Should You Be Adding Collagen to Your Diet?

Here's what you need to know about the trendy powder people are adding to their coffee and smoothies. Are you missing out on some serious benefits?

By now you probably know the difference between your protein powders and your matcha teas. And you can probably tell coconut oil from avocado oil. Now, in the spirit of turning basically everything good and healthy into powder form, there's another product on the market: powdered collagen. It's the stuff you're used to seeing listed as an ingredient on skincare products. But now celebs and health foodies (including Jennifer Aniston) are on board with ingesting it, and you may have even spotted a coworker sprinkling it into her oatmeal, coffee, or smoothie.

So, what is collagen?

Collagen is the magical stuff that keeps the skin plump and smooth, and it helps keep joints strong, too. The protein can be found naturally in the body's muscles, skin, and bones, and makes up about 25 percent of your total body mass, says Joel Schlessinger, M.D., a Nebraska-based dermatologist. But as the body's collagen production slows (which it does at a rate of about 1 percent per year beginning at age 20, says Schlessinger), wrinkles start to creep in and joints might not feel as resilient as they once did. That's why many people looking to boost their body's collagen levels turn to outside sources like supplements or creams, which get their collagen from cows, fish, chickens, and other animals (though it is possible to find a plant-based version for vegans).

What are the benefits of edible collagen?

"While animal and plant collagens are not exactly the same as the collagen found in our bodies, they have been shown to have a positive impact on the skin when combined with other anti-aging ingredients in skincare products," says Schlessinger. Note, though, that he mentions collagen can be helpful when it's delivered in skincare products-not supplements. "While collagen supplements, drinks, and powders have surged in popularity in the beauty world, you shouldn't expect noticeable benefits in skin from ingesting them," he says. It's even harder to believe that ingesting collagen could help tackle a particular problem area, like the wrinkles around your eyes that seem to get deeper by the day. "It's impossible for an oral supplement to reach specific areas and target the places that need a boost most," says Schlessinger. Plus, taking powdered collagen could have negative side effects such as bone pain, constipation, and fatigue.

Similarly, Harley Pasternak, a celebrity trainer who has an MSc in exercise physiology and nutritional sciences, says ingesting collagen powder won't boost your skin. "People think now there's collagen in our skin, in our hair...and if I eat collagen then maybe the collagen in my body will get stronger," he says. "Unfortunately that's not how the human body works."

The collagen trend took off when companies realized that collagen protein was cheaper to produce than other protein sources, says Pasternak. "Collagen is not a very good quality protein," he says. "It doesn't have all the essential acids that you would need from other quality proteins, it's not very bioavailable. So as far as proteins go, collagen is a cheap protein to manufacture. It's marketed to help your skin your nails and your hair, however, it's not been proven to do so."

Still, some experts disagree, saying ingestible collagen does lives up to the hype. Michele Green, M.D., a New York dermatologist, says collagen powder can boost the skin's elasticity, support hair, nail, skin, and joint health, and has a decent amount of protein. And science backs her up: One study published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology found that skin elasticity significantly improved when study participants between the ages of 35 and 55 took a collagen supplement for eight weeks. Another study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging noted that taking a collagen supplement for three months increased collagen density in the crow's feet area by 19 percent, and yet another study found collagen supplements helped lessen joint pain among college athletes. These studies sound promising, but Vijaya Surampudi, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA's division of clinical nutrition, says more research is needed because many of the studies so far have been small or were sponsored by a company.

What to do now to protect your collagen

If you want to try out the powdered supplement yourself, Green recommends consuming 1 to 2 tablespoons of collagen powder a day, which is easy to add to whatever you're eating or drinking since it's virtually tasteless. (You should get approval from your doctor first, she notes.) But if you decide to wait for more definitive research, you can still protect the collagen you already have by adjusting your current lifestyle habits. (Also: Why It's Never Too Early to Start Protecting the Collagen In Your Skin) Wear sunscreen every day-yes, even on cloudy days-stay away from cigarettes, and get enough sleep each night, says Schlessinger. Sticking to a healthy diet is also key, and Green says loading up on collagen-rich foods such as those with vitamin C and high antioxidant counts can have a positive effect on the skin and joints as well.

And if you're really hung up on maxing out your collagen levels for anti-aging reasons, consider investing in a moisturizer so you can apply collagen topically rather than ingest it. "Look for formulas that feature peptides as a key ingredient to experience anti-aging benefits and a boost in skin health," says Schlessinger. Collagen breaks down into chains of amino acids called peptides, so applying a peptide-based cream can help promote the body's natural collagen production.

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