Collagen supplementation has been making its way around the wellness circuits recently as the trendy new cure-all. But what exactly is it, how does it work, and does it do what people are claiming?
This isn’t the first time the wellness community has embraced collagen, actually. That’s a major reason bone broth rose to popularity in the last few years as a way to cure an angry gut and help strengthen bones and recover from injury. But bone broth isn't for everyone (it takes a long time to make on your own, and it can be hard and expensive to seek out elsewhere). It's no surprise then, that straight collagen in peptide form, like in a tasteless, easy-to-dissolve powder, has become a more appealing, not to mention cost-effective, solution as of late.
Collagen might sound familiar because it’s already in us. The fibrous protein is actually what's responsible for keeping our skin young and stretchy (read: wrinkle-free). We slow down our production of collagen after we hit 20, so it makes some sense why people are clamoring to add more of it into their diets. Other beneficial collagen claims include a healthier gut, yes, but also brighter and clearer skin, healthier nails, shinier hair, and less joint pain.
Bloggers like The Balanced Blonde swear by it: "Collagen is amazing for our hair, skin, nails, tendons, bones, and cartilage,” founder Jordan Younger wrote in one post. "Collagen promotes youthful, hydrated skin, hair, and nails by diving deep into our layers of skin after being absorbed straight into the bloodstream.”
Jeannette Ogden, of ShutTheKaleUp, waxes poetic about it regularly on Instagram, with passionate captions like, "it's my go to. (it's also tasteless but packed with protein, amino acids and collage) so I use it daily. to be honest, it's really helped with my hair growth since it all fell out from my crazy hormones after birthing Elliott."
Both bloggers also point out the major side benefit: At 90 calories for 18 grams of protein, collagen is one of the purest, fastest ways to get your protein fix.
More and more recent studies are backing up some of the hype and claims, though nutritionists aren’t as quick to hop on the "collagen cures everything" bandwagon. On the less sexy side, studies have shown that collagen supplements have helped put rheumatoid arthritis into remission. On the skin-care side, one early clinical trial showed that collagen supplementation led to reduced signs of facial aging. A similar double-blind trial produced positive results, as well. Women who added collagen to their diets witnessed improved skin elasticity over the eight-week trial. It’s also been shown to have a beneficial effect on cellulite.
Gelatin—chock-full of collagen—has been shown in some studies to help repair injured joints, tendons, and ligaments by helping the body synthesize collagen. So even if the claims of perfect skin aren’t entirely backed up, it certainly can't hurt.
If you’re not into powders and potions, you can still reap the benefits: bone broth is a great collagen delivery system, as are salmon and eggs, while citrus fruit, garlic, berries, and orange vegetables like carrots may help increase your natural collagen production.
Most of us are missing the necessary amount of the macronutrient protein in our diet, or, if we are getting it, it’s in big doses at the end of the day (bagel for breakfast, salad for lunch, steak at dinner). Collagen is essentially pure protein, so it can be a sneaky way of adding 20 grams to your breakfast or lunch without changing how you eat.
As someone who is incredibly susceptible to health and ~wellness~ trends, collagen was one of the more “no-brainer” options to test out. I like drinking coffee, but the Bulletproof thing didn’t really suit my needs and super-active lifestyle. But adding protein without adding gross flavoring or a ton of chemicals to my morning coffee? Sure, why the hell not?! So, I ordered a big vat of unflavored Collagen Peptides from Vital Proteins and had it delivered to me in California a couple weeks before I started a road trip back to the East Coast. The timing was intentional; I figured if I could get started before I left for a 45-hour drive, I would know if I could count on it as a clean fuel source for me (thus avoiding at least a couple doughnut stops) over the course of the drive. My skin, which had recently fallen victim to some hormonal breakouts, also needed some TLC.
The unflavored claim was accurate: Even in a small mug, I couldn’t taste it when I stirred it into my black coffee, so that was a pleasant surprise. Equally pleasant: After a couple of weeks of daily drinking, I did notice that my hormonal acne was taking a break (I can’t swear that it was the collagen, but that was one of the only changes I’d made). I also noticed my nails were growing a lot faster, and while my husband couldn’t tell the difference (what does he know anyway?), I did feel like my skin was glow-ier.
Another pleasant side effect: I’m typically an eat-breakfast-but-be-starving-by-noon (regardless of the breakfast) kind of a person, but adding that 90 calories to my coffee and eating as normal seemed to tide me over until well after 1pm, even if I worked out in the morning. That’s not just due to calories—I’ve tried that in the past—the protein content is satiating even if you can’t taste it.
Bottom line: The worst case scenario of adding collagen to your diet is that you’re getting a pure source of protein that skips sugars, artificial sweeteners, and major chemical processes. And because you can get flavorless options and it's meant to be dissolved in hot water (unlike most whey proteins), it can easily turn your morning coffee into a protein powerhouse.
So, whether it makes your skin glow or heals your stomach, it’s still a nutritional solution to your “I can’t get enough protein in my normal diet” needs. But make sure you’re picking a clean source, like Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides (they also come in travel packets, so if you’re on the road a lot for work or have trouble getting in a snack post-workout, stashing a few of these in your purse is a lifesaver!). And if you miss a vanilla latte in the morning or are looking for something to replace the whey in your smoothie, the company does have a vanilla flavored option.
Note: Introduce it slowly. I actually scaled back after my first week of testing it and switched to a half-serving in my coffee (about 10 grams of collagen). That seemed to be enough to give me a protein boost without a much-added caloric intake, and as someone who does add plenty of clean protein sources to her diet, I don’t need the full amount.
Bottom line, wellness trends come and go, and the research on collagen supplementation is certainly intriguing, but it’s not guaranteed to be a cure-all for your problems. Combined with clean, healthy eating focusing on whole foods, plus regular exercise, enough sleep, and less stress… Well, then it’s a winner. But as a standalone solution, there isn’t a single potion or pill out there that makes up for those basic building blocks.