What Is Collagen and Why Is it Essential for Bone Health? | 5 Health Benefits of Collagen | Collagen and Bone Health | Vegetarian Food Sources That Increase Collagen Production | 9 Nutrients That Support Collagen Production | Key Takeaways
Vegetarian collagen — is that really a thing? It seems like a paradox when you consider that food sources high in collagen come from animals, and collagen supplements are made from the bones, connective tissues, and skin of animals.
That said, vegetable-sourced collagen supplements exist and they contain nutrients that support collagen synthesis in the body, rather than provide a direct source of collagen. In this article, you’ll discover everything you need to know about collagen and bone health, including how to get collagen from a vegetarian diet and a list of 44 vegetarian sources of collagen.
What Is Collagen and Why Is it Essential for Bone Health?
Your body contains connective tissues, which are exactly what they sound like: tissues that connect things. Fascia tissue, dermis (the bottom layer of your skin), muscles, tendons, cartilage, and the tissue surrounding your hair and nails are just a few examples.
- Type I: found in your connective tissue
- Type II: found in joints and the disks in your spine
- Type III: found in your skin and blood vessels
- Type IV: found in your kidney, inner ear, and eye lens
Fortunately, our bodies are well-designed, and make their own collagen when consistently given the right nutrients.
Collagen, like all proteins, is made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are properly structured with the help of vitamin C. Think of amino acids like Lego pieces and vitamin C like your brilliant grandchild who can build the entire castle set with only one glance at the instructions. For this reason, it’s very important to get enough vitamin C. Now, before we get into the specifics of collagen and how it impacts bone health, it’s important to know that collagen is good for more than just our bones.
5 Health Benefits of Collagen
While collagen is most frequently mentioned in the beauty industry, its benefits go much deeper than just our skin.
- Healthy Hair, Skin, and Nail Support
There is no shortage of products and procedures claiming to be the magic elixir for glowing, youthful skin, luxurious hair, and long, strong nails. Collagen showed promise in one study for improving skin elasticity in elderly women3. In others, collagen may play a role in hair growth4 and in improving the rate of skin wound healing5.
- Digestive Support
Stress of all kinds paired with unhealthy gut microflora can cause your digestive system to become chronically inflamed. One observational study showed that people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) have decreased blood serum concentrations of collagen6. Supplementation of collagen and consumption of collagen from foods may help soothe, seal, and repair a damaged intestinal tract.
- Cardiovascular Health Benefits
The production of collagen requires vitamin C and the amino acids proline and lysine. However, so does the production of arterial plaque! If the body is using vitamin C, proline, and lysine to make collagen in the body, it decreases the amount available to create plaque. In this way, supporting healthy collagen production helps support cardiovascular health7.
Collagen also gives blood vessels their elasticity; a decrease in collagen could lead to hardening of the arteries.
- Collagen Boosts Metabolism
Collagen is essentially the glue that holds our tissues together. More collagen in our tissues creates a healthier structure for the tissue itself; it may also increase muscle mass. Muscle (especially skeletal muscle) burns more calories than any other tissue in the body. An increase in muscle mass increases the rate of metabolism8 to support the tissue.
- Collagen Supports and Improves Joint Health
Collagen is beneficial for joints because it concentrates where they meet and where the connective tissue binds together. Oral supplementation of collagen has been found to be absorbed in the intestinal tract and incorporated into cartilage tissue in the joints. In a small study focusing on individuals with rheumatoid arthritis, collagen supplementation was found to significantly reduce swelling and pain in joints9. In fact, four of the 60 participants experienced remission of their condition during the three-month study.
Collagen and Bone Health
Your bones are made of protein and minerals, and 90% of bone matrix proteins are made of collagen. In fact, the combination of calcium and collagen is responsible for giving our bones strength and flexibility. Both collagen and calcium are responsible for the strength of your bones. And besides the obvious strength of your bones, there’s another way your bones are strong: they’re flexible. Being flexible allows the bone to bend instead of break in many instances, and to absorb an impact rather than fracture. That flexibility is thanks to collagen!
Eating foods high in lysine and arginine will help spur on collagen production. So getting both of these amino acids from your diet is a good start. Technically there is no official recommended dosage specifically for lysine or arginine, but research suggests older adults may need to consume around 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Lysine and arginine supplements exist, but we suggest organic whole food sources first. Your body will absorb these better, and you’ll get a whole bunch of other nutrients too So, what nutrients do our bodies need to produce proper amounts of collagen? And how can we get enough of those nutrients on a vegetarian diet?
Vegetarian Food Sources That Increase Collagen Production
First things first: Is there such a thing as vegetarian collagen? The answer is no. All collagen comes from living organisms. However, even if you don’t eat meat or animal products, you can still increase your collagen levels by eating fruits and vegetables plentiful in collagen-boosting nutrients. These nutrients support your body’s natural production of collagen. Collagen is abundant in the body and acts as the vital glue holding our bodies together. With such a vital function, the body prioritizes collagen production. Although collagen production slows as we age, it never stops. So if you supply your body with the proper nutrition to make healthy collagen, the age-related decline may not be as notable or severe.
9 Nutrients That Support Collagen Production
- Proline: Proline and hydroxyproline10 are amino acids that make up 23% of collagen, and have been found to be precursors to sustaining collagen production. They play a key role in the stability of collagen11.
Vegetarian proline sources: asparagus, beans, buckwheat, cabbage, chives, cucumbers, garbanzo beans, peanuts, soy, and watercress.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C12 adds oxygen and hydrogen to amino acids so that they can do their part in collagen production. If you don’t get enough vitamin C, your collagen production will slow.
Vegetarian vitamin C sources: many fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, citrus fruits, kale, kiwi, mango, papaya, peppers, pineapple, and strawberries.
- Anthocyanin: These antioxidants suppress inflammation13 and stabilize collagen (in rat studies) by preventing free radical damage and inhibiting enzymes from clinging to collagen.
Vegetarian anthocyanin sources: blackberries, blueberries, cherries, and raspberries.
- Copper: Copper14 increases the production or utilization of collagen and elastin; it also helps facilitate the fibril structure of these collagens.
Vegetarian copper sources: sunflower seeds, lentils, almonds, apricots, dark chocolate, mushrooms, greens, and blackstrap molasses.
- Lysine: Used in making collagen and protecting it from enzymatic breakdown, lysine also increases intestinal calcium absorption15.
Vegetarian lysine sources: eggs, dairy products (particularly parmesan cheese), tofu, brewer’s yeast, and spirulina.
- (L-)Arginine: Research suggests that arginine stimulates insulin-like-growth factor-l16(IGF-1) production and collagen synthesis in osteoblast-like cells. Basically, arginine makes the cells responsible for making new bone (osteoblasts) more active.
Vegetarian arginine sources: eggs, sesame seeds, spirulina, coconut meat, cultured yogurt, kefir, and raw cheeses.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A helps stimulate the production of collagen17 and is only found in animal-derived foods (in its complete, active form called retinol). Fruits and veggies are high in phytonutrients called carotenoids (precursors of vitamin A), which the body must then convert to vitamin A.
Vegetarian sources that are high in beta-carotene, which your body must then convert to vitamin A to use: apricots, broccoli, carrots, kale, squash, and sweet potatoes.
- Manganese: Manganese increases production of collagen18 and elastin by increasing the enzyme responsible for proline formation, especially when healing wounds.
Vegetarian sources of manganese: leafy vegetables, nuts, pineapple, seaweed and other sea vegetables, and whole grains.
Zinc: Zinc is a cofactor in collagen production19, meaning it activates the proteins responsible for making collagen. The richest source of zinc is oysters, but other zinc-rich foods are meat, poultry, fish and dairy products.
Vegetarian zinc sources: seeds, nuts, and beans.
When it comes to collagen and bone health, the two big takeaways include:
- Collagen is essential to bone health (and so much more!)
- Your body produces collagen naturally, and will produce more if you eat foods rich in the nutrients listed in the chart above. You don’t need to eat meat or take a collagen peptide supplement to maintain proper levels of collagen.
Do you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet? Feel free to share your thoughts and your favorite collagen-promoting food sources in the comments below.
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- Wu M, Cronin K, Cran J. Biochemistry, Collagen Synthesis. StatPearls Publishing. 2021
- Proksch E, Segger D, Degwert J, et al. Oral supplementation of specific collagen peptides has beneficial effects on human skin physiology: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2014;27(1):47-55. doi: 10.1159/000351376. Epub 2013 Aug 14. PMID: 23949208.
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- Nystrom A, Velati D, Mittapalli V, et al. Collagen VII plays a dual role in wound healing. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. July 2013
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- Barbul A. Proline precursors to sustain Mammalian collagen synthesis. J Nutr. 2008 Oct;138(10):2021S-2024S. doi: 10.1093/jn/138.10.2021S. PMID: 18806118.
- Jill M Tall, Navindra P Seeram, Chengshui Zhao, Muraleedharan G Nair, Richard A Meyer, Srinivasa N Raja. “Tart cherry anthocyanins suppress inflammation-induced pain behavior in rat”, Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 153, Issue 1, 2004, Pages 181-188
- Borkow G. Using Copper to Improve the Well-Being of the Skin. Curr Chem Biol. 2014;8(2):89-102. doi:10.2174/2212796809666150227223857
- Civitelli R, Villareal DT, Agnusdei D, Nardi P, Avioli LV, Gennari C. Dietary L-lysine and calcium metabolism in humans. Nutrition. 1992 Nov-Dec;8(6):400-5. PMID: 1486246.
- Chevalley T, Rizzoli R, Manen D, Caverzasio J, Bonjour JP. Arginine increases insulin-like growth factor-I production and collagen synthesis in osteoblast-like cells. Bone. 1998 Aug;23(2):103-9. doi: 10.1016/s8756-3282(98)00081-7. PMID: 9701468.
- Varani J, Warner RL, Gharaee-Kermani M, Phan SH, Kang S, Chung JH, Wang ZQ, Datta SC, Fisher GJ, Voorhees JJ. Vitamin A antagonizes decreased cell growth and elevated collagen-degrading matrix metalloproteinases and stimulates collagen accumulation in naturally aged human skin. J Invest Dermatol. 2000 Mar;114(3):480-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1747.2000.00902.x. PMID: 10692106.