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Just a few years ago, this statement would have been (mostly) true, but today, there actually is a way to source this structural protein in its complete form from vegan-friendly foods.
Even before this innovation, vegans have always had the option to build their own collagen by piecing it together from protein-rich plant foods.
Is collagen vegan in that sense, then?
Before we dive into the several ways vegans can up their collagen production, a quick intro to what this protein is and why vegans need even more of it than their omnivore counterparts.
To a small extent, the dietary choices we make can actually influence which amino acids our bodies produce. Veganism lands on the wrong side of this issue when it comes to collagen.
Collagen is a highly abundant protein in humans and many other animals that builds skin, hair, nails, bone, and connective tissues.
As we age into our late 20s and early 30s, our natural collagen production begins to drop off, which is when wrinkles and sagging skin start to set in.
Combined with smart dieting strategies, a collagen supplement can significantly prolong and diminish these effects.
Challenge number one in the case of vegans is that their natural collagen production takes a larger hit because of their dietary choices, so they have more to supplement.
In this study from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Leukemia Research and Hematology in Vienna, Austria, researchers compared the “expression patterns” of genes that influence collagen productions between omnivores and vegetarians.
Among other discrepancies (vegetarians consume more carbs, big surprise there), the researchers found that collagen production capacity was 10% lower in vegetarians.
In other words, the dietary choices of vegetarians and vegans can actually hamper the ability of their genetic code to instruct the body to make collagen.
Paired with the fact that it’s virtually impossible to source “native collagen” (whole collagen derived directly from animal tissues) on a vegan diet, this poses a problem that could accelerate aging and promote other skin issues.
But all hope is not lost: there are actually several ways in which vegans can improve collagen production.
More than just boosting the amount of collagen that goes into your body, this effort is about preserving what is still being produced, which presents a number of vital opportunities for the devout vegan.
In fact, there are four ways to improve and preserve collagen production.
First, slow down collagen degradation with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods.
Next, and this overlaps somewhat with the first, support natural collagen production with vitamin C and other pro-collagen nutrients.
It’s tougher to do as a vegan, but even if you can’t find a vegan collagen supplement, you can still source the amino acids that make up collagen from plant foods, thereby allowing your body to synthesize it.
Finally, the answer to “Is collagen vegan?” has been forced forward by some pretty nifty research: it can be.
If you’re not doing your part to prevent premature tissue damage, you’ll just be shoveling more collagen into a furnace with a hole in the bottom.
The very fact that we get older every second guarantees an inevitable level of issues in this department, but by staying up too late, not managing stress, using drugs or alcohol, and/or eating too much junk, we’re giving mother nature a neon sign that says “full speed ahead.”
Conversely, if you avoid this lifestyle and regularly load up on antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, spinach, carrots, avocados, and more, you can help tissues and nutrients fend off damage and survive longer, collagen included.
The next step in the vegan collagen reclamation effort is beefing up (poor phrasing?) the support cast.
For example, vitamin C plays an important role in the multi-step process of collagen synthesis, in which pre-pro-polypeptide chain whodawhatsits work with hydroxylase enzyme jobbies to do other intimidatingly technical things.
Jokes aside, anyone interested in the intracellular and extracellular processes of collagen transcription, translation, and modification can check out this StatPearls entry detailing them in their entirety.
Point being, vitamin C is a required ingredient in this complex process, which bodes well for vegans, since plant foods like strawberries, broccoli, citrus fruits, and many more will provide plenty of this pro-collagen nutrient.
Just because vegans can’t source whole collagen directly from native sources (e.g., beef, pork, fish, etc.), doesn’t mean they can’t gather the necessary “collagen ingredients” from protein-rich plant foods.
Like all proteins, collagen is made from sequences of amino acids, including glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and “x” (can be any of the other 17 amino acids).
To be sure, sourcing these amino acids from plant foods is a much more calculated effort than in the carnivore’s case (just have some chicken or beef), but it can still be done with these foods:
Additionally, you have vegan-friendly amino acid supplements to choose from, but make sure you at least get glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline in there.
Let’s clarify: researchers have proven that vegan collagen can be a thing, but truly vegan collagen has not yet been made widely available by supplement brands.
A 30-second troll through Google will bring you to dozens of vegetarian-friendly “collagen boost” supplements, but these products don’t contain complete collagen—just pro-collagen nutrients like those mentioned above.
Still, this fascinating study from FibroGen, Inc. in San Francisco found that certain strains of yeast (Pichia pastoris, Saccharomyces cervisiae, Hansenula polymorpha) and bacteria (Escherichia coli, Bacillus brevis) could be genetically engineered to produce “recombinant human collagen.”
In the study, researchers proved that strains of yeast that they engineered to mirror collagen’s amino acid profile were able to produce these amino acids at a high efficiency while preserving the collagen’s triple helix structure.
In other words, instead of sourcing individual amino acids from several plant foods to build collagen internally, vegans may one day have access to a vegan-friendly supplement that already contains all of these acids.
Reaching optimal collagen levels requires vegans and everyone else to respect how it is produced in the body.
We realize this is a broken record that vegans have heard dozens of times, but there’s simply no way around it in the case of collagen and so many other proteins: variety in the diet is absolutely key.
More than simply filling up your diet with at least a dozen different plant-based foods, it’s important to selectively target pro-collagen amino acid sources like those mentioned above to preserve collagen production.
One day, you may have ready access to a supplement that provides everything you need to make more collagen in one throw, but for now, it’s amino acids, nuts, legumes, seeds, and a whole lot of green.
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