Nutrition / Food

Collagen vs. Whey: What’s the Difference?

Both proteins can be beneficial to your body, but they’re not interchangeable.

It’s no secret that exercise and diet are the basic tenets in the constant effort to keep your body healthy. For the former, you’ve got the Aaptiv app and its hundreds of trainer-led workouts on your side. For the latter, you’ve got countless options—from tried-and-true foods and eating plans, to gimmicky fads that fade out as quickly as they began. Some of those trends have staying power, though, and rise up the ranks from esoteric to mainstream. One such dietary trend that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere is collagen.

So, what exactly is collagen, and how does it differ from other popular proteins like whey? We’re glad you asked. To find out, we enlisted Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, and owner of Active Eating Advice.

What is collagen protein?

Collagen is a naturally-occurring protein that’s found throughout your body in the bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, blood vessels, skin, and digestive tract. As the main structural protein of connective tissue, it’s the most abundant type of protein in the body.

“Collagen is important for skin hydration, elasticity, joint flexibility, cushioning, and lubrication,” says Bonci. “It’s the primary protein in bones, so collagen is important for supporting healthy bones, joints, and tendons.” Many people take collagen to improve the appearance of their skin, hair, and nails as they age. And, there is some research supporting its effectiveness. In fact, several studies do show improved skin elasticity and reduced wrinkles after collagen supplementation. But, it’s not a cure-all.

“We all lose collagen as we age,” says Bonci, “but a collagen supplement is not going to make a 40-year-old look like they are 20.”

Since collagen is found in the bones and connective tissues of animals, foods like beef, chicken, pork, fish, and bone broth are all good sources of collagen. Bonci notes that egg whites and spirulina are also great sources for getting more collagen in your diet. However, these days dozens of companies sell collagen as a supplement, often labeled as “collagen peptides,” a broken-down form of collagen that is easy to digest. Collagen may be sourced from animals or fish, so if you have a preference in which you consume, it’s worth taking note. And, while there are many great sources of protein for vegans and vegetarians, collagen is not one of them.

What is whey protein?

While collagen protein occurs naturally in the body and is primarily composed of glycine and proline—two things that are great for your bones, joints, and tendons—whey protein is found in dairy products. When milk is processed to form cheese or yogurt, the remaining liquid is whey. According to Bonci, whey contains significant amounts of leucine, which is the amino acid most involved in muscle protein synthesis.

When you see whey protein in the wild—say, on the shelves at your local GNC—it’s usually available in two forms: isolate and concentrate. Whey protein isolate is the purest form of the substance, and usually contains at least 90 percent protein, with very little lactose, fat, carbs, and cholesterol. Whey protein concentrate varies in its makeup, but it typically clocks in at fewer than 80 percent protein, so it contains less protein serving-for-serving than whey isolate. The remaining 20 percent is made up of carbs and fats.

Whey protein is a popular supplement among gym-goers, especially those who want to build muscle. Steady protein intake throughout the day is still your best bet for feeding your muscles, but studies have shown that whey protein can increase muscle growth when consumed before, during, or after workouts. It’s also been shown to increase strength when taken during resistance training programs. And, part of whey protein’s appeal is that it’s known to be absorbed and utilized quickly and efficiently by the body.

So, which is better?

Both proteins can be beneficial, especially when consumed as part of a healthy diet that includes multiple protein sources. “Your daily protein intake can be derived from both animal and plant-based sources,” says Bonci. “All animal proteins [including whey] are complete, containing all the essential amino acids, but collagen itself does not contain all the essential amino acids.” Those amino acids are vital for protein synthesis to take place.

According to Bonci, one serving of collagen peptides provides nine grams of protein. “Ideally, each meal would have 20 to 30 grams of protein, so collagen could be part of, but not the entire, protein allotment for the day,” she says.

“Collagen is important for the health of bones, skin, ligaments, and tendons, but not to build muscle,” stresses Bonci. For that, your best bet is whey.

For more information on health and fitness, consult Aaptiv—it’s got you covered.

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