Everything You Need to Know About Collagen

We probably don’t have to tell you that people are going crazy for collagen. Touted for its ability to fight aging and rev immune function, collagen shows no sign of receding into the health has-beens category. But how healthy is the protein? And will it actually deliver the lofty benefits brands promise? Below, Chelsea Nutrition explains all.

It’s important to know what collagen is (and what the research says about it) before you sprinkle it into to your a.m. smoothie. Collagen is a protein that is widespread throughout the human body and is mostly found in the skin, tendons, and ligaments.

Because everyone wants to get glowy, most people are paying attention to the protein’s role in skin health. Collagen is one of the main materials that makes the skin smooth and plump. As we age, collagen production decreases—and wrinkles show up as a result. No wonder the appeal is real when it comes to collagen supplementation...

Unfortunately it’s not that simple (is it ever?). For one, proteins like collagen get broken down once inside the body. Because collagen doesn’t remain in its complete form in the body, it won’t necessarily deliver the same benefits as it does when it’s in its whole form. Some companies attempt to mitigate this by manufacturing collagen peptides, which are essentially partially broken down segments of collagen protein that are meant to be easier for the body to absorb. Just like the complete collagen protein, the peptides can carry out critical functions, such as boosting collagen production, helping to build other proteins in the body, and serving as antioxidants.

But here’s the catch: There’s no way of knowing which of these functions collagen peptides will serve once they’re absorbed in the body. For example, if you’re deficient in a certain type of protein in the body, the peptides will most likely be used to synthesize that protein, not to make your skin smoother (sorry!).

Today’s Dietitian also notes that the amino acids needed to synthesize collagen in the body can actually come from any type of protein, so collagen supplements or foods said to contain large amounts of collagen (think bone broth) aren’t actually necessary for boosting collagen production. Another drawback: Supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, so the collagen peptides you’re adding to your oatmeal may not even be collagen peptides at all. Womp womp.

While there is some preliminary research supporting the benefits of collagen supplementation for joint health (including reduced pain in athletes and arthritic patients), evidence backing the use of collagen supplements for better skin, hair, and nails remains lacking or dubious. For example, one 2017 study “supporting” the use of collagen peptides for improved nail health only included 25 participants and no control group. In short, most studies assessing collagen supplementation for skin, hair, and nail health have been small, poorly designed, or conducted by companies that manufacture collagen products.

When it comes to eating for skin health, Chelsea Nutrition recommends choosing high-quality, whole food sources of protein instead of supplements. If you’re still set on upping your collagen intake, fish, egg whites, and spirulina all contain the protein. Above all, opt for grass-fed or organic varieties of beef and poultry, and eat a variety of protein-rich foods to ensure you’re getting a mix of amino acids in the diet. Beans and nuts are both great plant-based sources of protein. Also good to know: Vitamin C is needed for collagen synthesis in the body, so loading up on citrus, berries, mango, broccoli, and kale may help bring skin benefits, as well.

Anthea Levi

Jennifer Maeng