If you’re looking for collagen to boost your workout or lead to faster fat loss, there are better protein options. But, if you’re hoping for healthier skin, joint health benefits, and potentially some help fighting inflammation, then the right collagen product could be exactly what you need (just make sure you take a close look at the label).
Have you ever wondered why collagen -- a protein that's only high in 3 amino acids and has a low protein digestibility score -- is nearly twice as expensive as proteins that have all of the essential amino acids and more absorbed?
It's a common question asked by some of the most respected nutritionists, and something to keep in the back of your mind when searching for the right collagen powder for you. Collagen has some benefits, but there's more to the protein than meets the eye.
In order to make sure you find the best product, here's what you need to know so you can experience all the benefits and avoid the false expectations.
What is Collagen Protein?
Collagen is a fibrous protein that is particularly high in 3 amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline) that help make up the connective tissues in your body, and can be found in animal proteins like eggs, chicken, bone broth, and dairy.
But, here’s the big problem: collagen is not a complete protein. There are many amino acids in collagen, but most of them are at extremely low levels.
In other words, simply taking a protein that's higher in three amino acids alone does not mean your body can put them to use. There are nine essential amino acids. Your body needs all of these amino acids present in order to trigger protein synthesis, which is the process where your body can put the different amino acids to use.
What are the Proven Benefits of Collagen Protein?
Your body naturally produces collagen, but your collagen production levels begin to decrease after you turn 30.
If you're looking to improve your skin and have joints that feel better, then collagen might be a great choice.
Scientific evidence shows people with joint pain or mobility who took collagen for 4 months significantly improved joint function according to a study in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Other research published in Current Medical Research and Opinion suggests collagen supplements may lessen joint pain among college athletes. And, the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology Research found that collagen may decrease joint stiffness and pain in women.
Most evidence on collagen supplementation shows that it can also improve skin health and reduce so-called "imperfections" like fine lines.
Research suggests you can expect the following benefits:
- Increased skin hydration
- Fewer cracks and dry skin
- Improved skin elasticity
- Fewer lines
- Reduces the appearance of cellulite in women.
While more research is needed, the skin benefits appear the most likely to hold the test of time because the collagen in protein is similar in structure to the collagen in your skin. And that's the exact reason why some other claims are a little more concerning.
How to Choose a Collagen Supplement
A supplement can help, but finding the right supplement makes a big difference.
There are 2 main options for collagen protein supplements, both of which can be found by reading the label.
- hydrolyzed collagen, which is not the same thing as UC-II. Hydrolyzed collagen is perfectly healthy, but many of its benefits are lost during the digestive process. Your stomach has powerful acids, which research shows breaks down hydrolyzed collagen and makes it possible that those amino acids won't survive.
- type-II collagen (also called UC-II) Type-II collagen protein has a different chemical structure, meaning it can slip through the back door of the digestive process, maintain its chemical properties, and still offer you benefits.
To ensure that any supplements you take -- collagen or otherwise -- contain what they actually say they do (and nothing else), your best bet is to choose a product that has been third-party tested by a company such as NSF International and, more specifically, NSF Certified for Sport. This way, you can have peace of mind that what is on the label is actually in the product.
The Best Way to Take Collagen
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Each amino acid has different benefits, and you experience the benefits of amino acids (like younger skin or faster recovery) when you consume all of the essential amino acids (EAAs).
Any protein that has all 9 of the EAAs is considered a "complete protein." And once all 9 are present in your system, then your body can put them to good use.
But, if all 9 amino acids are not present, then your body isn't able to put them to use.
You wind up having what scientists refer to as a "limiting amino acid." In other words, when one amino acid is deficient or not present, proteins can only be synthesized to the level of availability of that one amino acid.
And because your amino acids are replenished every 4-6 hours, you need a constant stream of protein and amino acids.
That means if you're only taking collagen protein -- with its 3 amino acids -- your body would be limited and unable to put the collagen protein to its best use.
[Editor's note: Complete proteins are why Plant or Whey Protein are so popular. They have benefits for everything from muscle building and fat loss, to fighting against aging, boosting your hair and skin, and speeding recovery after exercise.]
That can be frustrating, but the good news is that if you take the right type of collagen (or just combine it with the right protein), you can unlock many benefits. Here's what you can do to make that happen.
Which Health Benefits Are Actually Just Hype?
While the above benefits have support, you won’t find evidence that collagen improves your workout or helps with weight loss or muscle gain.
If you're focused on those goals, taking a high-quality protein powder will still be more effective because of many of the reasons listed above (more amino acids, bioavailability, and it's broken down better in your stomach).