If you've spent any amount of time in the health and beauty circles, you've no doubt heard of collagen. This protein is a common player in beauty routines and can be found in everything from supplements to skin creams to injection treatments.
You may have also heard that collagen is an animal product. If you're vegetarian or vegan, this is cause for concern.
So, how do you ensure that your body gets enough collagen, while also sticking with your vegan diet? Is it even possible?
What Is Collagen, Anyway?
Collagen is a protein, and it's the single most common protein in your body. It's present in your skin, in your muscle tissue, and your bones. You can think of it sort of like glue, holding together your other cells and forming the scaffold upon which your skin and other tissues are built.
Needless to say, collagen is crucial for a healthy body. It keeps your skin light and elastic, it keeps your joints lubricated, it forms a scaffold to keep your organs whole, and it even helps with filtering toxins in your body.
Your body naturally produces collagen out of the building blocks of proteins you get from food and supplements you eat. Specifically, your body uses two amino acids – glycine and proline – and mixes them with vitamin C and copper. This combination produces collagen, which your body uses to repair itself and support healthy tissues.
The Problem with Collagen
There's just one problem: over time, your body naturally produces less and less collagen. This happens to everyone, and it's part of why your body starts to break down over time. A lack of collagen is responsible for a lot of different things, but the most obvious among them is wrinkles in the skin. Collage is what gives skin its elasticity, and without it, skin starts to stretch and sag.
Some habits and outside factors can also inhibit collagen production or damage existing collagen in your body. Smoking is a big one; nicotine and the assorted other horrible chemicals in cigarettes or other tobacco products, and combustion, damage collagen and inhibit the body's ability to make more of it. Too much sunshine is another; UV rays break down collagen and reduce collagen production, which is why people who spend large portions of their lives in the sun tend to get wrinkles faster than those who don't.
Additionally, sugar and refined carbs are terrible for collagen production. Sugar specifically inhibits collagen's ability to repair itself. You've probably known for a while now that sugar is bad for you, so this just adds one more reason to avoid it to the pile.
How to Get Collagen
You can get more collagen through your diet, and that's about it. Collagen is a large protein molecule, so it isn't absorbed through the skin, even in carriers. It can be injected, like a filler treatment, but the collagen itself isn't used by the body when you inject it, it just acts as a protein filler.
There are three general ways you'll see collagen on the market as a supplement or as a product: whole collagen, collagen peptides, and bone broth.
"Whole" collagen is the full collagen molecule. You consume this protein, and your body digests it, breaking it down into its constituent parts. From there, it can use those parts to fuel more collagen production. This is considered less effective than other methods because you naturally lose some collagen to slow digestion.
Collagen peptides purport to solve this problem by, essentially, coming "pre-digested". They aren't digested, of course; they're simply broken down into some component parts, the peptides that make up the collagen protein. The theory is that your body can use these more directly, without as much need to digest them, so it's more effective to take peptides than "whole" collagen.
Bone broth is basically "whole" collagen, along with a range of other proteins and nutrients found in bones. It's made by boiling animal bones to extract the collagen, then filtering and purifying the resulting broth for consumption.
You can also get collagen in the form of gelatin, which is essentially the same thing as a bone broth but with more moisture removed. Gelatin is quite purified, but it is still an animal product, with all that entails.
There's some debate in the scientific community as to whether or not collagen actually works. There's not actually all that much evidence to support that eating collagen increases your body's collagen production or usage. However, giving your body protein is generally a good thing, so it's difficult to tell. It's possible that collagen supplements are simply a good source of protein, or maybe they directly benefit collagen production. Maybe one day we'll know for sure.
The Vegetarian and Vegan Problem with Collagen
If you're adhering to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you've probably caught a couple of warning signs in this post so far. You're right.
Collagen is an animal product.
Collagen comes from animals, from boiling skin and bones and connective tissues, and extracting the collagen itself. Whether it's in a nearly-raw form like bone broth or a highly refined form like peptides, it's still a product that, originally, came from animals.
If you want to avoid animal products but still boost your body's collagen, you essentially have three options.
Option 1: you can compromise on your diet for this one thing. Collagen, in a pure form like peptides or gelatin, is an animal product, but it's not really equivalent to eating meat. It's unlikely to cause digestive issues the way eating meat after a long vegan diet might, for example. So, it really depends on WHY you're going with a vegetarian or vegan diet.
If you have allergies or sensitivities to meat, collagen is probably fine, but you may need to make sure you're getting pure collagen or peptides. If you're vegan because of ethical issues involved in animal products, you can find ethically sourced forms of collagen for a slight premium. It's up to you if this is an option, depending on how strict you are with your diet.
Option 2: you can find and take a "vegan collagen" supplement. Now, we don't really recommend this, for two reasons. The first is that there's no such thing as vegan collagen. Scientists are working on producing synthetic collagen for use as supplements, but for now, no such supplements exist.
That leads us to point two: anything labeled vegan collagen does not actually include collagen or any collagen-like molecules. They tend to be "collagen boosters", which are supposedly formulas of nutrients that promote the production of more collagen in your body. However, if you look over the ingredients, they're rarely that focused; they tend to be mixtures of things like plant silica and aloe vera. While those are great nutrients, they aren't really related to collagen at all.
Option 3: you can eat more foods that are high in the nutrients your body uses to produce collagen. As mentioned above, your body needs four things to produce collagen: glycine, proline, copper, and vitamin C.
Out of these three options, Option 3 is going to most likely be the best for vegetarians and vegans.
Proline is primarily an animal product, but can also be obtained through soy foods and some dairy. Vegetarians can get proline from eggs, milk, and cheeses. Vegans will be limited largely to soy products to get enough proline in their diets. Some seeds, like sunflower seeds, can provide some as well. You can also get small amounts of proline from vegetables like cabbage, chives, asparagus, cucumbers, and watercress.
Glycine is also primarily an animal product and, much like proline, can be found in dairy products. Vegetarians are good here, with the range of milk and cheese products available. Vegans will need to find it, again, in soy products, as well as some other legumes.
Copper is a common mineral, though the list of foods that are rich in copper is again primarily animal products. Liver and shellfish, for example, are high in copper. Neither are available for vegetarians or vegans – heck, plenty of meat-eaters don't eat liver either – but there are plant-based sources of copper readily available. Spirulina is one such option, as are shiitake mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. Of all of the ingredients in collagen, copper is the one least likely to give you problems.
Vitamin C is one of the most common, easiest, and safest vitamins to supplement. Basically, all fruits and vegetables have vitamin C in them, on some level, though some foods are higher than others. In fact, vegans have the advantage over meat-eaters here; meat is a poor source of vitamin C across the board.
Additional Nutrients to Consider
While the four above are the only nutrients truly necessary to produce collagen in your body, there are other nutrients you can eat to help out along the way. Some of them fill other roles, like suppressing inflammation and helping to minimize damage to existing collagen. Others help your body in other ways, allowing it to focus more on collagen production and less on other uses of the amino acids and vitamins.
Anthocyanin is an anti-inflammatory nutrient that helps suppress inflammation throughout the body. It also helps fight off free radicals that would otherwise damage collagen or collagen production. You can get this nutrient primarily from berries such as blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries.
Lysine is another amino acid that can be useful throughout the body for a wide range of reasons. It helps your body absorb calcium, which protects your bones. It also helps protect collagen from being broken down by enzymes that would destroy it, making your natural collagen production last longer. You can get lysine in a vegetarian diet through tofu, brewer's yeast, and spirulina.
Vitamin A has been shown to have some benefits to collagen production, in the active form called retinol. Retinol, unfortunately, is an animal product as well. You'll need to pull the same trick you're pulling with collagen: get more of the precursors to allow your body to synthesize retinol. You'll want beta-carotene, which you can get from carrots, apricots, broccoli, kale, and sweet potatoes.
Manganese is a mineral that your body uses to synthesize proline and use it in the production of collagen. You don't need a lot of it, and you can get it from a wide variety of different foods, including pineapple, leafy greens, nuts, seaweed, and whole grains. Vegans are probably getting more than enough of these types of nutrients, as long as they are eating nutrient-dense foods.
Zinc is another mineral your body uses to make the stuff that makes the stuff that makes collagen. See, this is why it's so hard to engineer supplements; everything is interconnected. In any case, you can get zinc from a variety of different sources. Oysters are the best, but they're not vegan. Instead, look for it in seeds, nuts, and beans.
Do You Really Need to Supplement Collagen?
Reading through all of this, you might feel like it's a whole lot of trouble to go through to supplement something that might not even really work. Should you even bother?
The fact is, you probably don't need to go out of your way to supplement collagen in your diet unless you have reason to believe you're deficient in some way. Some people with autoimmune diseases like Lupus, for example, will want to supplement collagen to offset the deficient production caused by the disease.
If you're simply aging or worried about the appearance of your skin, there are much better, more effective ways to boost your skin health other than focusing on collagen. Staying out of the sun, and using sunscreen when you're spending time in the sun, is one great choice. Sun damage is broadly responsible for far more wrinkles than a lack of collagen. Additionally, if you smoke, quit. It's killing you in way more ways than just collagen inhibition.
Finally, if you can strive to cut back on carbs and, especially, processed sugar, do so. Many vegans are already relatively healthy in their diets, but it's easy to go heavy on the carbs when you're not eating a lot of animal protein. Try to avoid refined carbs whenever possible.
If you're not able to take collagen, you can supplement it with superfoods and vitamins. If you're not eating enough nutrient-dense foods, there are supplements that can help you with that as well.