The world of sports supplements is constantly changing and collagen is one of the rising stars, becoming an ingredient in more and more products. We need collagen to support our bodies in so many ways, and it can be especially helpful for athletes who push their bodies harder than most during regular training – but does that mean collagen supplements? worth buying?
For an unbiased and expert take on collagen and how to get what you need, we spoke to dietitian Linia Patel, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. You find it in bones, muscles, tendons, hair, cartilage, and even blood vessels. I think most people think of collagen in terms of the skin, but it’s actually all over. Structurally, if you’re talking about what collagen is, it’s three amino acids coiled up to form a very strong helix.
As you age, your collagen level naturally decreases. How quickly it decreases is influenced by a number of factors such as diet, sun exposure, smoking, stress levels.
You can’t actually measure your level, but you know you have less collagen on board when you start to have wrinkled skin, for example, or less flexible tendons and ligaments. Slightly weaker muscles, joint pain, and bowel problems are also linked to collagen.
Can You Get Collagen From Your Food?
In a sense. You make collagen by combining the three amino acids I mentioned. These amino acids can be found in high protein foods from animal products. Foods that are perfect for this are fish, chicken and beef, or the broth made from them. Vegetarians can still get it from foods like legumes, whole grains, and nuts, but you’ll need to eat more of it.
Can your collagen needs be met through a balanced diet?
We don’t have a recommendation for how much [of the amino acids that make up collagen] we have to eat – all through a balanced diet. In the production of collagen, even when you put all three amino acids together, you still need vitamin C, zinc, and copper to produce it. That is why you need a healthy and balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C, and zinc is also found in meat, dairy products, and legumes, which also provide copper.
How much research has been done on collagen supplements?
I must first point out that this is a relatively new topic – the last five years – and that research on this subject is quite limited. Much of the research that exists tends to be funded by industry, which would make sense to a certain extent because if you are producing a supplement you want to have research behind it. However, in the scientific world, this means that the results are slightly biased.
Lots of studies are in the lab, but there are more on humans to come, and I have to say that although evidence is scarce, it looks promising – but with the massive caveat that the research we have is not yet high level.
What Benefits Could Be Linked to Collagen Supplements?
Most of the research has been done on bone and joint health and on the skin. Maybe gut health would be the third. In terms of sport, the benefits would be linked to the health of bones and joints: people who suffer from it or their ability to recover after surgery, such as reconstruction if they have had an ACL ligament tear.
Research focuses on osteoarthritis, pain reduction and stiffness reduction. And it shows that taking supplements helps relieve pain and stiffness in the short term.
Are there any downsides to using supplements?
If you stop taking the supplements, you will not benefit. Basically, if you start taking a supplement, it’s not something you do for a few months, it’s something you do for a lifetime.
So what if you didn’t, you could just deal with the pain?
Overall, should people focus on their diet if they are concerned about collagen?
As a dietician, it is above all about food. Eat a healthy, balanced diet, incorporating all the nutrients and then – if your wallet allows because these supplements aren’t necessarily cheap – maybe take some collagen. This could have a positive effect on the joints; it could have a positive effect on gut health.
But I would say again that the research is still in its early stages and while what we have seen is positive, it is not enough for our scientists to say yes, absolutely, take it yet. The research is not of good enough quality and it has not been done for long enough. If you want to supplement that is fine, just know that you are doing it forever.