Aside from natural aging, poor diet is the main reason why people don’t have enough collagen. Your body cannot make collagen if it does not have the necessary building materials to make that collagen. In this article we will look at which nutrients are needed for optimal collagen production and what you should eat to maintain it.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body. Connective tissue, for example, is made of collagen. As the name implies, this type of tissue connects other tissues. Connective tissue is an important part of the bones, skin, muscles, tendons and cartilage. It helps to make tissues strong and resilient. It provides elasticity and strength.
While you can’t measure your collagen level, you can tell when it’s dropping. The symptoms include wrinkles, stiffer and less flexible tendons, weaker muscles, joint pain or osteoarthritis due to worn cartilage.
As we age, our body gradually produces less collagen. Reducing collagen leads to wrinkles on your skin and delayed wound healing.
At least 30% of your body’s protein content is made from collagen. Collagen is made of four amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins: proline, glycline, lysine and hydroxyproline. These amino acids are grouped together in a form known as a triple helix. In order to form this triple helix, you must have enough vitamin C, zinc, copper and manganese in your diet.
But let’s start with protein. Because without enough protein in your diet, collagen cannot be made. A healthy adult needs about 0.83 grams of protein per 1 kilogram of body weight per day. For example, if you weigh 60 kg, then you need 60 × 0.83 = 50 grams of protein per day. For vegetarians and vegans, this amount is 20% and 30% higher, respectively. This is due to the poorer digestibility of vegetable proteins and because vegetable proteins sometimes contain fewer essential amino acids. As a vegetarian of 60 kg, you therefore need 60 grams of protein per day. As a vegan of 60 kg, you need 65 g of protein.
All proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids are often compared to building blocks. Twenty different amino acids have to be ‘joined’ together so that a complete protein is created in the human body. Some of these amino acids are essential. This means that our body cannot make them on its own, so we have to get these amino acids every day with food. Lysine (one of the four amino acids required for collagen production) is essential. In this article you can read about which foods are rich in lysine.
If you are planning to take a collagen supplement, it is important to know that the triple helix that makes up collagen cannot be absorbed in its entirety. It will first be broken down into individual amino acids in the gastrointestinal tract before reaching the bloodstream. Your body will then form new proteins where it deems it necessary. These new proteins may not contain the same amino acids that were initially ingested in the collagen supplement. Therefore, it is simply not possible to determine whether the body will use a collagen supplement in the way you might hope: to make your skin younger, or to make your joints feel less sore.
That’s why supplement manufacturers are increasingly coming up with formulas that do not contain pure collagen, but rather individual amino acids and collagen-promoting nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, copper and manganese.
Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is necessary for the synthesis of collagen, among other things.
Consuming five varied servings (400 g) of fruits and vegetables per day provides an average of 200 mg of vitamin C. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin C is 75 mg. The best way to get enough vitamin C is simply to make sure that you eat four ounces of fruit and vegetables (combined) daily.
Zinc is also necessary for the formation of collagen. In fact, collagen is produced in the skin by zinc-dependent enzymes called collagenases.
As far as is known, zinc deficiency is uncommon in developed countries. However, vegetarians and especially vegans have an increased risk of zinc deficiency. The bioavailability of zinc in plant products is lower than that of animal foods. The term bioavailable refers to how well a nutrient is absorbed by our body.
The following vegan products are rich in zinc: legumes (lentils and beans), nuts, kernels and seeds, whole grains. If you want to learn more about zinc functions in our body and about the best vegetarian sources of zinc, please read this article.
Copper is important for building collagen.
The absorption of copper in the body is self-regulated. You absorb it better if your diet does not contain a lot of copper. And vice versa, if there is a lot of copper in your diet, copper is absorbed less efficiently.
A copper deficiency is rare in healthy people. It mainly occurs in people with genetic disorders or malabsorption problems such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
If you want to know more about the mineral copper, read this article.
Manganese supports optimal collagen production. Collagen proteins contain proline, an amino acid that helps shape collagen fibers. Manganese activates enzymes that your cells use to make proline.
But beyond that, scientists make no firm claims regarding manganese and health. They also have not set an RDA allowance for this mineral. The Health Council of the Netherlands, for instance, only offers the so-called adequate intake, which is 3 mg manganese per day for adults.
Less than 10% of manganese from food is absorbed by our body. This seems little. But manganese is abundant in most plant foods. Most people do not get a manganese deficiency.
What foods are best for collagen production? As we age, collagen production decreases. You can counteract it by specifically making sure that you eat enough protein. And that you get enough vitamin C, zinc, copper and manganese. But it’s also important to remember that collagen production drops rapidly from overexposure to the sun, from smoking, from excessive alcohol consumption, and from lack of sleep or exercise.