Posted on May 23 2021
Feel’s like every time I log onto Instagram, a new health company is trying to sell me collagen. With claims of luscious and glowing hair within just weeks of taking their supplement, it is sure hard to stay away from marketing cues.
What is this collagen anyways?
In the most layman terms, collagen is really a combination of three specific amino acids (type of protein). Namely, glycine, proline and hydroxyproline.
Collagen is an essential requirement for optimal bodily functioning. It aids in several essential body functions, like skin repairing, bone strengthening, maintaining bone density, and taking care of the heart.
Collagen’s potential to regenerate the skin has made it an appealing topic of discussion amongst fitness, health, and skincare gurus.
The body’s capacity to develop collagen reduces as it ages. The structural integrity of the skin deteriorates- wrinkles grow, and joint cartilage deteriorates. As a result, people fall to the marketing gimmicks of collagen supplements and skin care products.
However, the three specific amino acids that make up collagen are found in abundance in food too.
Another thing to note is that the body is completely capable of making its own collagen, provided you adopt certain nutritional and lifestyle changes.
A well planned plant-based diet, accompanied by physical exercise and adequate sleep, can help boost your natural collagen level.
Before we discuss foods to boost the bodies collagen production, lets discuss a few lifestyle changes that will help:
- The most crucial factor to consider before jumping on a skincare routine for vegan collagen growth is to keep away from the sun and apply sunscreen to prevent cellular damage. Long hours of exposure to the sun produce ‘free radicals’ that damage the skin’s top layer.
- Eat all the colourful greens: The two vitamins A and C (also Vitamin E) work together to assist the body in producing natural collagen. Food such as almonds, papaya, broccoli, berries, almonds, spinach, citrus fruit, mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, and carrots contain these three elements.
- Avoid processed meat: Cured and processed meats are often treated with sodium nitride. This is to prevent them from going grey, because dead things go grey ;). But also to prevent the formation of toxic bacterial growth. The problem with sodium nitride though is the same with cigarettes. It damages the structure of collagen.
- Stay away from AGE's: AGE’s or advanced glycation end products are toxic animal proteins that have been exposed to heat. Excess AGE levels in the body are associated with decreasing collagen activity, hampering not only skin health, but also stiffening blood vessels. This simple answer is to stay away from animal proteins such as dairy and meat.
Plant-based foods are high in phytochemicals, including the potent antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, which could help reduce the depletion of collagen from the body.
Consuming food with natural antioxidants can amplify the production of natural collagen in your body as well.
One specific fruit that tops the list is Amla. Aim to add one whole amla or 1 tsp of amla powder to your diet daily.
The body prioritizes natural collagen protein development because it serves such a vital role. While collagen levels development slows as we age, it never ceases, and if you give your body the nutrients it needs to make healthy collagen, the age-related decline will be less noticeable.
Trying to take a collagen supplement or pill is like trying to eat someone's hair to help you grow your own hair. Wouldn't you rather power yourself with base ingredients (minerals and vitamins) to grow your own hair naturally?
So what are the food sources of the three amino acids?
- Proline: Proline and hydroxyproline fall in the category of amino acids that make up 23% of collagen. They play an essential role in collagen breakdown and stability. Asparagus, rice, buckwheat, cabbage, chives, cucumbers, garbanzo beans, peanuts, soy, and watercress are vegetarian proline sources. Adding a watercress salad few times to your weekly menu is enough proline for the body.
- Glycine: Glycine is essential to the creating strands of DNA and RNA in human body. It is the abundant component of collagen and helps to stabilize the collagen quotient in the body. It also facilitates the bonding of hydrogen and to form inter-molecular cross-links. Glycine is produced by the body, but high protein foods such as animal meat have some glycine. Beans and lentils have some glycine too, but if you are restricting calories, you might want to supplement glycine. Seaweed has some glycine. Adding a few servings of wakame or nori sheets in per week is a great idea.
- Hydroxyproline: The hydroxyproline component of collagen is another important amino acid to consider. An increase in the hydroxyproline amount leads to degradation on body’s connective tissues. Alfaalfa sprouts contain more hydroxyproline than any other plant- based sources. Hydroxyproline is naturally produced in the body from Proline in the presence of Vitamin C.
Like mentioned above, Vitamin C acts as a cofactor in the production of hydroxyproline. So it becomes essential to consume enough Vitamin C rich foods. But there are a few other nutrients too that play an important role in the synthesis of collagen. Here is the list:
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C allows amino acids to absorb oxygen and hydrogen, allowing them to participate in collagen production. Collagen development slows down if you don't get enough Vitamin C. Many fruits and vegetables, such as broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, citrus fruits, kale, kiwi, mango, papaya, tomatoes, pineapple, and strawberries, have a high quotient of vitamin C.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A, also referred to as retinol alternatively, is only present in animal-derived foods and assists in collagen production. Fruits and vegetables are rich in phytonutrients known as carotenoids (vitamin A precursors). The body converts these carotenoids to vitamin A. Apricots, broccoli, carrots, kale, squash, and sweet potatoes are great Vitamin A sources. Make sure to eat one carrot a day to get your daily dose.
- Zinc: Just like Vitamin C, Zinc is a cofactor in the production of collagen as well. Seeds, nuts, and beans are the most popular vegetarian sources of zinc. A good way is to ensure you eat a handful of nuts daily.
- Anthocyanin: This is a type of antioxidant that gives the bright blue colour to berries. Its capacity to inhibit inflammation and stabilize collagen is one of their most notable characteristics (shown in rat studies). Blackberries, blueberries, cherries, and raspberries all contain anthocyanin.
- Copper: Another vital nutrient is copper, which boosts collagen and elastin development or utilisation while also assisting in forming the fibril structure of these collagens. Some of the essential sources of copper include sunflower seeds, lentils, almonds, apricots, dark chocolate, mushrooms, greens, and blackstrap molasses. Drinking water out of copper bottles also helps.
When we look at nutrients, we rarely look at one particular thing they are rich in, but rather look at food as a whole. If you are eating enough calories per day and choose from vibrant fruits and vegetables, you will reach your daily requirements of all of the above micronutrients.
However, if you are following a restrictive calorie diet and neglecting essential food groups for whatever reason, you will be deficient in one or many micro nutrients, leading to collagen deficiency. We will discuss supplementation below, but for now, remember that individual micronutrients rarely act by themselves and are codependent on other nutrients.
It is important to note here that it is still possible to lose weight on a restricted calorie diet and ensure you are reaching your micro- nutrient stores. On a well designed meal- plan, you will gain health as you lose weight. Your skin and hair should only improve as you get fitter. Work with a nutritionist to help you customise a meal plan that is dense in micro- nutrients and essential minerals.
Collagen- Forms and its Sources.
In addition to natural collagen, collagen is also found in different forms in varied constituents. Animal collagen is the collagen found in animals like cows, pigs and marine species.
The fish collagen is present everywhere in the body of the fish, except for in the cartilaginous tissues. The same collagen is found in the human body around 70% of the skin. Fish collagen is also known as marine collagen as it is derived from the fish skin.
However, fish or marine collagen is more harmful to the body as compared to the plant-based collagen due to the high mercury content in fish species. Mercury toxicity has been linked to Alzheimer's and depression. The below blog details the harmful effects of fish tot he body:
The collagen found in cow is also referred to as bovine collagen. It is derived from boiling the bones of the cow and from other cattle-based products. Bovine collagen helps to prevent the loss of bone in cattle.
Though bovine collagen is also derived from species including yak, bison, and buffalo, it is primarily referred to the collagen found in cows. There are not enough studies to prove its effectiveness in humans yet.
What is Marine collagen?
Marine collagen is the other name for fish collagen, found primarily in fish. The marine collagen supposedly helps to slow down the aging process of the skin and also make it firm. More research is needed for the same.
Some studies show participants complaining of digestive issues after consuming marine collagen.
Is there a Vegan source of Collagen?
Yes, vegan collagen supplements have recently started taking the front stage in mainstream media. Plant-based vegan sources of collagen are healthier alternatives and easy on the digestive system.
Getting your collagen requirements through food sources would still be a preferred source, but people can explore supplements if needed.
Additionally researchers are now making plant- based collagen from genetically tempered bacteria and yeast species.
Vegan collagen supplements come with fewer allergic reactions and are cruelty free.
The Best Plant-Based Foods to Naturally Build Collagen.
The below list consists of specific food and food groups that should make a weekly (if not daily) appearance on your dining table.
- Green leafy vegetables.
- Alfa alfa sprouts.
- Seeds of hemp, pumpkin, sunflower and chia.
- All types of berries.
- Goji berries.
- Nuts like walnuts, brazil nuts and pecans.
- Beans- primarily kidney and black beans.
- Ginseng Tea
How to Increase Collagen Production Without Eating Animals?
Aim for plant- diversity and stick to whole- food and organic produce. As we saw, collagen production in the body depends on multiple micronutrients acting together in synchrony.
Make sure to include all food groups like fruits, vegetables, grains, lentils, pulses, nuts, seeds and spices.
Is collagen protein worth the hype?
Protein is a crucial component of the body and is essential for muscle and tissue repair. Although the human body has certain amount of collagen in the muscles, there has been hype about increasing collagen protein through supplements.
There are not enough unbiased research studies proving the effects of collagen supplements to the body.
That being said, it is absolutely essential to work with a nutritionist and ensure you are eating enough proteins and covering all the amino acids required.
Are there vegan collagen supplements?
Yes! multiple brands are now exploring vegan collagen supplements.
Plant-based Collagen vs. Animal Collagen: What Works
Leading research organisations have stated that taking marine or bovine collagen leaves tangible effects on the skin. The animal-based collagen has three primary issues which makes it detrimental for health than the plant-based collagen. These are:
- Contaminants in animals (Pesticides and herbicides that end up in the body of bovine animals).
- Allergic reactions caused by consuming marine collagen.
- Not enough research to prove its effectiveness when compared to whole food sources.
Do You Really Need to Supplement Collagen?
A supplement is really just a supplement to a bad nutrition plan. If you are eating well and making sure to cover multiple food groups, your body holds the capacity to make its own collagen.
If for some reason though your body demands are higher than normal, like in the case of athletes or people recovering from sickness, you might consider adding in a supplement.
Once again, working with a nutritionist will provide you insights on this topic.