even osteoarthritis
- Gastrointestinal problems because of the digestive tract lining in your digestive tract
How to Increase Collagen in Your Body
Your body combines amino acids and the nutrients you get from food to produce collagen. So, if your body doesn’t have the necessary elements, it cannot produce enough collagen. Also, with age, your body may not absorb and synthesize nutrients as efficiently as before.
So, the primary reasons there could be a collagen deficiency are poor diet, lifestyle, and aging.
While aging is a natural process of life, you can take control of your collagen intake.
There are two ways to increase your collagen levels. First, by improving your diet, and second, by dietary supplements.
When you increase your collagen intake, be it via food or supplements, the extra protein accumulates in the cartilage between your joints.
What’s even more interesting and beneficial is the fact that your collagen intake can stimulate your body to create more collagen naturally. The result is that you can have better mobility and flexibility and lesser pain and inflammation.
However, please note that your collagen intake cannot magically repair or regrow damaged cartilage or joints or even reverse its natural depletion because of aging. It can only stimulate new collagen production in your body.
The Truth About Collagen Supplements
Despite its abundance in our bodies, collagen has become a top-selling supplement purported to boost our joint and skin health.
There are many things you should know about collagen supplements before purchasing.
First is that most collagen supplements—known as “Hydrolyzed collagen” or “Collagen peptide,” usually available as powders, pills, and in certain foods—are sourced from animal parts, such as eggs, fish scales, bovine bones, and skin.
If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or allergic to eggs or fish, rethink your purchase decision.
Hydrolyzed collagen is broken down forms of collagen, and it dissolves easily in your food and beverages. These supplements contain amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and can also have additional nutrients that are beneficial for skin and joint health.
However, the challenging part about “Hydrolyzed collagen” is that you can never tell which type of collagen is in the commercially available collagen powders. So, you can’t identify the right collagen supplement that will help improve your joint and skin health unless it’s specifically mentioned.
Another myth is that the ingested collagen supplements will go directly to improve your joints and skin. Instead, the collagen is broken down into its building blocks during digestion as it is not built to survive the pH changes in the gut.
Collagen products are also advertised as a miracle cure for several skin problems. Collagen is not naturally found on your skin’s outer layers, but in the deeper layers.
Collagen fibers from topical skin creams are too big to sink in through the skin’s outer layers. Even shorter collagen chains such as peptides cannot permeate through the skin’s outer layers, which makes the tall claims of collagen products being a skin wonder cure unbelievable.
Skin creams with synthetic collagen might work as it forms a film-like layer on your skin to reduce water loss as a protective skin barrier. However, it’s still no comparison to healthy eating with collagen-rich foods and using sunscreen for great skin health.
As per a comprehensive meta-analysis comprising 19 studies published in the International Journal of Dermatology, hydrolyzed collagen supplementation stimulates fibroblasts or the collagen-producing cells and can improve skin hydration and elasticity and reduce wrinkles.
Other studies have shown how collagen supplements can improve joint mobility and decrease joint pain, stiffness, swelling, tenderness, and even osteoarthritis.
But there’s a catch about the research on collagen supplements. Most, if not all, research studies on collagen supplements to date have been fully or partially funded by related industries that could profit from them.
Another fact is that a regulatory body like the U.S. Food & Drug Administration cannot approve collagen supplements like all other supplements. So, you can never be sure of its safety and can only believe what the manufacturer tells you.
Taking a collagen supplement can also prove detrimental to your joint and skin problems in the long run, as it could be an excuse for poor eating, sleep, and lifestyle habits.
Any collagen supplement is not a suitable replacement for wholesome protein from high-quality, healthy food. If you’re already on a healthy and well-balanced diet, you don’t need supplements in the first place as your body will make sufficient collagen naturally.
Top Collagen-Rich Foods for Your Joint and Skin Health
Fortunately, collagen is freely available in many of our daily foods.
Many high-protein foods contain amino acids like glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline that aid collagen production. Your body also requires nutrients such as zinc, vitamin C, and copper to produce collagen.
Here are the top collagen-rich foods that you can include in your diet to get high-quality collagen for strong joints and a glowing and healthy skin.
1. Animal Sources
Collagen is found mostly in animal proteins, especially in meat and fish that contain connective tissue. For example, we find them in tough cuts of meat or the skin and bones of fish.
Meats such as beef are high in zinc, an essential element for collagen production. Beef, contains glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, the three types of amino acids that constitute collagen.
There’s a good reason why chicken forms the main constituent of several collagen supplements. Chicken, especially the neck and cartilage parts, is a great source of collagen. As per a study in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging, the neck and cartilage parts of the chicken can help treat arthritis.
The meat of the fish contains less collagen in comparison to the other meats. But here’s the catch: Fish and shellfish have ligaments and bones rich in collagen.
What makes fish and shellfish preferable is that fish collagen is absorbed 1.5x times more efficiently than other collagen sources of meat like pork and beef.
Ironically, the fish parts such as the scales, skin, eyeballs, and head, which are the highest in collagen, are less consumed. So, make sure to include these fish parts in your diet.
Speaking of seafood, oysters are another great addition to your diet as it’s rich in copper which aids in creating collagen.
Collagen is naturally found in animal bones. Animal bones are a natural source of gelatin, which comes packed with collagen. This explains why one of the best and most popular collagen-boosting foods is bone broth.
While the egg yolks contain collagen, the egg whites contain high amounts of proline, the amino acid that is vital for collagen production. Have them whichever way you prefer—boiled, poached, fried, scrambled, or omelet.
Dairy products contain many nutrients that help boost collagen production.
Here is a list of animal source collagen boosting foods:
- Ribeye steak
- Pot roast
- Chuck steak
- Chicken wings
- Bone broth
- Fish and Shellfish
However, we usually do not recommend a high intake of animal products as part of a long-term healthy and environmentally sustainable diet. So, please consume in moderation, keeping in mind the above factors.
Consume more leafy greens as they are rich in vitamin C and chlorophyll, which are great for antioxidant properties and collagen production. You can also include bell peppers as part of your healthy diet.
Bell peppers contain antioxidants, amino acids, vitamin C, and other minerals that boost collagen production. They also contain capsaicin, which has anti-inflammatory properties that helps reduce the signs of aging.
Among the bell peppers, the red variety is the most beneficial because of its high Vitamin C content, which helps regulate the synthesis of collagen. It also contains Vitamin A, which helps boost your skin and joint health.
Broccoli is another vegetable that you can include in your diet as it is rich in Vitamin C and contains some amounts of zinc and copper, which aid in collagen production.
Here are some suggested vegetables that can help aid collagen production:
- Rainbow Chard
- Bell peppers
- Green peas
Citrus fruits are loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants that play a major role in collagen production. Vitamin C helps in linking the amino acids during the production of collagen production. That’s why getting your Vitamin C is crucial. It also helps you achieve a glowing skin as it flushes out toxins and fights skin inflammation.
Apart from being known for their antioxidant properties that are good for your skin, berries are another excellent source of vitamin C. In fact, strawberries contain more vitamin C than oranges.
Tropical fruits are also rich in vitamin C, copper, and zinc which boost collagen production.
Tomatoes including sun-dried and grape are high in vitamin C, which boosts collagen production, and also contains lycopene, an antioxidant that’s great for your skin health.
Here are some collagen-rich fruits that you can include as part of your healthy diet:
4. Legumes and Beans
Legumes and beans are high-protein foods containing amino acids that aid collagen production. They also contain Genistein, a collagen-promoting isoflavone.
Legumes and beans contain several minerals and nutrients like zinc, copper, and vitamin C, which are great for skin health. Some legumes and beans that boost collagen production naturally are:
- Garbanzo beans
- Fava beans
5. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are excellent collagen-rich foods. They provide the essential amino acids for collagen that our bodies cannot produce on their own.
There are many different ways to incorporate them into your diet. You can eat them as quick snacks. You can try adding one of these foods to your next meal. Think soups, salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes, stir-fries, smoothies, and more.
Here are some nuts and seeds-based collagen-boosting foods for you:
- Sunflower seeds
- Plant-based milk, such as soy and almond milk
6. Whole Grains
Whole grains are protein-rich foods. They contain several collagen-building nutrients including zinc and copper. The protein and nutrients aid in the amino acid-to-collagen transformation.
It is generally recommended to switch over from refined grains to whole grains for more wholesome nutrition because refined grains are stripped of several essential nutrients for our body during processing.
Here are my recommended collagen-boosting whole-grain foods:
- Brown rice
- Whole Wheat
However, apart from including the above foods, you also need to watch your sugar and water intake particularly.
Sugar is collagen’s foe. Two of the most common types of sugar, glucose and fructose, link the amino acids in collagen and elastin to create harmful compounds called AGEs (Advanced glycation end) products. AGEs are known to damage collagen and cause inflammation.
Water is collagen’s friend. Researchers have shown that water is an integral part of collagen binding tightly to its helical shape. In its natural state, water accounts for 60% of collagen by weight. So, make sure to drink plenty of water every day.
For the production of high-quality collagen, have a balanced diet comprising whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean meat, seafood, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
You can make the foods listed above part of your daily diet to help promote collagen production in your body.
Since we’re yet to have non-industry-funded research on collagen supplements, it’s best to consult your doctor if you choose to take that route. However, we suggest consulting your doctor on the best diet and lifestyle plan to help boost your collagen production naturally.