Should you be eating more, um, collagen?

by SARA on February 17, 2010

So I’m finally back and settled from Vancouver! While I’m polishing off some longer athlete-sourced tips, Q&As, and (of course) delicious recipes to post, I wanted to write about a phenomenon I can’t get out of my mind. Background: One of my favorite people I met at the Olympics was a publicist for Oakley sports gear. Total feet-on-the-ground individual. Don’t ask me how we started talking about this, but at some point she told me–very matter-of-factly–that she and her husband take collagen supplements. (Jell-o is made of collagen, so imagine a colorless, not-sweet version of that kind of substance.) I found myself both weirded out and liking her even more.

Here’s why: A few years ago I wrote a short piece for Gourmet about “Collagen Cuisine.” Since collagen is what keeps our skin looking young (it’s what facial injectables are made of), the idea here is to eat it. Kind of like that obscure rock band, it’s something that’s, well, really big in Japan.

There, they serve it up in fortified foods (marshmallows seem to be extra popular) as well as elaborately prepared natural sources (mostly pigs’ feet). The crazy part is that research suggests this might have some benefit.

Not that the data is extensive, but some reputable journal studies–such as a 2009 one from Tokyo University–have shown that eating collagen can help reverse the effects of sun-related skin aging. Other experiments, among them a 2005 one in the journal Nutrition, showed that shark-fin collagen helped fight osteoporosis.

Knowing all of this, and seeing how fresh and well-rested my new friend looked (after days of getting up at the crack of dawn to make it to events), supplements didn’t seem like a dumb idea. And, sure, since there are no adverse effects, I may yet indulge my inner optimist and buy some. Or at least (read: much more likely) veer toward gelatinous grocery and menu items. For instance: my friend Jansen Chen, Oceana’s ridiculously talented pastry chef, has a no-fat jell-o/yogurt panna cotta in the latest issue of Food and Wine.

Eating collagen when I can may be a fun can’t-hurt-might-help strategy, but probably more useful are the targeted and sustainable approaches. In this case, foods you can get in the day-to-day that promote collagen production. Here, four top contenders I picked out while researching this stuff:

1) Anything with vitamin C (citrus fruits are in season, for example): Studies show it helps the amino acids lysine and proline convert to collagen.

2) Egg whites: Building off the vitamin C thing, egg whites are high in both lysine and proline. (They’re also high in collagen itself, which is why you may have put them, raw, on your face at a middle school slumber party or two. I did.)

3) Garlic: Sulfur, especially replete in garlic, is an essential ingredient for sparking collagen production (the process can’t happen without it).

4) Green tea/berries: Both contain collagen-supporting phytonutrients. Those in green tea (catechins) help prevent collagen breakdown, while the ones in berries (anthocyanidins) help strengthen collagen’s connective tissues.

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Good for You! » A few thoughts for Thursday
February 25, 2010 at 4:59 am

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Sarah Jio February 18, 2010 at 12:47 am

OMG–fascinating. Off to eat some vitamin C + garlic. :) xo

Shannon March 16, 2010 at 7:44 am

Sara,
The adage to eat collagen is part of eating culture throughout much of China, and one of the few things that translates across both urban and rural eating patterns. In the villages of the NE, families make their own collagen “jello jigglers” from cooking down the skin, fat and feet of the pigs they slaughter. It’s a delicacy that everyone says is particularly good for the skin. It is served to marriageable young women, and treasured as a delight by all. I, on the other hand, had a harder time swallowing it. The “mouth-feel” (another Chinese mainstay in the food world) just wasn’t working for me, nor really was the taste. But, when I got back from a year and a half of living there, the woman who’d been cutting my hair for three years before I left was shocked by the new thickness she found. Unfortunately, out went the piggy jello jigglers and with it the thicker hair! I’d rather swallow a pill. xo

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