Collagen supplements have gained a lot of popularity over the past decade, leaving those who follow plant-based diets wondering where they fit into the trend. After all, there are so many ways that collagen can help support various aspects of your health. (For example, a higher intake of collagen protein is linked to improved joint comfort, gut integrity, and skin health.)
Since collagen powders and capsules are typically made from chicken, bovine (beef), and fish, that leaves plant-based eaters in a pickle. The good news? There’s plenty you can do to help boost your body’s own collagen production if animal products are off limits.
Why Collagen Is Important for Plant-Based Eaters
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies, found in our skin, cartilage, ligaments, joints, muscles, bones, blood vessels, and digestive system. This protein has many functions, including helping to:
- Support connective tissue health
- Maintain skin elasticity and support skin’s appearance
- Assist in joint comfort and mobility
- Repair cartilage, which helps us stay active as we age
- Contribute to a healthy gut lining and gut integrity, which is where most of our immune system is found, as well as where we absorb essential nutrients
Collagen is important for just about everyone—from younger people who are still growing and are active, to older people looking to support potentially worn-and-torn joints, skin, and cartilage.
Read More: What’s The Deal With Plant-Based Collagen?
While it’s totally possible for plant-based eaters to consume enough protein each day, some plant-based protein sources lack certain amino acids that the body requires. Collagen is a unique type of protein because it’s high in amino acids (like glycine, proline, and arginine) that aren’t very abundant in other proteins, especially in plants.
How Plant-Based Eaters Can Promote Collagen Production
There are a few key ways that plant-based eaters can support their body’s natural collagen production.
1. Get Your Fill Of Three Key Nutrients
Your body uses several nutrients the most to synthesize collagen, including:
- Protein (provides the amino acids later linked together to form collagen)
- Vitamin C (essential for collagen synthesis and defends connective tissues against free radical damage)
- Zinc (mineral required for collagen production)
To promote collagen production, vegetarians should take care to emphasize these nutrients in their diet, particularly from high-quality foods that the digestive system can recognize and can break down easily. (In other words, seek out these nutrients from whole foods, not processed foods, which can trigger inflammation.)
Some of the richest plant-based protein sources that vegetarians should focus on include:
- Organic soy products, such as tempeh and tofu
- Beans and legumes, including lentils, chickpeas, and black beans
- Hemp seeds
- Other seeds like chia, pumpkin, and flax
- Nuts like almonds, walnuts, and cashews
- Nutritional yeast
- Whole grains such as buckwheat, quinoa, and oats
- dairy, eggs, and fish (if you incorporate them on occasion)
To get your daily fill of vitamin C, load up on plenty of:
- Leafy greens
- Berries (including strawberries, blueberries, and superfood berries like camu camu and goji)
- Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits
- Cruciferous veggies like kale and broccoli
- Tropical fruits like mango, kiwi, pineapple, and papaya
- Bell peppers
Zinc is another mineral that our bodies use to make collagen. Zinc can be found in plant foods vegetarians will already be eating for protein, such as:
- Whole grains
2. Up Your Intake Of Antioxidants
In addition to those three specific nutrients, aim to up your intake of different antioxidants, which generally have healthy aging effects for your joints, skin, and beyond. In addition to vitamin C, foods high in other antioxidants (such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, anthocyanins, ellagic acid, and quercetin) can help to boost natural collagen production in the body to support the health of connective tissues, even during the normal aging process.
Some particularly great sources of antioxidants that you can add to your diet include:
- Fresh-pressed green juices
- Green tea
- Dark chocolate or pure cacao
- Spices such as turmeric
3. Protect The Collagen Your Body Already Makes
No matter the type of diet you follow, you want to hold onto as much collagen as possible as you age, especially since most people start synthesizing less once they reach their 40s and beyond.
Damage to the collagen you already have and produce can deplete your stores and contribute to a number of side effects, such as joint-, gut-, and skin-related issues. As such, it’s important to defend your collagen!
The goal here is to avoid eating a poor diet and other unhealthy habits that contribute to oxidative stress, free radical damage, and inflammation. These three factors essentially make it feel like you’re aging faster since they take a toll on tissues throughout your body that keep you feeling your best.
So, in addition to eating a healthy diet, be sure to limit “collagen degraders,” such as:
- Smoking cigarettes
- Consuming high amounts of alcohol
- Sleep deprivation and chronic stress, which impair immune function
- A sedentary lifestyle (sitting all day and lack of activity)
- Too much sun exposure, which can damage skin
The Bottom Line
Though plant-based eaters don’t typically consume collagen in their diet, they can take a few important steps to protect their body’s production of the collagen it needs to maintain healthy skin, gut integrity, and more. These include incorporating ample amounts of nutrients like vitamin C, zinc, and a variety of antioxidants, as well as avoiding lifestyle factors that negatively impact collagen production.
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.