“Diet plays a surprisingly large role in the appearance and youthfulness of your skin,” says certified holistic nutritionist Krista Goncalves, CHN. “And that all comes down to collagen.”
Collagen is the protein that gives skin its structure, suppleness, and stretch. There are many types of collagen, but our body mainly consists of type 1, 2, and 3. As we age, we produce less collagen in our skin every yearTrusted Source — hence the tendency toward wrinkles and thinning skin we see the older we get.
This explains the boom of collagen supplements touted in our social feeds and store shelves these days. But are collagen pills and powders the best route? The key difference between the two may be down to the bioavailability — the body’s ability to use a nutrient.
Why you should consider food first
“Foods like bone broth contain a bioavailable form of collagen your body can use right away, making it arguably superior to supplements,” says registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel. A 2012 review on nutrition and agingTrusted Source also concluded that fruit and vegetables are the safest and healthiest approach to boosting skin health.
Plus, since over-the-counter supplements are largely unregulated, it’s probably safer to stick with a dietary approach to boosting collagen.
Eating collagen-rich foods or foods that boost collagen production may also help create the building blocks (amino acids) you need for your skin goals. “There are three amino acids important for collagen synthesis: proline, lysine, and glycine,” says registered dietitian and beauty expert Katey Davidson, MScFN, RD.
1. Bone broth
While recent research finds bone broth may not be a reliable source of collagen, this option is by far the most popular by word of mouth. Made by simmering animal bones in water, this process is believed to extract collagen. When making this at home, season the broth with spices for flavor.
“Since bone broth is made of bones and connective tissue, it contains calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, collagen, glucosamine, chondroitin, amino acids, and many other nutrients,” Davidson says.
“However, each bone broth is different because of the quality of the bones used along with other ingredients,” she adds.
To guarantee the quality of your broth, try making your own with bones obtained from a reputable local butcher.
There’s a reason why many collagen supplements are derived from chicken. Everyone’s favorite white meat contains ample amounts of the stuff. (If you’ve ever cut up a whole chicken, you’ve probably noticed how much connective tissue poultry contains.) These tissues make chicken a rich source of dietary collagen.
Several studies have used chicken neck and cartilageTrusted Source as a source of collagen for arthritis treatment.
3. Fish and shellfish
Like other animals, fish and shellfish have bones and ligaments made of collagen. Some people have claimed marine collagen is one of the most easily absorbed.
But while your lunchtime tuna sandwich or dinnertime salmon can certainly add to your collagen intake, be aware that the “meat” of fish contains less collagen than other, less desirable parts.
“We don’t tend to consume the parts of fish that are highest in collagen, like the head, scales, or eyeballs,” Gabriel says. In fact, researchersTrusted Source have used fish skin as a source for collagen peptides.
4. Egg whites
Although eggs don’t contain connective tissues like many other animal products, egg whites do have large amounts of prolineTrusted Source, one of the amino acids necessary for collagen production.
5. Citrus fruits
Vitamin C plays a major role in the production of pro-collagenTrusted Source, the body’s precursor to collagen. Therefore, getting enough vitamin C is critical.
As you probably know, citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes are full of this nutrient. Try a broiled grapefruit for breakfast, or add orange segments to a salad.
Though citrus tends to get all the glory for its vitamin C content, berries are another excellent source. Ounce for ounce, strawberries actually provide more vitamin C than oranges. Raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries offer a hefty dose, too.
“Furthermore,” Davidson says, “berries are high in antioxidants, which protect the skin from damage.”
7. Tropical fruits
Rounding out the list of fruits rich in vitamin C are tropical fruits like mango, kiwi, pineapple, and guava. Guava also boasts a small amount of zinc, another co-factor for collagen production.
Garlic may add more than just flavor to your stir-fries and pasta dishes. It could boost your collagen production, too. According to Gabriel, “Garlic is high in sulfur, which is a trace mineral that helps synthesize and prevent the breakdown of collagen.”
It’s important to note, however, that how much you consume matters. “You probably need a lot of it to reap the collagen benefits,” she adds.
But with its many benefits, it’s worth considering garlic part of your regular diet. As they say online: If you love garlic, take the measurement in a recipe and double it.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS TOO MUCH GARLIC?
Garlic is safe in regular amounts, but too much garlic (especially raw) may cause heartburn, an upset stomach, or increase your risk for bleeding if you use blood thinners. Avoid eating more garlic just for collagen purposes.
9. Leafy greens
We all know leafy greens are a key player in a healthy diet. As it turns out, they may offer aesthetic benefits, too.
Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and other salad greens get their color from chlorophyll, known for its antioxidant properties.
“Some studies have shown that consuming chlorophyll increases the precursor to collagen in the skin,” Gabriel says.
Beans are a high-protein food that often contain the amino acids necessary for collagen synthesis. Plus, many of them are rich in copper, another nutrient necessary for collagen production.
Next time you reach for a handful of nuts to snack on, make it cashews. These filling nuts contain zinc and copper, both of which boost the body’s ability to create collagen.
Another hidden source of vitamin C, one medium tomato can provide up to almost 30 percent of this important nutrient for collagen. Tomatoes also boast large amounts of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant for skin supportTrusted Source.
13. Bell peppers
While you’re adding tomatoes to a salad or sandwich, toss in some red bell peppers, too. These high-vitamin C veggies contain capsaicin, an anti-inflammatory compoundTrusted Source that may combat signs of aging.
Sugar and refined carbs can damage collagen
To help your body do its best production of collagen, you can’t go wrong with high-collagen animal or plant foods or vitamin and mineral-rich fruits and vegetables.
And if you don’t like the foods listed, remember there’s no one source. A diet full of protein-rich foods, whether from plant or animal sources, can help supply these critical amino acids.
Other nutrients that aid the process of collagen production include zinc, vitamin C, and copper. So, fruits and vegetables high in vitamins and minerals are also a friend to supple skin.
And, for even more dramatic results, be sure to stay away from too much sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can cause inflammation and damage collagen.
Some critical questions about collagen and diet
Sometimes a variety of foods is hard to consistently get in your diet. And some have questioned whether consuming collagen-rich foods actually translates to firmer skin. It’s possible that stomach acid may break down collagen proteins, preventing them from reaching the skin.
And since dietary collagen for anti-aging is still a relatively new area of research, many experts hesitate to draw definite conclusions.
Still, some research does look promising. A 2014 double-blind studyTrusted Source published in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology found that women who consumed extra collagen had higher levels of skin elasticity after four weeks than those who took a placebo.
Another studyTrusted Source observed a 13 percent reduction in the appearance of lines and wrinkles in healthy females after 12 weeks on a collagen supplement.
That said, collagen isn’t only for smooth, elastic skin. Collagen may also help with joint pain, muscles, or digestion. So, if collagen supplements sound more accessible to your routine and wallet, we say it’s worth a try.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Lettder to Food.