Why Are People Eating Collagen?

New fads surrounding the most abundant protein in mammals.

collagen supplement

Written by Michael Richardson

Is the long-awaited zombie apocalypse finally here? People are eating desiccated connective tissue, and telling their friends about the benefits.

Granted, the hydrolyzed tissues mostly come in powder form. And they aren’t human.

If you’ve ever spent a second at a beauty salon or on a cosmetics website, you’ve heard the word collagen. Most of the time products are “collagen boosting” or “collagen stimulating.” Why would you want that? Collagen is the fibrous structural protein made of amino acids that gives shape and fullness to skin. Therefore, collagen stimulation, in theory, can help you look younger.

Already popular are collagen injections, which are supposed to restore depleted collagen levels, giving the skin greater structure and fullness. Other treatments that are supposed to stimulate collagen growth include creams, exfoliations, and much more.

Nowadays, however, the hottest way to get your collagen is to eat it. There are about 300 products on the market advertising collagen additives, from protein bars to chews to powders for shakes. There are even collagen popsicles. Collagen-infused snacks and drinks reached sales of $60 million in the U.S. last year according to Business Insider.

Where Does Collagen For These Products Come From?

Before we dive into the sources of dietary collagen, let’s understand that there are actually many different types of collagen. In fact, 28 kinds have been identified. The most common types are:

  • Type I: skin, tendon, vasculature, organs, bone (90% of collagen in our bodies)
  • Type II: cartilage
  • Type III: reticulate, commonly found alongside type I
  • Type IV: forms basal lamina, the epithelium-secreted layer of the basement membrane.
  • Type V: cell surfaces, hair and placenta

Collagen is the most abundant protein in mammals. There is some debate on the best source of collagen for supplements. Some prefer using bovine collagen (beef), which is found in the cartilage, bones, and hides of cows. Other products contain collagen from chickens, wild fish, and eggshells. Some argue that bovine collagen is better because it’s more similar to human collagen, whereas others are proponents of marine collagen, claiming it promotes the water-holding capacity of the skin.

The Claim: What Does It Do?

Companies selling collagen in supplements, protein bars, etc. make a few claims that are pretty standard: smoother skin, more elastic skin, and fewer wrinkles.

But some go beyond that, saying that eating collagen can help strengthen joints, aids in recovery from workouts and injury, treats osteoarthritis, and promotes deeper sleep. Pointing to the amino acids that make collagen, particularly glycine, some say that it can help with gut health and even cognitive ability.



The Reality

The big question here is this: does a shortage of dietary collagen really make your skin look bad, or is it something else? And connected to that, are people regularly not getting enough collagen?

The first question is difficult to answer. The older we get, the less collagen our bodies produce. This we know. The skin becomes more thin and fragile with age. But does eating collagen slow that process?

Most dermatologists would agree that lifestyle factors probably play a bigger role than diet. A variety of things hurt your skin, and can damage collagen. These include smoking, high blood sugar, sun exposure, a sedentary lifestyle and weight gain. Fixing bad habits will likely do more for your skin than a collagen supplement.

But are you getting enough collagen in your diet? The body actually makes collagen on its own, using components of your diet. Egg whites, cod, and citrus, for example, provide the amino acids that are the building blocks of collagen. Most of us, therefore, do not need to be eating collagen.

Probably the most important truth about collagen is this: your body doesn’t absorb collagen whole. So even when you’re eating collagen from gelatin, bone broth, or a supplement, your body is breaking that collagen down into amino acids, and the body is using those acids as it sees fit. In other words, eating collagen doesn’t necessarily result in your body having more collagen.

A helpful comparison is dietary fat. When you eat fat, it doesn’t just turn into fat in your love handles. The body breaks down the fat you eat, and uses the components for a variety of purposes.

Experts agree that boosting collagen in the body has to go beyond just eating collagen. It’s a protein, and just like other proteins, you need other vitamins and minerals to build them.

So Is There Any Benefit?

Studies suggest that eating collagen may prompt the body to make more collagen by providing the necessary building blocks. It has been shown to help bones and joints in this regard. Dietary collagen’s influence on the skin, however, is actually not very well established.

There’s a good chance you’ve already been experiencing whatever benefit there is from eating collagen, because you’ve likely been consuming it since you were a child (Jell-O, chicken, beef, pork, etc.). Eating collagen supplement would therefore not do much for you.

Part of the problem with researching the effect of a collagen supplement is that there are many dietary sources of collagen. It’s nearly impossible to rule out additional factors besides the supplement itself.

Some eat collagen because it helps them feel full longer after meals. It can be a good source of protein for your diet.

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