Jill Levy has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for five years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.
By Jill Levy
For those who follow a plant-based diet that doesn’t include foods like bone broth or meat, is there vegan collagen that’s available?
While there’s technically no such thing as “vegan collagen,” there are ways to help boost your body’s natural production collagen with help from plant-based sources.
In order to help support collagen synthesis — which can contribute to benefits including support for healthy joint comfort and skin health — what type of plant-based collagen boosters should you focus on?
As we’ll look closer at below, vegan collagen builders include vegetables, fruits, seaweeds, nuts and seeds that are high in antioxidants and other essential nutrients.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is an important type of structural protein containing 19 different amino acids, which are the “building blocks” that form larger proteins.
Since this protein helps to form connective tissues throughout the body — including in the joints, tendons, skin, muscles, bones and organs— collagen benefits include providing support for joint health, skin health, gut health, muscle building and exercise recovery, health of the heart and arteries, and much more.
Although your body makes its own collagen, you’ll naturally start producing less as you age. Aside from naturally getting older, lifestyle factors can also contribute to diminishing collagen levels, including eating a poor diet, smoking, excessive sun exposure and high amounts of stress.
What is vegan collagen made of? As explained above, people ask to compare vegan collagen vs. animal collagen, but again, there is no such thing as vegan collagen.
In food and supplement form, all collagen is animal-based, as it’s found in sources including bone broth, beef, organ meats, chicken, fish and egg shell membranes.
While you can’t get collagen directly from plants, you can include a few servings of protein-rich foods and collagen-boosting foods in your diet to help optimize your levels.
An overall healthy diet that includes plenty of protein/amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can support your body’s ability to make its own collagen, while also helping to support a healthy response to oxidative stress and inflammation that can diminish collagen.
How Collagen Is Made In the Body
Considering there isn’t a direct source of collagen that comes from plants, how do vegans get collagen?
Through a somewhat complicated process, the human body makes collagen on its own using amino acids, which are acquired from foods containing protein. Amino acids are chained together to form collagen fibers, with help from nutrients including vitamin C, zinc, copper, polysaccharides (types of bound carbohydrates) and others.
In order to maintain healthy collagen levels, the goal should be to consume foods high in amino acids that form collagen and elastin (a type of protein found in connective tissue).
Protein-rich foods that provide you with amino acids (AAs) like proline, glycine, arginine and lysine are especially beneficial, since these are the AAs found most abundantly in collagen protein.
Unfortunately, a vegan diet doesn’t include foods that are highest in these AAs, such as bone broth, eggs, cod fish, spirulina and gelatin; however, a well-rounded diet that provides you with enough protein in general to meet your needs is still your best option.
How to Boost Collagen Naturally With Plant-Based Sources
1. Eat Enough Protein
Although it can sometimes be difficult to get enough protein while following a vegan diet, it’s crucial to do so because protein-rich foods play an important role in supporting collagen synthesis.
Other vegan sources of protein to emphasize include:
- Soaked and sprouted beans and legumes
- Organic tempeh and tofu
- Nuts and seeds including flax, hemp, chia, pumpkin seeds, etc.
- Whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, oats, etc.
- Nutritional yeast
2. Consume Vitamin C and Other Antioxidants
Vitamin C is one of the most important nutrients to consume in order to support collagen levels since it doubles as an antioxidant-like vitamin, and is also required for the production of type I collagen (the most abundant form of collagen in the body).
Foods high in vitamin C and other antioxidants (such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, anthocyanins, ellagic acid and quercetin) can help to boost natural collagen production in the body and support the health of connective tissues, even during the normal aging process.
Here are some of the best sources of vitamin C and antioxidants:
- Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, chard, arugula, etc.
- Spirulina (also a great plant-based source of amino acids like glycine, which is a key component of collagen)
- Citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruit, etc.
- Berries and cherries (such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, cranberries, acai, camu camu and goji berries)
- Kiwi fruit
- Other nutrient-dense veggies including broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes and bell peppers
- Tropical fruits like papaya, mango and pineapple
- Garlic, onions, leeks, chives and shallots
- Green tea and other teas
- Herbs and spices, such as turmeric, ginger, clove, cinnamon, rosemary, parsley, thyme, oregano
3. Increase Your Intake of Essential Nutrients
Nutrients including zinc, manganese and copper are all supportive of collagen production. You’ll find these essential nutrients in plant-based foods including:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chickpeas, lentils and lima beans
- Organic tofu
- Wherm germ
- Spinach and other greens
- Chia seeds
- Cashews, walnuts and almonds
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Lima beans
Fermented foods that contain “good guy” probiotic bacteria are also beneficial for supporting gut health and a healthy immune system, which can contribute to maintenance of healthy collagen and connective tissue. These foods include: yogurt, kefir, apple cider vinegar, fermented pickles, sauerkraut and other cultured veggies.
4. Live A Generally Healthy Lifestyle
Sleep deprivation, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive use of alcohol and other drugs, and chronic stress are all lifestyle factors linked to a range of health impacts. These can take a toll on your immune system and are considered collagen diminishers, regardless of the exact type of diet you follow.
In addition to eating a nutrient-rich diet, focus on taking care of your health holistically in order to support your mental and physical health, including your gut health and immune system.
Getting enough exercise, such as by taking walks, yoga, dancing, cycling, swimming or lifting weights, are all great ways to ward off stress and lift your mood.
Sleeping for 7 to 9 hours per night, spending time in nature, getting some sunlight on your bare skin, avoiding cigarettes and too much coffee, sugar and alcohol, reading and journaling at night, and stretching and taking a warm shower before bed are also ways to establish a generally health-promoting routine.
- While there isn’t such a thing as plant-based or vegan collagen, your diet is still important for providing you with amino acids that your body uses to make its own collagen.
- What are some natural “vegan collagen boosters”? Emphasizing a nutrient-dense diet that includes lots of antioxidants and vitamin C— such as from fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices — plus vegan protein sources like protein powder, legumes, nuts and seeds is beneficial, especially during the normal aging process.
- You’ll also want to increase your intake of probiotic foods and nutrients such as zinc, copper and manganese — from nuts and seeds, lentils and legumes, and whole grains.