Does Collagen Count as Protein Intake?

Collagen powder has rapidly gained popularity over the last several years. With many health benefits associated with collagen supplements, including reducing fine lines and visible signs of aging, it’s no surprise many consumers are fleeing to grab these products off the shelves [1].

However, collagen powder is different from protein powder, another popular nutrition supplement. Since collagen is a protein, does that mean it counts as a protein supplement as well? Let’s find out.

Is Collagen Protein?

Collagen is a type of protein that is found abundantly in our skin and connective tissue, including bones, cartilage, ligaments, and joints. It plays an essential role in the structure of our cells and tissues which is why its most notable benefits surround skin and joint health.

Collagen is composed mainly of three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. 

While collagen is a type of protein, it is not considered a complete protein source. This means it’s missing some of the essential amino acids required to create a complete source of protein. However, this doesn't mean that it doesn’t count towards our total protein intake [2]. 

What is a Complete Protein?

A protein is a chain of amino acids, also known as the building block of protein. There are two categories of these building blocks, including essential and non-essential types. Essential amino acids are those that our body cannot make on its own and therefore are required from our diet.

A complete protein source contains all nine of these essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine, in adequate amounts. If any of these is left out or in very low amounts it cannot create a complete protein structure [3].

Complete protein sources come mainly from animals, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. If a protein is complete, your body can use it more efficiently however, that doesn’t mean that incomplete proteins don’t provide us benefits. 

What is an Incomplete Protein?

An incomplete protein source is missing or low in one of the nine essential amino acids mentioned above. This is typically seen with plant sources of protein, such as beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. While these protein sources are considered incomplete, they still provide the benefits of protein. 

When you eat an incomplete protein, your body breaks it down into individual amino acids that are then stored and used as needed. This means if you consume an incomplete protein source earlier in the day and then consume another incomplete protein that compliments what you were missing, then you can use that as a complete protein.

For example, if you consume brown rice earlier in the day, which is low in the amino acid threonine, and then consume beans or lentils later in the day, which are high in threonine, then you have created a complete source of protein.

This also works during the same meal or if you combine a complete protein, such as cheese, with an incomplete protein, such as whole grain bread.

If you consume a balanced diet that contains a variety of both plant and animal sources of protein throughout the day, you don’t need to worry about whether or not all your sources are complete. 

Is Collagen Complete or Incomplete?

Collagen is considered an incomplete protein source because it is low in the amino acid tryptophan however, researchers have estimated that up to 36% of collagen peptides can be used as a protein substitution in the diet [4]. 

Most collagen supplements contain about 20 grams per serving however, research suggests that anything from 2.5-25 grams has shown promise for various health benefits. With that said, you can expect to get about 18 grams of protein per 20-gram serving of collagen peptides.

How Can I Complete Collagen?

If you are taking collagen supplements and you are worried about it not being a complete protein, you can incorporate more complete protein sources (such as animal products) throughout the day or include tryptophan-rich non-animal food sources, such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.

How to Increase Collagen Naturally?

Aside from supplements, you can increase your collagen production naturally by consuming collagen-rich foods such as bone broth, chicken skin, and organ meats.

You can also increase collagen synthesis by consuming protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products as well as vitamin C-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables.  [2, 6].

Benefits of Collagen Over Whey

If you are considering taking collagen powder over whey protein, here are some potential benefits you can expect. 

Improved Digestion

Both whey protein powder and collagen powder can provide similar benefits for muscle growth and post-exercise recovery however, collagen is less likely to affect digestion compared to whey protein as it is already broken down [7, 8].

Suitable for Lactose Intolerance

Collagen is lactose-free, making it a suitable option for those who are lactose intolerant or who may suffer from a milk allergy.

Additional Benefits for Skin, Hair, and Joints Health

Collagen provides additional benefits to our skin, hair, and joint health that whey protein doesn't. While protein in general is important for all of these things, collagen plays a more extensive role in the structure and function of these different tissues.

Collagen vs Whey: Which One is Right for Me?

Collagen powder and whey powder are two well-researched nutrition supplements however, neither one is better than the other. Instead, it’s more about what benefits you are hoping to achieve from taking either one of these.

Whether you choose to take a collagen supplement or a whey protein supplement will depend on a variety of factors including your health goals and if you suffer from lactose intolerance or issues digesting whey protein. 

Whey protein can allow for faster muscle growth because it is a complete protein, while collagen powder can allow for potential improvements in the youthfulness of your skin and a reduction in joint pain. Some may even prefer to take both depending on their personal preference.