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Chicken, fish, pork, and other protein-dense foods can help keep your skin looking and feeling young, thanks to the revitalizing power of collagen.
But what’s the deal with collagen in supplement form?
It usually means one of two things when buzzwords like collagen manage to rise above their thousands of competitors in the riotous health and wellness market: either the people running the scam are really smart, or the product is actually legitimate.
Considering collagen-rich foods already contain a “product” made by the human body, it’s hard to argue for the former.
But your body needs help to keep collagen production pumping as you age into your 30s and beyond, which is why well-crafted supplements can be hugely beneficial.
Here’s how you can support this effort, complete with an introduction to this crucial protein.
Collagen is a structural protein used by the body for skin, hair, muscle, connective tissue, and bone development and maintenance.
It’s almost a complete protein, meaning that it contains all the essential amino acids (not produced by the body) with the exception of tryptophan, the stuff in turkey that allegedly makes you sleepy.
This supplement can make just as much a difference in the face, i.e., reducing wrinkles and restoring a taut, plump appearance, as it can for hair, muscles, and other tissues.
Since collagen is so important for joints, hair, skin, nails, and more, bodybuilders and beauty bloggers alike have taken an interest in collagen-boosting supplements and foods.
Supplements can help a lot, but today, we’re focusing on collagen-rich foods and/or foods that can enhance collagen production.
Like any other protein, collagen is built from amino acids.
According to “Biochemistry, Collagen Synthesis,” a StatPearls entry from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, the amino acid sequence required for collagen synthesis is “glycine-proline-X or glycine-X-dydroxyproline,” where X can be any of the other 17 amino acids.
To varying degrees, we can derive these amino acids from foods.
They can be found in many protein sources, but you can also source dietary collagen directly from the connective tissue found in minimally processed poultry, beef, and fish.
In other words, we can piece together the building blocks of collagen from different foods, and/or we can find some collagen-rich foods that already provide them all.
In addition to amino acids, there are also several important non-protein nutrients required for collagen (and its precursor, pro-collagen) to successfully complete the synthesis process.
For example, even though vitamin C isn’t a collagen building block, it is still an essential catalyst for the chemical reactions that create and modify pro-collagen.
As such, our list of pro-collagen foods goes beyond protein sources, incorporating foods that allow your body to use what it already has protein-wise more efficiently.
Instead of rattling off a dozen or two food items with no explanation as to how they support collagen synthesis, we’re going to also group these pro-collagen foods by nutrient so you can expand the list on your own.
First, here’s the list:
Like vitamin C, there are several nutrients outside of the direct constituents of collagen (whole collagen and amino acids) that contribute to the production process, which involves several reactions.
Even if your diet contains a high amount of collagen-rich foods, falling short in support categories may hinder your body’s ability to access this key protein.
That said, we’ll start with the most obvious: dietary collagen and other proteins that kick in the needed amino acids.
Animals have collagen too, and like humans, it is generally more concentrated throughout connective tissue.
In other words, meat dishes that allow access to connective tissue (not just bones—picture the thin film encasing a chicken breast) can provide us with a direct source of whole collagen.
This review of “functional collagen peptides” in the diet by an independent nutrition researcher from Los Angeles breaks down some of the most collagen-dense food groups, including the average collagen protein content of these foods by dry weight percentage.
Beef, pork, veal, lamb, and game (all one group) weighed in at 5.15% collagen, chicken and other poultry at 1.4%, seafood at 5.5%, and frankfurters, sausages, and luncheon meats at a whopping 55.43%.
Of course, processed red meat is the fast track to heart disease and obesity, so it’s much better to source your dietary collagen from fish, poultry, and lamb.
The next best thing after sourcing this structural protein directly from foods with collagen is to “build” it yourself by piecing together the required amino acids.
This means finding high-quality protein sources that are either complete (meaning they provide every essential amino acid) or almost complete.
There’s a decent amount of overlap with this category and the one above, since several collagen-rich foods are also complete proteins, but here’s a more expansive list:
As mentioned, the human body would not be able to produce collagen without the help of vitamin C, which acts as a key ingredient (technical term: cofactor) in the series of chemical reactions needed for collagen synthesis.
Here’s a list of vitamin-C-rich foods to keep your skin healthy, your immune system supported, and much more:
This is but a small sample from a huge range, but don’t be flustered—simply upping your fruit and vegetable intake is sure to raise your vitamin C consumption.
As is the case with so many other compounds and tissues in the body, antioxidants are crucial to preventing the premature degradation of collagen and the amino acids used to synthesize it.
Conveniently, vitamin C has fairly potent antioxidant properties, and even more conveniently, eating foods from the vitamin C list will already provide other antioxidants.
With this commonality comes overlap, but still, opening the field of pro-collagen nutrients and foods to all antioxidants (not just vitamin C) brings several more options in.
Here’s a sample:
Thanks to the infinitely growing marketing budgets of cosmetic and health food companies, we probably don’t have to explain that these antioxidant-rich foods will do far more than boost your collagen content.
Again, simply upping your intake of (a variety of) fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes will fortify your body against skin degradation, heart disease, obesity, and a whole lot more.
Here’s a refresher on everything we covered:
In other words, this has all been one long iteration of the same thing you’ve been hearing your whole life: eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources, and you’ll have much less to worry about.
Energy drinks and sugary snacks may be louder, sweeter, and faster-acting than natural sources of sugar, but rarely are those benefits conferred without some form of reckoning down the road.
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