From pills to peptides, collagen is the supplement right now. Not only do people credit the protein with reducing the signs of aging and improving gut health, but fitness fanatics are now using it to boost muscle recovery and support their joints.
As popular as collagen is, though, can (and should) it replace your usual post-workout protein shake? We tapped three nutrition experts to find out.
Remind Me What Collagen Is Again?
Our body produces and uses a number of different proteins—and collagen is one of them. “Collagen is a structural, fibrous protein that helps make up the connective tissues in our body, which means it’s in our skin, hair, joints, bones, muscles, and organs,” says exercise physiologist and dietitian Jim White R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. “Basically, collagen is the glue that holds these tissues together and helps them withstand stretching,” he says.
The most abundant protein in the body, collagen accounts for more than 30 percent of the protein that makes up our body’s structures.
Trouble is, our body’s ability to produce collagen decreases as we age, explains Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition, and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Over time, issues like achy joints, slowed muscle recovery and wound healing, stomach distress, and increased appearance of wrinkles may start to pop up. That’s where supplements come in. The idea is that by consuming more collagen, we’re able to hang onto its benefits—especially as we age and produce less naturally.
Collagen And Complete Proteins
Collagen supplementation has been linked to benefits like increased skin hydration, decreased appearance of cellulite, and reduced joint pain. When it comes to muscle recovery and growth, though, there’s one hitch: Collagen isn’t a complete protein.
You see, proteins are made of molecules called amino acids (there are 22 of them). Of these aminos, there are nine our body can’t produce on its own. These nine, called the essential amino acids, must be obtained through the foods we eat and supplements we take, says Valdez.
Foods or supplements that contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids are considered complete proteins.
“Collagen contains eight out of the nine essential amino acids,” says White. (It’s missing tryptophan.) And though it’s rich in the essential aminos glycine, proline, alanine, and hydroxyproline, it contains little of the other essential aminos.
Collagen As A Post-Workout Protein
If you’re using protein powder after working out, chances are you’re using a complete protein like whey, casein, or a multi-source plant protein. Complete proteins are your best bet for fueling recovery and growth, since they contain all of the amino acids your muscles need—and in the right amounts, says Valdez.
“The most effective protein powder is whey protein because it is the fastest absorbing,” adds White. Whey contains high levels of three essential aminos known as the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine), which play significant roles in exercise performance and muscle recovery. Collagen, on the other hand, contains just small amounts of these amino acids—especially leucine, which has been credited for kick-starting the muscle-building process.
You certainly won’t miss out on the benefits of post-workout protein altogether by choosing collagen over a complete protein, as research shows that supplementing with collagen is better for muscle strength and body composition than not supplementing at all. You may just not quite max out your potential gains.
Power Up Your Collagen
To make collagen work post-workout, White recommends combining it with a tryptophan supplement or another protein source that provides tryptophan. Oats, dairy milk, spirulina, almonds, and even chocolate are all good options. You can also use a protein supplement that combines collagen and whey, like Vital Proteins Collagen Whey Protein. (DIY this mix by pairing collagen with whatever other protein powder you have on hand.)
The Bottom Line
Overall, whether or not collagen protein can replace your protein powder depends on your health and fitness goals. “If you’re looking for a protein that can help with joint issues, collagen might be a better choice,” explains research neuroscientist and nutrition expert Nicole Avena, Ph.D., author of Why Diets Fail. In fact, a small study published in Current Medical Research and Opinion found that collagen supplements helped lessen joint discomfort in college athletes. Another, published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that people with joint discomfort and mobility issues significantly improved joint function after taking collagen for four months.
However, if you don’t already consume enough complete protein or are heavily focused on muscle-building or athletic performance, collagen alone isn’t your best bet.