It’s hard to ignore the collagen craze. We were first re-introduced to its importance in our health a few years ago with the emergence of bone broth. Then came the collagen powders, treats, and subsequent FOMO with so much to benefit from collagen, from improving skin, strengthening joints and preventing disease, it’s in everyone’s interest to get on board the collagen craze. But how can non-meat eaters boost collagen without eating animal-based collagen? Here’s how to do it.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant amino acid (proteins) in our bodies. It is found in our muscles, joints, bones, skin, blood vessels, digestive system, and tendons. It is what provides our skin with elasticity and strength as well as replaces dead skin cells. Consider collagen the “glue” that holds the body together.
There are five types of collagen, each with its own use in the body:
- Type 1: Connective tissue of skin, bone, teeth, tendons, ligaments, fascia, organ capsules
- Type 2: cartilage
- Type 3: connective tissue of organs (liver, spleen, kidneys, etc.)
- Type 4, 5: The separating layer between epithelial and endothelial cells as well as a between skeletal or smooth muscle cells, kidney glomeruli, lens capsule, and Schwann and glial cells of the nervous system.
Why Do we Need Collagen?
As we age, collagen production in our bodies begins to wane. This results in visible signs of aging, including wrinkles and sagging skin. A subpar dietary regimen (i.e. one that is high in sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods) or harmful habits (i.e. smoking) can also contribute to the decline in collagen production. A collagen-boosting diet is thus a great way to reverse the signs of aging and maintain proper internal health.
NYC based dermatologist, Dr. Julie Russak weighs in: “Hormonal aging is a change in hormone levels that occurs when you age. Women reach their peak level of hormonal vitality and fertility between the ages of 25 and 27 causing a natural collagen production decline, therefore, we recommend taking a dietary collagen in your early 20s to get a head start. By your 30s, visible signs of aging appear and collagen should be incorporated more aggressively.”
But when trying to boost collagen levels, some of us run into an obvious setback: we don't consume meat, or bones, or anything to do with animals. Luckily, this actually isn’t a problem when you want to actively boost collagen. There are plant-based solutions!
How to Get More Collagen on a Plant-Based Diet
The answer is straightforward: vitamin C. Collagen is everywhere in the body, but you don’t have to consume is straight as it is to boost your own internal terrain. When vitamin C enters the body’s cells, it hydroxylates (adds hydrogen and oxygen) to two amino acids: proline and lysine. This forms a precursor molecule called pro-collagen that is the packaged and modified into collagen outside of the cell. This is one of the reasons why vitamin C is so important for your skin, immunity, and overall health!
“Vitamin C actually helps make up 18 types of collagen found in the body. And when consumed, Vitamin C targets skin needing a collagen production boost while helping preserve existing collagen from damage,” Dr. Russak explains.
What to Eat for Vitamin C (And it’s Helpers)
Founder of The Healthy Apple and author of best-selling book, "Eating Clean: The 21-Day Plan to Detox, Fight Inflammation," and "Reset Your Body", Amie Valpone paints a delicious picture, “Oranges, broccoli and papaya are my favorite! I use oranges to make salad dressings in place of lemon juice!” Russak suggests citrus fruits, tomatoes and tomato juice, and potatoes as well as red and green peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries, cantaloupe.
Even so, Valpone says the math is a bit more tricky, “There are many nutrients that support collagen production so it's more complicated than just listing out foods because it comes down to having the correct amino acids present.”
It turns out that vitamin C doesn’t work alone. The body needs a sufficient supply of proline, glycine, and lysine to synthesize collagen. Glycine and proline are considered “conditional” amino acids, which means that the body is generally able to create them internally. However, not everyone’s body is producing ideal amounts on its own. Glycine-rich foods include banana, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, kale, kiwi, pumpkin, and spinach. Proline-rich foods include alfalfa sprouts, asparagus, beans, buckwheat, cucumber, cabbage, chives, tempeh, watercress, and white mustard seeds. Then there is lysine, another amino acid that is required for collagen synthesis. It isn’t as readily available but can be found in black beans, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, pistachios, potatoes, pumpkin seeds, tempeh, and quinoa.
Vitamin C, however, remains the most important. Without it, collagen cannot be synthesized in the body. Period.
You don’t need to consume collagen powder, bone broth, or other animal parts to boost your body’s collagen levels. A vegan or vegetarian diet is enough -- simply boost your vitamin C consumption and make sure your diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and beans.
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