Is collagen the new protein shake?

The supplement of the moment may not be any better than whey.

The latestnutrition trend has roots in the beauty world: collagen powder. It’s beenlinked to everything from a youthful appearance and elasticity to fewer fine lines and wrinkles. But instead of seeking the protein for its purported skin benefits, fit bodies are turning to it for an edge in fitness.

“Sometimes people hear an aura of health when they hear collagen,” says Dana Hunnes, Ph.D, R.D., a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. But, as more companies are serving up collagen powders aimed at athletes and with bone broth—a natural source of the ingredient—touted as a muscle food, it’s smart to question whether it really works.

The facts about collagen

“Collagen is a structural protein that makes up about one-third of all proteins in the human body,” says Hunnes. “It is found in bone, muscle, skin, and even tendons.”

Here's the idea behind the skin benefits: Collagen helps hold skin cells tightly together in a non-penetrable barrier, she says. But muscles need it, too. “Muscles, especially exercising muscles, need collagen for tissue development and regeneration,” says San Diego-based performance nutritionist Krista Austin, Ph.D., CSCS. That’s because when you work out, the stress hormone cortisol surges, leading to the breakdown of tissue. Collagen helps regenerate this tissue, Austin explains.

So the thought is that if you consume more collagen, you fast-track your muscle repair and growth. Unfortunately, the science is more complicated. Your body makes and utilizes its own collagen—albeit less as you age—and there is scant evidence that supplementing with more has any effect. “Collagen is made up of a unique amino acid sequence which can be created through the regular protein sources ingested from our daily food,” explains Austin. “As a result, there is no evidence for an additional benefit of using a collagen protein powder or supplement to build muscles or enhance other performance and recovery avenues for athletes.”

What happens when you take a collagen supplement

Admittedly, little research exists in the area of collagen supplementation. So, experts use their understanding of digestion, how bodies store protein, and how you excrete what you don’t need to explain what probably happens when you get extra.

The thought: The collagen you eat would be broken down to amino acids or used to produce glucose if you need it. If your amino acid pools are topped up and your carb intake is sufficient, it would be stored as fat if it’s excess calories, says Austin.

The bottom line: Hunnes doesn’t recommend collagen supplementation for the purported fitness benefits. If you're getting enough protein (read all about how much you really need here), it's unnecessary. But it's not going to hurt you, Hunnes says, so if you still want to try it, she suggests no more than 10 grams in any one sitting, and no more than two times a day. Austin adds to seek a product with a nutritional facts label (a sign that the product is produced under Food and Drug administration regulations) or one from a company with quality assurance (information that should be available on a company’s website) preferably from a company that provides third party certification, like NSF or Informed Choice.

Better than a collagen supplement

Consider adding the building blocks of collagen, instead of the ingredient itself, to your diet to help your body create more of it. “Glycine, proline, and lysine are the primary amino acids that make up collagen,” says Austin. "Cells called fibroblasts are responsible for taking these amino acids and building them into strands that create the collagen molecule.”

Some supplements do include some of the below ingredients, which can also be found in whole foods.

  • Glycine is made from a B vitamin called choline (found in foods like shrimp, eggs, scallops, and chicken), threonine, or serine.
  • Proline is an amino acid found in egg whites, soy, and cabbage.
  • Lysine is an essential amino acid (meaning it must be consumed from food) that can be found in any food containing protein, including meat, fish, dairy, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products.
  • Anthocyanids, found in blackberries, blueberries, cherries, and raspberries; copper, a micronutrient found in nuts; vitamin A, found in orange vegetables and leafy greens; and vitamin C, found in citrus foods like oranges and brightly-colored vegetables like peppers can help promote the synthesis of collagen, says Hunnes.