What Is Collagen—And Do You Need It?

By Dana Baardsen | 13 March, 2019


Collagen supplements are taking the nutrition world by storm, and more and more people are incorporating the supplements into their diet these days. But what is collagen, exactly—and do you really need need to be supplementing with it?

What Is Collagen?

Collagen is a structural protein abundant in mammals. It’s chock full of amino acids (specifically glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline), which your body needs to build up muscle, keep connective tissue and bones strong, nourish skin, hair, nails, and more. Over time the human body naturally produces less collagen, which is why taking the protein in supplement form has become a popular alternative.

MORE: 4 Pre-Workout Supplements for Tough Mudder Workouts

But is there a catch when it comes to consuming collagen? We’ve consulted with Dr. Jaime Schehr, ND, RD, CDN, to see if all of the hype is legitimate. Here’s what you need to know:

Can collagen supplements enhance athletic performance?

Taking a collagen protein supplement daily provides a dose of amino acids that support the joints and tissues of the body. These areas tend to be under more stress for athletes. “Collagen can help reduce the inflammation that naturally occurs in tissues during exercise,” Dr. Schehr says, “and therefore it is an important supplement for preventing injury.”

Collagen supplement

Are collagen supplements safe to use?

If you’re considering incorporating collagen supplementation into your daily routine, it’s smart to talk to your physician or healthcare provider first. As with any supplement, especially one that’s animal-derived, it’s important to thoroughly research the brand and product. (Important note: The FDA regulates dietary supplements differently than conventional foods and drugs—and doesn't actually have the authority to review supplements for safety and effectiveness before they hit store shelves. So you're basically taking the manufacturer at its word that the product is safe.)

Choosing a supplement that has been third-party tested, from a brand that certifies (GMP) good manufacture processes, can help ensure quality. There are different organizations that offer third-party testing for supplements, lincluding NSF, BioChecked (for non-GMO certification) and ConsumerLab.com, and you can search their databases. Dr. Schehr also recommends looking for a collagen supplement that’s pasture-raised, hydrolyzed collagen free of additives, sweeteners, and dyes.  

Are there natural ways to boost collagen?

While you may be tempted to stock up on tubs of collagen powder, it’s possible to increase your collagen intake by making adjustments to your diet alone. Nutrition directly from diet is more beneficial since it is always better absorbed by the body than when taking isolated supplements. Consider varying your intake of animal protein and eat more egg whites, gelatin, and foods high in vitamin C— because all of the collagen in the world won’t do much if you don’t have adequate vitamin C intake. The reason? Vitamin C aids in the synthesis and absorption of collagen.

MORE: 5 Surprising Foods With More Vitamin C Than Oranges

Is collagen really a fountain of youth? No, but...

It's known that over time, the human body has a more difficult time synthesizing collagen, which is why skin can start to droop and become wrinkled or bones become more brittle. “Collagen is not the answer to anti-aging, however it is very influential and important in supporting the matrix of skin, hair, nails, and bones," Dr. Schehr says. "These are all areas that tend to break down rapidly as we age.”

Dana Baardsen has been using her degree in nutrition and food science to coach nutrition at gyms and wellness centers in the New York City area and cover health and fitness since 2012. Her work has been featured on Tough Mudder, Fit Pregnancy, Class Pass, Reader's Digest, and more. She edited The Cool Girl's Guide to the FODMAP Diet and chats about weight loss topics as a guest on the "Conquer Your Mountain" podcast.