Collagen gets quite a bit of hype for its role in strengthening hair and nails and giving skin its plump look (which are important, don’t get us wrong,) but it’s also key for nourishing your cells and connective tissues. If you eat a vegan diet, you might be tempted to skip out on collagen supplements , since most are typically derived from animal products. But there’s a Parsley solution: Try increasing the amount of collagen-boosting foods in your diet, which helps stimulate the body’s natural collagen production.
Here’s the thing: while there are vegan collagen supplements on the market, most are lab-engineered from fermented yeast. Instead of relying on these supplements, you can increase your body’s own production of collagen through nutrition. Read on for a health coach’s perspective on getting more collagen-boosting nutrients in your body.
Collagen is a protein that’s integral to our health, down to the cellular level. It’s the main structural protein for all of our connective tissues like tendons and ligaments. The body makes its own collagen, but we need to have enough for various types of connective tissue, and for all the cells that make up the lining of our organs, explains Erica Favela , a health coach at Parsley Health San Francisco .
You might need extra support with collagen for a variety of different reasons, one of them being if you eat a mostly plant-based or vegan diet, as collagen comes from animal protein. Also, as you get older, you need more. “Collagen production naturally declines with age,” Favela says. “It’s getting a lot of attention for supporting with typical signs of aging in the skin, like thinning skin and fine lines,” she says.
Additionally, collagen supplements are helpful for people who have achy joints or are healing from a wound or injury since it helps to rebuild tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin.
Another circumstance in which you may need additional collagen support is if you have an autoimmune condition. These tend to be associated with intestinal permeability, or leaky gut . Collagen is key in strengthening, healing, and sealing the gut lining.
If you’re eating vegan or mostly plant-based, your body may need to work twice as hard to produce collagen since you’re not getting any through the diet from meat, eggs, or seafood. The first step, Favela points out, is ensuring your body has the functionality for collagen production by focusing on your digestion. “Make sure your digestion is working optimally so you’ll be able to access and break down amino acids from either animal protein or plant-based foods.”
If you’re experiencing abnormal bloating , gas , or irregularity with bowel movements, this may be a sign that your digestion is impaired and you could have a harder time absorbing nutrients, Favela adds. In that case, it’s best to speak with your doctor or health coach before moving forward with collagen supplementation.
Once your digestion is in check, you can hone in on vegan collagen boosters: foods or supplements that support the body’s natural collagen production. “These are providing you with the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids for your body to have the raw materials required to make collagen,” Favela says.
If you eat a balanced diet, there are plenty of opportunities to get these vegan collagen “boosters” in your diet naturally. These are the micronutrients you should focus on.
Just like collagen makes up your connective tissues, collagen itself is made up of a combination of amino acids. “Your body goes through a process called hydroxylation, where Vitamin C adds hydrogen and oxygen and partners with the amino acids lysine and proline to create the collagen protein,” Favela explains.
“The body actually doesn’t produce lysine on its own and can only get it through food. It helps with bone growth, as well as the synthesis of veins and capillaries,” Favela says. It’s found in higher concentrations in animal proteins, but you can find lysine in plenty of produce, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, avocados, beets, and leeks.
Proline and glycine, on the other hand, are actually made by your body, but in order to make sure you’re producing them, it’s key that you’re not deficient in other minerals that are necessary to build glycine and the other essential amino acids.
Vitamin C is well-known for its role in promoting connective tissue healing after an injury or surgery and this is because of its essential role in collagen production. Vitamin C is a necessary micronutrient cofactor for the enzymes that hydroxylate proline and lysine and promotes the formation of collagen’s triple-helix, so it’s important to get enough of it if you’re looking to up your natural production of collagen. Foods high in Vitamin C include dark, leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and some fruits like strawberries, citrus fruits, and kiwi.
Zinc is known as an immune system powerhouse mineral. “It also helps cells to proliferate and seal wounds,” Favela says, and as a cofactor required for collagen production, zinc activates proteins essential for collagen synthesis. While the highest concentration of zinc is found in oysters, it’s also found in high concentrations in pumpkin, hemp, and sesame seeds too.
Manganese is another mineral that is an important cofactor for an enzyme called prolidase which is necessary to create the collagen amino acid proline. You can incorporate more of it into your diet by eating a variety of grains, nuts, and legumes, including brown rice, pecans and beans like pinto, lima, and navy beans.
Mara is a freelance journalist whose print and digital work has appeared in Shape, Brit+Co, Marie Claire, Prevention, and other wellness outlets.
Most recently, she was a member of the founding team of Bumble Mag, a branded content project for Bumble at Hearst Corporation. She enjoys covering everything from women's health topics and politics to travel. She has a degree in Communications as well as Italian Studies from Fordham University.