People choose to eat a vegan diet for a lot of different reasons including improving their health, supporting the environment, or as a stance against animal cruelty. But it may be that eating a vegan diet is the best way to slow down the natural aging process of your skin and body. A well-planned vegan diet can be loaded with natural collagen-boosting sources that will help your skin look younger and your joints feel smoother than ever before.
Of course, there are some foods that help rebuild collagen more effectively than others, so read on to learn what nutrients to look for and what foods to et.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the main structural protein for the various connective tissues in our bodies. It consists of specific amino acids and is an insoluble, fibrous protein.
Connective tissues include structures such as muscle, skin, tendons, and ligaments.
Collagen is kind of like the glue that holds your body together. It plays a key role in many bodily functions, such as giving skin its elasticity and strengthening bones, tendons, and ligaments.
Our bodies produce collagen naturally, but as we age our body’s natural production of collagen decreases. We don’t know exactly when this decrease begins, but sometime between the ages of 25 and 35. Which isn’t old!
I don’t know about you, but I plan on being active for the rest of my days. The less joint and muscle pain I experience the happier I’ll be. But all is not lost! There are steps you can take to help your body ramp up its production of collagen, and hold off father time just a little longer.
Before we talk about those we need to understand the different types of collagen we make. There are actually 5 types of collagen we produce, but we’re going to focus on types I, II, and II.
Types of Collagen
Type I is the most common type of collagen in humans and is the most abundant protein in the human body.
Type I collagen is found in bones, teeth, skin, hair, nails, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage (including the disks between vertebrae). It also makes up nearly 85% of the collagen in our tendons! Athletes, we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to maximize collagen production!
The other roughly 15% of the collagen in tendons is made up of type III collagen.
This form of collagen is important for maintaining healthy skin, avoiding wrinkles, and keeping your joints strong. Type I collagen supplements can be sourced from vegan, marine, or bovine collagen sources.
Type II collagen is very strong and supportive. It gives tensile strength to both articular and hyaline cartilage. It helps your joints and tissues bear stress and absorb shock, as well as prevent grinding between bones at your joints.
Articular cartilage is the cartilage that makes up structures like your ears, nose, and throat.
Hyaline cartilage is commonly found in synovial joints like your knees, elbows, and wrists. This is why type II collagen has been known to help ease the pain of age-related joint pain.
The best supplement sources of type II collagen are typically either vegan or marine collagen sources.
Type III collagen is typically found with type I collagen in tendons and other living tissues like intestinal walls and within muscles.
Type III collagen supplements are typically sourced from either vegan or bovine collagen sources.
Did you notice anything there? Vegan collagen sources work each and every time.
Now you know the three main types of collagen, what functions they serve in your body, and that you can supplement to help keep these structures healthy. Check out this article on the best vegan collagen supplements you can buy if you’d like to go that route.
The rest of this article, however, is going to focus on foods you can eat that will help boost your body’s natural production of collagen. And I’m all for getting what I need from food!
How is Collagen Made in the Body?
True collagen supplements come from animal sources. Either bovine or marine. Scientists can source the specific type of collagen they want from the animals, and match it up to our needs. There is a huge problem with that, however, which I explain here!
Vegan collagen isn’t actually collagen. Plants don’t make collagen, so there’s nothing to source. Instead, the vegan supplements on the market are designed to help your body build its own collagen. They are loaded with the correct amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that your body needs.
But it’s also possible to eat specific foods that have these amino acids, vitamins, and minerals without the need for a supplement! Remember, supplements are meant to supplement your diet, not take the place of it. There is no substitute for a healthy diet. And no supplement will make up for unhealthy eating habits.
And hey, if a supplement can work, then why can’t eating the whole foods themselves? Many plant-based foods have been demonstrated to increase collagen synthesis in studies.
Our bodies naturally produce collagen by combining the specific amino acids, vitamins, and minerals in a process called collagen synthesis. But, as we age our body’s ability to produce collagen decreases. This results in things like less elasticity in the skin and weaker tendons and joints.
Fortunately, a vegan diet is loaded with all of these amino acids, vitamins, and minerals! Likely more so than omnivorous diets.
What are the Benefits of Boosting Your Body’s Natural Collagen Production?
Whether you purchase a vegan collagen-boosting supplement or focus on eating foods that provide the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals necessary for your body to do crate on its own, maximizing your body’s production of collagen has several benefits.
1. Improved Digestion
Your intestinal tract is not only where you absorb most of the nutrients from your food, it’s also an important gatekeeper. It helps keep out damaging compounds and toxins.
But the intestinal tract needs to be strong. Your intestinal tract can be weakened, damaged, inflamed, and irritated by stress, medications, infections, exposure to allergens, or the ingestion of toxins. This can lead to what is known as leaky gut.
When your intestinal wall is damaged, toxins, pathogens, and other matter can pass through directly into the bloodstream. Studies on people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) have shown decreased blood serum concentrations of collagen.
Collagen supplements or collagen-boosting foods can help your gut stay in tip-top shape by strengthening the lining within.
2. Skin, Hair, and Nail Support
Collagen serves as the scaffolding that supports your skin. It can make your skin plumper and lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Dryness also causes creases and wrinkles to look far more apparent on the surface of the skin. Because collagen is largely composed of water, it may help build up your skin’s moisture barrier, keeping it hydrated and bright!
Collagen also assists in the synthesis of keratin, the protein that makes up 90% of your hair and nails, and acts as an antioxidant to protect hair follicles from damage.
3. Stronger Immune System
Boost that immune system people!
Without Vitamin C there is no collagen. Vitamin C is a potent precursor for collagen and it helps your body’s immune response function effectively. Vitamin C has been shown to boost white blood cell counts, improving the body’s first line of defense against infection and reducing unneeded inflammatory responses that may harm and weaken your body.
Vitamin C also increased blood antioxidant levels by up to 30 percent, which improved the body’s first line of defense against infection.
4. Protects Your Cardiovascular Health
Heart failure takes a long time to develop and usually begins with atherosclerosis or ischemic heart disease. Lowering your cholesterol is priority one. (1) If you’re already following a plant-predominant or plant-exclusive diet, you’re well on your way to a healthier heart!
Building up your collagen not only helps beautify and get your joints through one more workout, but collagen is also crucial to the strengthening of your artery walls! (2)
5. Supports and Improves Joint Health
Collagen is incredibly important for keeping your joints healthy. It is the main component of cartilage, the gelatinous cushioning between bones. Without this cushion your bones just grind against each other, causing painful movement. A lack of collagen also increases chronic inflammation around the joints.
I had knee surgery at 16. Only minor ligament damage, but I just shredded the cartilage in my right knee. Surgery was a relief (after I recovered and rehabbed, of course)! My knee was so painful that any activity was excruciating.
I don’t mind a bit of soreness in my joints from having fun, but I do everything possible these days to keep my cartilage healthy!
6. Collagen and Calcium Are Essential for Bone Strength and Flexibility
We all know that calcium is crucial for strong bones. But collagen? Who knew?!
Bone is actually a connective tissue! Your bones are made of both minerals and protein, and 90 percent of the proteins in bone are made of collagen! This combination is what gives bone both strength and flexibility. Just imagine if your bones had no flex at all. They’d break all the time! They need to be able to flex and absorb!
What Damages Collagen?
We’ve discussed that collagen production slows down as we age, but there are other lifestyle facts that make the problem even worse.
Excessive sun exposure (from sunlight or tanning beds), a diet high in refined sugar, and smoking not only damage the collagen in your body but also speed up collagen production decline.
UV light causes elastin to grow more rapidly, resulting in an enzymatic reaction that destroys collagen. 20 to 30 minutes of direct midday sun exposure is important for the production of vitamin D, and then put on the sunscreen and save your collagen.
Refined sugar bonds to protein to form a glycosylated protein, which is a very sharp molecule. The collagen surrounding these sharp proteins is harmed, causing it to become brittle.
Smoking’s bad, m’kay. Both collagen and elastin are harmed by the chemicals in smoked tobacco products.
A healthy diet and lifestyle go a long way in promoting collagen production.
Taking in collagen through food sources will help support your skin, your internal organs, and also the collagen that makes up the connective tissues of your bones.
Incorporating more of the foods mentioned above, along with calcium, will help strengthen your bones.
How to Prevent Diminishing Collagen Production and Storage
A healthy diet and lifestyle go a long way in promoting collagen production.
Taking in collagen through food sources will help support your skin, your internal organs, and also the collagen that makes up the connective tissues of your bones.
Conventional Sources of Collagen and Supplements
Conventional sources of collagen come from animal products. Marine collagen is made from fish scales and skin, while bovine collagen is made from cowhide.
It’s important to note that just because you eat collagen that doesn’t mean your body is going to use it to make or repair collagen in your body. The collagen molecule is made up of more than 1,400 amino acids! And your intestines only allow proteins that are smaller than three amino acids to pass into your bloodstream.
Supplement manufacturers will often break these incredibly long-chain amino acids into smaller peptides. You’ve likely seen Collagen Peptides supplements!
But there are not enough unbiased research studies proving the effects of collagen supplements on the body.
In fact, according to the EU’s Health and Nutritional Claims Register, marine and bovine collagen claims have not yet been authorized as being proven to work (in the way they’re claimed to).
Vegan Sources for Collagen Synthesis
Natural collagen production is dependent on amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and cofactors. A vegan diet is well equipped to give you all of these necessary nutrients! Whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and spices have everything you need.
Let’s run through the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids your body needs, and the foods that provide them.
1. Amino Acids – Lysine, glycine, and proline (of critical importance)
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and they are a foundational element to collagen synthesis in the body. Collagen is, after all, a protein!
Tell people you follow a vegan diet and they’ll probably ask where you get your protein. All plants have at least some protein, and yes, all plant proteins are complete. Most of them, however, will be limited in one or more amino acids. This is why a varied diet is so important. But there is not one single case in history of a person being protein deficient that was eating enough calories.
There are three amino acids that are crucial to collagen formation: lysine, glycine, and proline. Vitamin C adds hydrogen and oxygen to lysine and proline to create the collagen protein.
Lysine: Your body cannot make lysine on its own, so it is imperative that you eat foods that are rich in this amino acid.
Food sources include tofu, brewer’s yeast, spirulina are the main sources, but there are also some in tomatoes, bell peppers, avocados, beets, and leeks.
Glycine is the most abundant amino acid in collagen. Your body can make glycine on its own, as long as you have provided all of the nutrients your body needs to synthesize it.
Food sources include sesame seeds, spirulina, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, nori, watercress, beans, and spinach.
Pumpkin seeds are irreplaceable to me! They are an amazing source of protein and iron. I sprinkle them on just above everything!
Proline (which becomes hydroxyproline in the presence of vitamin C) makes up 23 percent of collagen and is a precursor to collagen production.
Food sources include asparagus, beans, buckwheat, cabbage, cucumbers, garbanzo beans, peanuts, soy, and watercress.
2. Vitamin C (of critical importance)
You knew this one was coming right? Without enough vitamin C your body will not be able to build or store collagen.
Vitamin C converts the amino acids lysine and proline into hydroxylysine and hydroxyproline. Hydroxyproline is the key stabilizing molecule for the collagen triple-helix structure.
Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant, and the best food sources of vitamin C are all plants!
Foods sources include dark leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green and red peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, strawberries, citrus fruits, mango, papaya, pineapple, and kiwi.
3. Zinc (of critical importance)
Zinc is a cofactor required for collagen production. It activates the proteins that are required for collagen synthesis.
Food sources include chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, cashews, sesame seeds, legumes, soy products, whole grains, and oatmeal.
4. Copper (of critical importance)
Copper is a powerful antioxidant that stimulates the formation of collagen.
Food sources include cashews, whole grains, legumes, prunes, sunflower seeds, lentils, almonds, apricots, blackstrap molasses, and leafy greens.
5. Polysaccharides (of critical importance)
Polysaccharides are a type of long-chain carbohydrate. They are responsible for assembling the various amino acids required in collagen production.
Food sources include aloe vera, corn, potatoes, rice, pasta, apple and pear skins, whole grains, dark green leafies, nuts, and seeds.
6. Manganese (of critical importance)
Manganese is an important cofactor for an enzyme called prolidase. Prolidase is necessary to create the amino acid proline.
Food sources include whole grains, nuts, soybeans, legumes, lima beans, pineapple, and pecans.
7. Aloe Vera
I’m 42. When I was growing up we didn’t worry about sunscreen, we just baked and then slathered on the aloe vera. But did you know that you can eat it?!!
Aloe vera is rich in polysaccharides (long-chain carbohydrates) that stimulate collagen production, and can potentially help create stronger collagen formation.
8. Vitamin B3 – Niacinamide
Niacinamide is the vegan-friendly version of niacin, also known as vitamin B3. This vegan protein has been proven by research done at UCLA to boost collagen synthesis in skin cells.
Food sources include mushrooms, avocados, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, walnuts, and whole grains.
9. Silica (AKA Silicon)
Silica is another collagen-boosting compound. Silica is involved in synthesizing glycosaminoglycans (a polysaccharide), which deals with the support and maintenance of structural proteins like collagen.
Most whole plant foods naturally contain silica, but bamboo is the king. However, there are plenty of more common foods to get you plenty of silica.
Food sources include green beans, bananas, leafy greens, brown rice, and lentils.
10. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is another potent antioxidant and anti-aging vitamin. Especially when eaten with vitamin C! Vitamin E enhances the antioxidant properties of vitamin C significantly.
Vitamin E also works against collagen cross-linking, which is when the collagen in your skin begins to become brittle and break down.
Food sources include avocado, almonds, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, spinach, broccoli, red peppers, mango, kiwi, and tomatoes.
11. Ellagic Acid
Ellagic Acid is not really a collagen builder, but it has been shown to protect collagen from inflammatory processes, preventing collagen breakdown.
Food sources include strawberries, raspberries, pomegranate, cranberries, apples, grapes, and pink dragonfruit.
12. Carotenoids (beta-carotene and lycopene)
Carotenoids protect collagen from UV damage and support collagen regeneration.
Food sources include are tomatoes, apricots, broccoli, carrots, kale, squash, and sweet potatoes.
13. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids help protect against collagen breakdown. By providing photo-protection, omega 3 fatty acids decrease the harmful effects of UV exposure on collagen fibers in the skin. And you’ve probably heard of helping your joints with fish oil. Its role in collagen production is why! But we can get all we need from the following plants.
Food sources include flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and flax oil.
If you remember your middle school science classes, chlorophyll is the pigment responsible for the green color in plants. Chlorophyll may help stimulate collagen production. The science on this is still new, but so far the research is promising.
Food sources include dark green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, broccoli, arugula, and spinach, as well as sea vegetables like spirulina.
Anthocyanin suppresses inflammation and has been shown to stabilize collagen.
Food sources include elderberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, and raspberries.
16. Hyaluronic acid
Hyaluronic acid is one of the main molecules involved in hydrating your skin. This one is a bit of reach. This is less about collagen production and more about hydration. But still incredibly important, especially if you’re here for the beautifying effects of natural collagen production.
Food sources include asparagus, prunes, carrots, soy-based products, lettuce, and leeks.
Putting It All Together
I’ve just given you a lot to think about.
You will notice that I listed “of critical importance” next to the first 6 nutrients in the above list. These are non-negotiable. You must have these for optimal collagen production. Your body cannot build collagen with the necessary amino acids, vitamin C, zinc, and copper. Polysaccharides help your body assemble amino acids and manganese is required to build the amino acid proline.
Everything else is a bonus.
So, if you feel you really need to make sure your collagen production is maximized, focus on the foods I listed for those 6 nutrients. And then try for the rest.
If you think your body is doing well, you’re pretty “aches and pains free,” and you’re happy with the condition of your skin, just follow the recommendations below and eat a balanced vegan diet.
Make sure you are getting plenty of plant-based protein every day. Collagen makes up about a third of the proteins in your body, so vegan protein sources are going to be essential.
Great vegan protein sources are tofu, tempeh, edamame, seitan, quinoa, legumes, chickpeas, nuts, and seeds. Shoot for at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and you should be covered. If you’re an athlete, you’re training hard, or you’re trying to lose weight, up that to closer to 1.8 grams per kilogram.
You want to have plenty of protein to recover, build, and maintain lean muscle mass. And if your body is trying to recover or build due to high demands it’s going to pull all of the amino acids it needs. That will leave less for building collagen. So make sure you have enough for both.
Learn more about vegan protein sources and how much you need here.
Dark leafy greens every day! These are going to cover your need for vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids (which convert to vitamin A), and chlorophyll.
Nuts and Seeds daily for zinc, E, omega 3 fatty acids, and manganese.
Whole grains for zinc, copper, B3, polysaccharides, and manganese.
Dark fruits for ellagic acid, anthocyanin, and vitamin C. Citrus fruits for vitamins C, E, and ellagic acid.
Various colors of vegetables for varying amounts of literally everything above!
Plenty of starchy carbs for polysaccharides that help your body assemble amino acids, and for zinc, copper, B3, silica, and manganese.
And I try and eat some tomatoes every day. They are an amazing source of lycopene and aid in fat transportation.
You can see why eating a varied, whole-food-based vegan diet is so important. You’re giving your body everything it needs to build and store collagen.
Should You Consider a Vegan Collagen Boosting Supplement?
A supplement is just that…a supplement. It’s meant to supplement, or add to, a healthy diet. No supplement will ever take the place of a healthy diet, and no supplement will make up for an unhealthy one.
If you are eating a healthy vegan diet, eating a wide variety of foods, and getting in plenty of plant-based protein, your body will have everything it needs to make and store its own collagen.
Personally, I always have a collagen booster in my pantry. I don’t take it every day, but sometimes I switch it out for other protein powders, or I can take it if I’m feeling lazy or didn’t eat well that day.
If your body’s demands are greater than normal, if you’re training really hard, or are recovering from an injury or illness you might consider taking a supplement.
Read the article on the best vegan collagen-boosting supplements. I’ve personally tried every supplement on the list, and then some, and made my picks for the best ones out there.
Vegan Collagen Sources FAQ
What are the benefits of boosting your collagen production?
Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins found in your body. It is present in every tissue and organ, especially in places that need a bit more support or structure like tendons, ligaments, cartilage, bones, the gut lining, the blood vessels…pretty much everywhere! When there’s a decrease in collagen formation you see things like poor wound healing, achy joints, painful movement, or your skin may start to look wrinkled because there isn’t enough collagen for it to retain its firmness and elasticity.
What foods can I eat to get collagen?
Plant-based foods high in all three amino acids include tempeh, tofu, black beans, kidney beans, and other legumes. Seeds:], especially pumpkin, squash, sunflower, and chia. Nuts, such as pistachio, peanut, and cashew. Another way to get the benefits of collagen as a vegan is to take individual amino acid supplements. Make sure to include all food groups like fruits, vegetables, grains, lentils, pulses, nuts, seeds, and spices.
What are the ingredients in collagen synthesis?
Vitamin C, polysaccharides, silica, zinc, copper, and amino acids (protein) are all necessary for your body to produce collagen.
Conclusion: Vegan Collagen Sources
If veganism is part of your lifestyle, you may be wondering where you can get vegan collagen. It’s true that vegan sources of protein are hard to come by because most animal products contain collagen (animal flesh contains high levels). Luckily there are plenty of vegan options for getting your daily dose of the nutrient if it doesn’t come from a healthy diet.
We’ve listed some great plant-based protein alternatives in this article so make sure you’re eating enough every day! As always, our vegan collagen sources list is a work in progress so if you have anything vegan protein-related to add, please contact us or leave a comment!
What is your favorite way to maximize your collagen production? Food or supplements?
- Libby, Peter, and Masanori Aikawa. “Vitamin C, Collagen, and Cracks in the Plaque.” Circulation, vol. 105, no. 12, 2002, pp. 1396-1398., https://doi.org/10.1161/01.cir.0000012513.58079.ea.
- Wong, Ang-Peng et al. “The effect of multiple micronutrient supplementation on quality of life in patients with symptomatic heart failure secondary to ischemic heart disease: a prospective case series clinical study.” American journal of cardiovascular disease vol. 5,3 146-52. 15 Sep. 2015