Over the past few years, the word collagen has become a real buzzword in the realms of beauty, health and wellness, promising us bouncy, wrinkle-free skin and better joint and bone health. This apparent elixir of youth is infused in everything from skin creams to smoothies, and don’t even bother running a google search on ‘best collagen supplement’ because the number of results will make your head spin.
So what is this miracle thing… and is it really all it’s cracked up to be? In this blog post, I breakdown the facts and myths about collagen, particularly around vegan collagen supplements.
Collagen for vegans is a hotly debated topic, as it is yet another one of those things that people tend to claim you can’t get with a plant-based diet. Lies… and there is even a pretty solid argument for why vegan collagen is preferable over animal produced alternatives.
So, What Even is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in humans, making up around 30% of our total protein mass. The reason why there is so much of it? It does a lot of important jobs; in fact, it basically holds the body together. It’s in our skin (like a lot, like 75% of it), our joints, bones, tendons, even our eyes and blood vessels!
So what does it do? In short, it keeps us bouncy. The most prevalent type of collagen in our bodies (fibrillar collagen) is key in maintaining the structures of our body, which means it is both sturdy but also tensile, or stretchy. This balance of strength and flexibility is basically the sweet spot for all things in life… but to bring it back to the realm of collagen, and specifically its anti-ageing and skincare qualities, it helps keep our joints juicy and skin smooth and wrinkle-free.
As I said bouncy, and not just looking youthful, but feeling youthful… it’s basically the spring in your step (and skin and knee joints)!
How Do I Get Collagen, plz?
The body is pretty good at making its own; however, as we age, it gets less good. Unfortunately, we start breaking down collagen quicker than we make it. It’s estimated that the breakdown begins around age 20 when we start producing around 1% less every year. However, there are a lot of variables to do with lifestyle and genes too that affect collagen production. But it is no secret that as we age our skin wrinkles and becomes less elastic, and our joints start seizing up too.
So, what can be done about this? There are certainly lifestyle changes we can make minimise increased collagen breakdown, such as wearing sunscreen, smoking less… and of course eating right.
How to Eat for Optimal Collagen
Collagen is a protein made of 19 different amino acids (if you are unsure about what amino acids are and how they make up proteins, then check out my blog on BCAA for vegans where I break it all down).
It is a misnomer that we need to eat collagen to create more collagen in the body. Instead, we need to make sure that we are supporting both our body’s collagen production as well as trying to preserve existing collagen.
It’s not always as simple as taking a supplement — the body is complicated, just because we give it what we think it needs doesn’t necessarily mean we get the results we hoped for. However, when it comes to collagen there is good news! Studies, such as this one, have shown great results on improving skin elasticity and health in older women after taking a collagen supplement regularly over a sustained period.
Essential Nutrients for Collagen Production
So what goes into producing and preserving collagen? You need not just the primary amino acids of collagen but the specific nutrients needed to support the synthesis of collagen in the body. Key in the production of collagen are:
- Protein — a wide spectrum of amino acids make up collagen, but most prevalent are glycine, hydroxyproline, and proline
- Vitamin C
Other recommended minerals are:
- Hyaluronic Acid
- Vitamin A
My advice? Eat a well-balanced, plant-based diet to make sure you get a full spectrum on the nutrients you need, but you might also want to take a collagen supplement.
This is where the myth about vegans and collagen comes in. A majority of collagen supplements are made from collagen — makes sense, because collagen contains a bulk of what the body needs to create more collagen… One major caveat, ALL direct sources of collagen come from animals. Why? Because plants don’t need collagen, so they don’t produce it!
Wait, does that mean there are no actual sources of collagen for vegans?!
Of course, there are!! To create more collagen the body just needs all the ingredients, i.e. those amino acids, vitamins and minerals, which the body then uses to generate collagen.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that you need a supplement made of collagen to produce more collagen. Want to know why? When you consume anything — food source, supplement, whatever — the body digests it. As in, it breaks it down into its building blocks (amino acids, sugars, fatty acids) and then transforms it into what it actually needs! So when you take a collagen supplement, be it plant-based or otherwise, that same process of breaking it down into its basic units occurs.
What’s the Best Source of Collagen for Vegans?
I make sure I eat a healthy, balanced, vegan diet (it’s not difficult to do at all, check out my vegan grocery list if you want some guidance), but I do also use a vegan collagen builder supplement.
Vegan Food Sources of Collagen
It’s highly likely that you already get adequate protein in your plant-based diet, but if you are on a collagen drive, you might want to emphasise it.
Soy products are great as they are complete proteins, but also pulses and legumes, nuts etc. Legumes and nuts are also a good source of biotin so you are packing in some extra collagen-boosting power with them!
Of course, lots of fruit and vegetables to make sure you are getting the vitamins and minerals you need. Orange and yellow plants tend to be high in vitamin A, and broccoli, citrus fruits and kiwis are a good source of vitamin C. But I wouldn’t split hairs over it, eating a wide variety of fruit and veg will give you everything you need to keep your whole body working as it should.
Antioxidants help to promote the production and slow down the breakdown of collagen, so up your blueberry and green tea intake.
If you like superfoods, then spirulina and sea buckthorn are good collagen supporting choices.
Vegan Collagen Supplements
Vegan collagen supplements are usually called collagen builders — because they contain everything your body needs to build more and preserve existing collagen.
A quality supplement contains everything needed specifically for collagen production and preservation in the ideal quantities. You may be able to take care of it solely through diet, but if you are noticing a marked lack of bounce in your skin or achy joints, it’s worth seeing if a supplement makes a difference.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any studies testing the efficacy of vegan collagen builders — although anecdotally (and I include myself in this) they do seem to work.
Why Choose Vegan Collagen Supplements Over Traditional Non-Vegan Ones
There are also additional benefits of using a vegan collagen builder. A majority of non-vegan collagen supplements are ethically culpable as they source the animal parts they use from factory-farmed animals. Not only does this perpetuate animal cruelty, but they also have a larger carbon footprint as a result.
Also, many of the popular supplements have been found to contain a toxic heavy metal. One study on popular brands of bone broth, which is rich in collagen, by independent body Consumer Wellness, found trace amounts of antibiotics, insecticides, and pharmacological drugs in the majority of products available.
So when you weigh everything up it’s clear to see that vegan collagen builders and supplements are a much better choice.
Recommended Vegan Collagen Builder Supplements
If you are desperate to make one of those collagen smoothies you see all over Instagram, then SunWarrior Collagen Building Protein Peptides has my vote.
If you prefer a capsule form, then Garden of Life’s collagen builder is one of the few non-powders that gets good results.
Skincare and Collagen for Vegans
When it comes to collagen, you are more than what you eat. Sun damage and smoking are major collagen destroyers, so if you don’t already incorporate a high factor SPF into your daily skin regime, now is an excellent time to start (as is cutting down smoking…).
You might also notice skin creams and serum which are said to contain or stimulate collagen… the thing is the body needs to produce collagen inside out (through your diet) so it’s basically impossible for these to actually give your skin more collagen. HOWEVER, they do often have a plumping effect on the skin making it look juicier and dewier.
My recommendation, though, is to make sure you have a good skincare regime (which includes eating well, staying hydrated, and sleeping enough) and investing in some quality vegan skincare products that both nourish and protect the skin!
So that is everything you need to know about collagen for vegans!