You know those youthful, bouncy cheeks we all crave? They’re a sign of healthy, abundant collagen. Located within the dermis (below the outermost layer of skin), collagen is the foundation of connective tissue that supports the skin’s structure. “Collagen is naturally found throughout the body, and isn’t just in the skin,” says San Francisco facial plastic surgeon David Kim, MD. “It is commonly found in muscles, tendons, your gastrointestinal tract, and even your blood vessels.”
“Collagen naturally decreases over time, so to minimize this, you want to think about healthy aging overall,” says Whitney Tingle, cofounder of Sakara Life. “Focus not only on how to protect your collagen, but also how to keep your whole body—skin included—youthful, vibrant and healthy.”
Aside from aging—the sun, pollution, free radicals, and smoke are also responsible for disintegrating collagen—Tingle says the top reason people don’t have enough collagen is poor diet: “Your body can’t make collagen if it doesn’t have the necessary elements, including amino acids, vitamin C, zinc, and copper,” she explains. “For most people, as they age, their gut also becomes compromised and doesn’t function properly, therefore no longer being able to absorb nutrients as well. A diet built on fresh, organic and vibrant plants will not only provide you with all the phytonutrients and plant fiber your body needs to thrive, but also nourish and heal your gut. A happy, properly functioning gut is able to absorb all the wonderful nutrients your body needs to carry out all its functions, like building collagen!”
While the body is constantly creating new collagen to repair what’s been damaged, the production process naturally begins to taper off around age 30, and the quality of collagen made is not as good as it was in years past. The good news? In addition to topical products and treatments (and collagen peptide supplements of course), many foods have the power to naturally boost collagen in the skin. “My approach is always to work with whole foods first, and recommend adding fruits and vegetables to the diet eaten in their most natural state—that is, as close to raw as possible,” says Tammy Fender, holistic practitioner and founder of the synonymous skin-care brand. “The body thrives when we eat this way, and it shows in the skin as pure radiance.” These are 30 you should know about.
“Collagen is formed from 19 amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein,” says holistic nutritionist Jennifer Hanway. “Adding protein-rich foods into our diets provide us with the raw materials necessary for collagen production. Choose from high-quality animal proteins such as organic chicken, grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon.”
Egg whites are a great option too. In addition to giving your body a dose of healthy protein that it needs, egg whites “are high in the amino acids—lysine and proline—that are needed to produce collagen in the body,” adds Dr. Kim.
Amino Acid–Rich Plants
“By eating a diet diverse in plant-rich ingredients, you will provide your body with an abundance of vitamins and minerals, as well as all the amino acids needed to form complete proteins—all the necessary elements to produce collagen,” says Tingle. “Some plants that contain all nine essential amino acids include quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds and spirulina.”
Dark Green Vegetables
Rich in vitamin C, dark green vegetables like spinach and kale can rev up collagen production. In topical products, “vitamin C has antioxidant properties that stabilize the messenger enzymes that break collagen down. It also protects against free radicals to prevent weak collagen,” says Orlando, FL dermatologist Dr. Dimitry Palceski.
Tingle says phytoceramides, a plant-based ceramide, can be thought of as a plant-based, vegan-friendly alternative to popular collagen supplements. “They can be found in spinach, among some other foods, and help restore the body’s natural lipids, helping to maintain the skin barrier, lock in moisture, plump fine lines, and fade acne scars while keeping pollutants out. Sakara’s Beauty Chocolates also contain Ceramoside phytoceramides, and are a great option for supplementation, as well as a healthy, sweet treat.”
According to celebrity aesthetician Nerida Joy, bone broth can be a source of a collagen. The collagen is released from the beef, chicken or fish bones during the cooking process, which provides a collagen-rich liquid that can be used for sipping, or added to sauces. “I am a believer in organic whole food sources such as bone broth,” she says. “As its taste is not terribly pleasing, cooking with it or adding it to dressing helps add value and nourishment to a meal.”
Monroe, LA dermatologist Janine Hopkins, MD also often recommends bone broth. “Clean natural, foods high in antioxidants and lean protein are excellent choices for our skin,” she says. “Foods with a high glycemic index and processed sugar in particular are bad choices for our skin. Glycation is a metabolic process triggered by chronically high blood glucose levels that damages our collagen bundles. Excess glucose fibers in the skin triggers an internal reaction in which sugar molecules adhere to the collagen and elastin proteins, which normally help keep skin firm and supple.”
Vitamin C–Rich Fruits
Studies show that fruits that are rich in vitamin C like guava have the ability to help amino acids—lysine and proline—convert to collagen. “While there has been a lot of focus on animal-based foods that support collagen, including bone broth, we need to remember that vitamin C is also needed to synthesize collagen,” says Fender. “You can go to berries and citrus fruits for your vitamin C, but I love to recommend foods like broccoli, which is not only full of vitamin C, but also a wealth of other nutrients that benefit the whole body system.”
Antioxidant-rich vitamin C is also extremely important in helping to ward off free radicals that can lead to visible signs of skin aging. “Fruits like citrus, berries, kiwis and pineapples are high in vitamin C and can help to neutralize free radicals that break down both collagen and elastin,” adds Dr. Kim.
“Fish like tuna and salmon are loaded with omega-3 fatty acid,” says New York nutritionist Brook Alpert. Skin cells are surrounded by a fatty membrane that protects them. When the cells are healthy, they are able to support the structure of the skin.
Hanway says fermented foods such as tempeh, yoghurt, sauerkraut and kombucha contain Lactobacillus, a strain of probiotic bacteria that produces superoxide dismutase. “Superoxide dismutase is a powerful antioxidant that may prevent collagen breakdown by reducing the production of free radicals,” she explains. “Aim for one serving of fermented foods a day, and consider supplementing with a good quality probiotic.”
Tomatoes, peppers and beets contain the antioxidant lycopene that helps boost the body’s defense against sun damage. “Lycopene acts as a natural sunblock of sorts, protecting the skin from damage while increasing collagen levels,” says Alpert.
Vegetables that are orange in color, like carrots and sweet potatoes, are rich in vitamin A and “can help restore and regenerate damaged collagen,” says Dr. Kim.
Whether sources from soy milk, cheese or tofu, soy contains genistein (plant hormones that serve as antioxidants), which prompts collagen production and helps to block enzymes, like MMPs that can age the skin.
Hanway says copper, manganese and zinc are the three minerals that play a key factor in collagen production, and oysters are high in these minerals. Also chock-full of other nutrients, including iron and vitamin B12, oysters provide a low-calorie option and a long list of health benefits.
One of the best sources of sulfur, which is necessary to collagen production in the body, garlic also provides lipoic acid and taurine that help rebuild collagen fibers that have been damaged.