blackberries and raspberries on blue and white dishes

Is collagen vegan? No. Natural sources of collagen come from animal products. In this post I share how to build collagen the plant-based way, using nutrients and foods, such as pumpkin seeds and cashews, to build and repair collagen naturally.

Collagen supplements are crazy popular these days, but they’re not plant-based. I know a lot of you are looking for both plant-based sources of iron, and vegan collagen sources. So for the latter, I created this evidence-based list of nutrients and foods that can help you build collagen the plant-based way.

In this post I cover:

Conventional Sources of Collagen

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body: it gives strength and structure to your skin, digestive tract, muscles, bones and connective tissue. 

Evidence shows that collagen supplements may be helpful with supporting the health of your skin and your joints (less so, your gut…the research really isn’t there yet). But there’s one hitch: natural sources of collagen come from animal products.

Marine collagen which contains type 1 collagen is made from fish scales and skin.

Bovine collagen which contains type 1 + 3 collagen is made from cow hide.

Collagen, Your Skin, and Sun Protection

Your body is already making collagen, but production naturally declines with each passing year. That makes protecting what you have of primary importance.

First things first: if you want to protect your skin’s collagen levels, it’s probably best to get really serious about sunblock. UV exposure damages the collagen you have.

You also want to get serious about:

  • eating less sugar
  • drinking less alcohol
  • quitting smoking

These factors are going to be major regulators of skin (and overall) health. This goes double if you have any issues like rosacea or eczema.

You can support your skin’s collagen levels by supplying more of the nutrients that boost collagen production, and ones that protect your existing collagen from damage.

6 Collagen-Boosting Nutrients

1. Protein

Collagen is made from amino acids…so in order to create collagen, you need to eat adequate protein. On a plant based diet, this takes a bit of conscious effort. In particular, proline, glycine and l-glutamine appear to be important for collagen synthesis. But don’t go buying expensive amino acid supps, okay?

In fact, eating dietary protein should do it, and the research suggests that dosing single aminos may not be effective. Where to get your plant-based protein?

Here’s a list of powerhouse sources of plant protein.

2. Vitamin C

Vitamin C helps convert proline into hydroxyproline, which helps stabilize the structure of collagen and stimulates collagen synthesis. As an antioxidant, vitamin C also helps prevent collagen breakdown from free radical damage.

It’s worth noting that vitamin C absorption goes down as the dose goes up. So if you take 1000mg of vitamin C, you’re not actually absorbing 1000mg. I found an interesting article about lypospheric vitamin C and collagen that suggested excellent improvements in collagen in just 12 weeks. However, it’s far from unbiased, only one person’s experience (not a large scale trial) and this kind of regime would easily set you back about 15-20 bucks A DAY.

3. Zinc

Zinc is abundant in the skin and plays a role in wound healing, acts as a cofactor in collagen formation and calms inflammation that can lead to the cross-linking of collagen and cause signs of aging.

Zinc typically follows protein in foods, so get more legumes, nuts and seeds on your plate! People on a plant-based diet are definitely candidates for lower-than-ideal zinc intake, so double up on those nuts and seeds. This seed butter will help.

4. Copper

About 15% of the body’s copper is found in the skin, where it has several roles. Copper supports the proliferation of fibroblasts that produce collagen, stimulates collagen production and helps catalyze the building of collagen fibrils.

As a cofactor in superoxide dismutase, copper helps support cellular antioxidant levels that protect the skin from free radical damage. There are topical skincare products that contain copper as well.

5. Carotenoids (beta-carotene and lycopene)

Vitamin A is an important nutrient for skin health; plant-based carotenoids help protect collagen from UV damage and support collagen regeneration.

6. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Since omega 3 fatty acids are well established as anti-inflammatory, you might expect that they help protect against collagen breakdown. It is thought that omega 3 fatty acids provide photo-protection, which would diminish the effect of UV exposure on the body’s collagen fibres. I really love using a facial oil that is rich in omegas too.

But how much do I need?

You’ll notice that there isn’t a lot of dosing information here – because I haven’t found much in the research. Instead, these nutrients are known to contribute to the physiology of collagen production, although we have yet to test how much protein or vitamin C will boost collagen levels in otherwise healthy skin.

Aim for slightly better than typical intake.

For some nutrients, that will be easy to do with food with slightly larger portions of protein or chlorophyll-rich greens, for example. For others, like zinc or vitamin C, you may want to experiment with short term (say 12 weeks) supplementation with your doc’s okay to see if you notice a change in your skin.

5 food sources that improve collagen levels

The science of collagen formation and protection is pretty complex… so why don’t we just talk about what to eat? Try incorporating more of these five foods into your daily diet to get more of the nutrients we just covered, and some of the ones we didn’t!

1. Pumpkin Seeds

This is where you get your zinc. A ¼ cup of raw pumpkin seeds contains almost one-third of a woman’s daily zinc needs. A great place to ‘supplement’ your diet with whole food, and stave off the mid-afternoon sugar crash.

In addition, that same ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds contains over 10g of protein. Mix it with a few antioxidant rich dried tart cherries if you need the extra flavour hit.

2. Cashews

A super versatile addition to a plant-based diet (hello, cashew cream!), cashews are surprisingly high in copper and zinc for collagen production while offering healthy fats and protein. Blend cashews into smoothies, sauces or desserts.

3. Green Tea

Catechin compounds in green tea are thought to be photo-protective for skin, in addition to preventing the improper cross-linking of collagen to elastin in aging skin. If you like it, opt for matcha for a more concentrated boost.

4. Garlic

Garlic contains organosulfur compounds, which are thought to be photo-protective and help upregulate collagen production. Garlic also contains alpha-lipoic acid, which is thought to prevent oxidative damage to skin and upregulate collagen production.

5. Green cruciferous veggies (kale, collards, arugula, broccoli)

If you ever needed more reasons to eat greens, think about your skin! Green cruciferous veggies contain a huge dose of skin-protecting nutrients, such as carotenoids, vitamin C and organosulfur compounds. In addition, what makes them green – their chlorophyll content – is thought to help stimulate collagen production on its own (but it’s early research).

What about vegan collagen powders?

As the collagen trend grows, so does the vegan collagen trend.

There are too many products to list here, and no doubt the formulas will be changing as research grows. So here’s what to think about before you purchase a vegan collagen powder or supplement:

  • Does it contain one, or more of the collagen boosting nutrients mentioned above?
  • Does it contain higher doses of these nutrients? For example, if it contains the nutrients in amounts that are less than 20% of your daily requirements (or %DV) it’s unlikely that nutrient is dosed high enough to push collagen production as opposed to being utilized by the body for other processes – particularly if you have low dietary intake
  • Was the finished product tested in a clinical trial to see if it actually does something?
  • Is the supplement so expensive that you’re better off investing in something like a good quality matcha or higher dose vitamin C?

Skin health is highly complex. And let’s not forget, also dependent on genetics. But make no mistake, a healthy plant-based anti-inflammatory diet helps feed your skin from the inside out while helping you avoid factors that diminish skin health.

So if you’ve been looking for vegan alternatives to collagen supplements, look no further than your fridge!

Photo Credit: Alyssa Dawson