Collagen has amassed a loyal support base in recent years, and that’s for good reason. It’s the most abundant protein in the human body, and plays a critical role in maintain healthy skin, hair and nails. As such, it typically gets marketed as a beauty product.
The best bit? This isn’t a call to fork out on more supplements. You don’t need the latest collagen peptide powders to pounce on these benefits. You just need to be picking the right meats.
The chewy kind.
What Is Collagen?
You may have seen the hordes of collagen powders lining up the shelves of health stores, or heard influencers declaring it the fountain of youth. Which should give you plenty of reasons to be cautious. Collagen is the new kid on the block in health supplements, and as such, could just be another bucket of empty promises to throw your money into.
When you try and match it up against whey protein, collagen appears to fall short, since it lacks the complete range of essential amino acids. It’s low in leucine, and absent of tryptophan. If you’re looking to build muscle and you were struggling to get your protein up, whey protein would assumedly be the superior product. However, it’s not as simple as saying the following.
- Leucine spikes MTOR
- MTOR initiates muscle protein synthesis
- Collagen is low in leucine
- Thereby collagen won’t get you yoked
While collagen is lower in leucine, and it doesn’t do a job independently at spiking MTOR, it still provides an abundance of certain amino acids that are critical for managing inflammation, and repairing structural tissues. Both of which are a fundamental part of the muscle-building process. You’re not going to keep hitting PRs if your joints are falling apart.
You just need to mix it with other proteins that unlock the MTOR gate in the first place. Funnily enough, there are options that don’t require you to start blending supplements to make the perfect anabolic cocktail.
So while collagen is typically marketed with the promise of giving you sparkling skin and silky hair, there’s far more going on in the background.
The Benefits Of Collagen
Before we get into the meat of it, let’s just tackle the obvious perks.
1. Aids Tissue Repair – Collagen provides the building blocks that go towards the maintaining and strengthening of skin, cartilage and bone.
2. Improves Joint Health – Glucosamine and chondroitin, components of collagen, are particularly beneficial for lubricating joints and thereby alleviating aches and pains.
And now for the ones you may not be aware of.
3. Anti Inflammatory – The jiggly bit that forms in the gravy when you cook brisket? That’s gelatin, and it’s particularly high in glycine, a key player in collagen. Glycine and arginine are both potent at reducing inflammation by reducing the activation of macrophages and neutrophils, as well as reducing oxidative stress, and restoring the mucosal lining.
4. Improves The Methionine to Glycine ratio – An adequate intake of glycine is an important counter to the effects of methionine, which can raise inflammation if left to run amok, partly by depleting glycine levels.
5. Managing Osteoarthritis – The condition that affects 40% of people over 65, requires extra collagen synthesis to replace damaged cartilage. Which is further antagonised by the decline in collagen synthesis that occurs with age.
6. Improves Gut Integrity And Fat Digestion – Glycine helps protect the mucosal lining of the gut due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It also helps fat absorption by increasing the solubility of bile salts.
7. Precursor To Creatine – Glycine is a building block to the much-loved fitness supplement creatine, which in turn has proven effects in boosting strength, cognition, while additionally acting as an antidepressant.
8. Improves Sleep Quality – Taking 3 grams of glycine before has been shown to decrease sleep onset while increasing deep sleep, making it a great supplement for those looking to work on the efficiency of their nightly shuteye.
9. Better Blood Sugar Handling – Glycine can reduce blood sugar without altering insulin secretion.
11. Antioxidant – The good press keeps rolling, because glycine is a key building block for the body’s master antioxidant glutathione. Since we can make a good case that oxidative damage to the mitochondria is what drives disease and aging, one of the best things we can do in the spirit of longevity is provide glutathione with the materials it needs to flourish.
12. Immune Support – Glycine helps modulate intracellular calcium levels, which improves immune function, while regulating superoxide production and cytokine synthesis, which can both raise inflammation when allowed to run rampant.
13. Decreases Appetite – Collagen stimulates the release of GLP-1, which boosts fat oxidation and satiety. Which might explain why a pound of brisket will fill you up far more than a pound of ribeye.
To sum all that up, it should be pretty obvious that protein can provide far more for you than simply activating the muscle-building switch. Collagen contains a different spectrum of amino acids to whey and muscle meat, particularly glycine.
These amino acids can go towards repairing structural tissues, while also lowering inflammation, improving your oxidative status, sleep quality, and immune function. In short, it’s a package that no-one should have the privilege of turning down.
Do You Need Collagen Powder?
It may seem like the practical way to go about netting all that sweet collagen would be to buy it in powder or capsule form. Just make sure it’s grass-fed, and you’re golden. That’s certainly an option, and it would cover your bases, but it’s not strictly necessary. So here are three ways to get it in food form.
Bone Broth – 30% of the protein in bone broth is made of glycine, which makes it a very high source of collagen. But I have two personal misgivings here. One is that it takes planning, since you’d have to buy the bones, bake the bones, and slow cook them till the juices come out. Two being that the extended cooking time guarantees that it will be high in histamine, which in people like me, can produce allergy-like reactions.
Organ Meats – Offal cuts are loaded with collagenous tissue, as well a vast range of micronutrients that dwarf the amounts found in muscle meat. It’s just a case of finding out which of them you’re comfortable eating in decent quantities. That’s where I’d be hesitant to use liver, since it’s easy to overdose to the point of hypervitaminosis. Heart, on the other hand, tastes much like muscle meat, being a muscle, and is stacked in collagen.
Gelatin – While technically in a supplement form, gelatin is cheaper and has different uses to collagen powder, being a great baking substitute for more problematic thickeners like guar gum. Gelatin is naturally extremely high in glycine.
Glycine – This amino acid powers many of the benefits of collagen, and also provides a 1/3rd of the sweetness of sugar. This gives it some potential as a substitute for table sugar, like I’ve done in the following recipe.
Tough Cuts – The cuts of meat that take the most chewing also happen to be the ones highest in collagen. Brisket is one such option, ground beef is another, but so are more unusual cuts like chicken feet and beef tongue. While it’s hard to find data on which cuts contain the highest percentage of collagen, it’s relatively simple to rank them by glycine content, which is the preeminent amino acid in collagen.
Tender cuts like ribeye and sirloin, on the other hand, will be lower in collagen. Easier to eat, potentially, but not so good when you’re trying to net those metabolic and structural benefits.
So in theory, by ensuring that large amounts of your meat intake comes from tough cuts, and by potentially adding in bone broth and some organ meats, you’ll be getting plenty of collagen and thriving for it.
While you don’t specifically need a collagen supplement, they can still help provide collagen in higher amounts than you could hope to find in meat itself. That being said, any supplement would inevitably be high in histamine, which can cause issues in sensitive folk like me.
There is a pervasive myth regarding collagen powder, which assumes that the collagen peptides in supplements are preformed, they have a much better chance of going towards structural repair. The issue with that assumption, is that both powder and food forms are broken down into amino acids and restructured as the body sees fit.
So it doesn’t matter how it’s sourced or presented, just that you have the building blocks you need. A powder will understandably absorb quicker, but there isn’t a race to run. There’s no anabolic window to worry about when you’re trying to up your skin game.
Do you need collagen? Technically, it isn’t primarily made of essential amino acids. You certainly can’t get by on collagen alone. But it has a myriad of benefits that are easily within reach without having to add supplements. Get chewing, and don’t complain when the chef serves you a steak with a bunch of gristle attached.