I’m the kind of girl who has a protein shake for breakfast nearly every morning. It’s easy, quick, and lends itself well to being consumed while dodging traffic like I’m in a Fast and Furious movie as I try to get to work on time.
But when I discovered collagen protein, I became even more obsessed with my breakfast of choice. With purported benefits that include glowier skin and reduced inflammation, it seems like collagen can do pretty much everything. Plus it’s tasteless, odorless, and dissolves in my blender so much easier than my hydrolyzed whey. (Seriously, clumpy protein shakes are the bane of my existence.)
Yet I couldn’t help but wonder, is collagen protein actually a suitable substitute for my post-workout protein powder? To set the record straight, I tapped New York nutritionist Sharon Richter, RD, to give me all the details on my (and Jennifer Garner‘s) new favorite smoothie add-in.
Keep reading to find out if it’s healthy to swap out your protein powder for a collagen supplement.
What is collagen, anyway?
Protein is one of three macronutrients your body needs to survive. Collagen is a type of protein that the body produces naturally. We can also get it via supplements—you know, that powdered stuff you add to your matcha lattes and energy bites— made from the bones, skin, and cartilage of animals and fish. (And we’re moving quickly past that visual.)
“Collagen makes up approximately 30 percent of the proteins within the human body,” Richter explains. “These are tough and strong structures found all over: in bones, tendons, and ligaments. Collagen is also a part of the connective tissue in the skin that helps [promote] firmness, suppleness, and constant renewal of skin cells.”
But those aren’t collagen’s only claims to fame. Richter adds that it has a high concentration of four amino acids, in particular: glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine. Glycine combines with two other amino acids in the body—glutamine and cysteine—to create glutathione, which Richter says is your body’s most powerful antioxidant.
Complete versus incomplete proteins
Of course, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And yes, there is a minor catch involved with collagen supplements—they aren’t considered complete proteins.
“The term ‘complete protein’ refers to amino acids, the building blocks of protein,” says Richter. “There are 20 different amino acids that can form a protein, and nine that the body can’t produce on its own. These are called essential amino acids—we need to eat them because we can’t make them ourselves.” Complete proteins contain the nine essential amino acids in roughly the same amounts, she explains.
You can get complete proteins from both animal and non-animal sources. Whey and egg protein are two complete, animal-derived forms of protein powder, while hemp and soy are examples of complete plant-based proteins. Collagen, however, does not fall into this category—it only contains 8 of the 9 essential amino acids. What’s more, these amino acids aren’t equally balanced, as the ratio is skewed towards glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.
So can collagen protein replace your protein powder?
If you’re drinking protein powder after working out for #gainz, a complete option is probably going to be your best bet, says Richter. It’ll ensure you’re getting all of the amino acids you need—and in the right quantities—to build muscle and recover.
What collagen could be great for is supporting connective tissues and improving joint pain after exercise. “A recent study involved 147 athletes, both male and female. Half of them took a liquid formula that contained collagen hydrolysate, and the other half took a liquid placebo,” Richter says. “After 24 weeks, researchers found that the collagen group had less joint pain at rest, and when walking, lifting, standing, and carrying objects, compared to the control.”
Overall, though, Richter says it’s hard to make a call on collagen, because there just aren’t many definitive studies on the side effects and benefits. So if you want to keep stirring it into your supercharged a.m. coffee, feel free—but don’t count on it as your main protein source, especially after a hard sweat. Good thing hemp is also seriously on-trend right now…
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