On A Plant-Based Diet?

Here’s What You Need to Know About Collagen

Whether it comes in a powder, a pill, a gummy or even a water or a coffee creamer, collagen is one of the hottest nutritional supplements on the market. And for good reason; collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, making up tendons, ligaments, skin, muscles, bones, and even our teeth and eyeballs. But as we age, our ability to produce collagen declines; after the age of 20, we produce 1% less collagen each year. Collagen supplements provide your body with the raw materials it needs to create more collagen on its own. However, because collagen supplements are made from the bones, skin and cartilage of cows and pigs, and from fish scales and eggshells, they are a no-go for vegans, vegetarians, and many others who follow different types of plant-based diets. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t super-charge your body’s ability to produce collagen on its own.

Why do we need collagen?

Not having enough collagen in the body can lead to dryness, decreased elasticity and increased wrinkling of the skin. It can cause brittle nails and thinning hair, decreased joint mobility and bone mineral density, and a loss of muscle mass. A lack of adequate collagen can also contribute to atherosclerosis, or the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances on the artery walls, which causes an obstruction of blood flow and can lead to heart disease.

The Ability to Synthesize Collagen is Dependent on a Balanced Diet

Our bodies produce their own collagen by breaking down the protein we eat into amino acids, then repurposing them into collagen and other proteins needed throughout the body. When we consume collagen supplements, the body does the same with them; it breaks them down into their constituent amino acids, then repurposes them. However, the body will not repurpose amino acids from any source into collagen unless you are consuming a diet that meets all of your nutritional needs. “In the absence of sufficient calories or protein, collagen will just be used as calories and energy,” says nutritionist Jenn Gargiulo, RDN, CSSD. “If you’re not eating well, collagen won’t do what you want it to do.”

Get Enough Protein

If you are deficient in protein, you’re not giving your body enough amino acids to fuel itself or to make new collagen. Consider adding a vegan protein powder to your daily routine, but be sure to choose one that contains protein from a variety of sources – think pea, pumpkin seed, hemp, soy, chickpea, or quinoa - to ensure a complete amino acid profile.

Optimize your Vitamin and Mineral Consumption

The body needs an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals to facilitate the process of breaking down protein into amino acids, then using them to make collagen. Specifically, vitamin C, zinc and copper are important, and all can be obtained through a varied, plant-based diet. Foods like citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, brussels sprouts and strawberries are high in vitamin C. Pumpkin and sesame seeds, almonds, cashews, lentils, kidney beans, chick peas, spinach and oats are high in zinc, while copper is found in sunflower and sesame seeds, almonds, cashews, shiitake mushrooms, cocoa, swiss chard, spinach and kale.

Seek Out Amino Acids

Lysine, glycine and proline are the three most important amino acids for the synthesis of collagen, and all can be found in plant-based foods. For the best bang for your buck, soy products like tofu and tempeh, black and kidney beans, pumpkin, sunflower and chia seeds, and pistachios, peanuts and cashews contain all three. Lysine is also found in green peas, beets, sweet potatoes, quinoa, squash, oats, avocados and mangoes. Proline-rich foods include asparagus, mushrooms, cabbage, yogurt, seaweed and bamboo shoots. Sources of glycine include seaweed, carob seeds, watercress, asparagus, cabbage, spinach, beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, pear, apple, banana, carrots and whole grains.

Try Other Supplements

If collagen supplements derived from animals aren’t for you, but you still want to take a supplement to cover gaps in your diet that might prevent your body from producing enough collagen on its own, there are vegan “collagen” products on the market that provide vitamins, minerals and amino acids to support the body’s ability to create it’s own collagen. Or, try an amino acid supplement to ensure your body has all the building blocks of collagen protein. Additionally, vitamin C is not naturally produced by the body and must be obtained through the foods we consume, so a supplement is beneficial if you don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C. Lastly, consider a multivitamin that contains both vitamin C and zinc.