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What is Collagen Good for, Really?

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Until recently, a collagen supplement was something that you’d put on your body, not in it.

For decades, people have used collagen topically in anti-aging creams. But recently there’s been a spike in collagen everything: pills and powders, whey-collagen supplement combos, bone broth, and other collagen-infused products.

Why the surge?

Collagen comes with some lofty health claims. Some suggest that taking just a single serving (about 2 tablespoons) of collagen powder per day can do everything from improve your workout performance, to strengthen your muscles, to lubricate your joints, to even improve your gut health

But at $50 for a one-month serving — double the price of most protein powders — there’s a hefty price tag to go along with all that big talk…only some of which is backed by science.

Should you buy in?

The results are mixed.

If you’re looking FOR COLLAGEN TO boost your workout, don’t believe the hype.

But if you’re hoping for healthier skin, the right product (not all collagen is created equal, so be sure to look at the label) might help you save money you might spend on other worthless products.

Here’s a guide that explains what collagen can do for you, with buying tips to help you make sure you don’t buy a collagen product that uses smoke and mirrors to sell you inferior ingredients.

What Is Collagen, Exactly?

Collagen is a fibrous protein that helps make up the connective tissues in your body. That means collagen is in your skin, hair, joints, bones, muscles, veins, and organs, explains Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More than 30 percent of your body’s structural protein is collagen, adds NYC-based registered dietitian Laura Cipullo, R.D., C.D.E.

All collagen is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Your body uses these amino acids to repair its tissues (think: muscles, bones, and joints), explains registered dietician Mary Ellen Phipps, M.P.H., R.D.N., owner of Houston-based Milk & Honey Nutrition. Basically, collagen is the glue that holds those tissues together and help them withstand stretch, Phipps says.

So it makes sense that products are trying to find ways to improve collagen, especially when you consider that collagen decreases when you get older.

Where Does Collagen Come From?

You'll find collagen in this stock pot filled with beef bones and aromatic vegetables.
Bone broth and homemade soups are rich sources of collagen.

Like almost everything, you do not need a supplement to get collagen.

Collagen can be found in animal proteins like eggs, chicken, bone broth, and dairy, says Maggie Michalczyk, R.D.N. Your body will also naturally make collagen from certain amino acids and vitamins and minerals like vitamin A, vitamin C, and copper, she says. In fact, vitamin C is necessary for collagen formulation, so being deficient can harm your body’s natural production.

“The body’s collagen synthesis naturally decreases as we age, which means that, over time, our bodies aren’t producing collagen as quickly as they once were,” explains Valdez.

After about 25 to 30 years of age, your collagen levels start dropping by about 1 percent per year, which means that our bodies aren’t repairing themselves as fast as they once did, Michalczyk says.

Some blame that decrease in collagen production for their achy joints, slower muscle recovery, and sensitive stomachs.

“As the production of collagen decreases, some people anecdotally report symptoms like slower wound healing, greater instances of joint pain or an increase in frequency of broken bones,” says nutritional therapy practitioner Alexandra Rains, C.N.T, co-founder of Bonafide Provisions.

Ok, So Should I Take a Collagen Supplement?

When you learn that collagen decreases over time, it’s logical to conclude that, “Ok, well I’ll just take a collagen supplement. Problem solved.”

Unfortunately it’s not so simple.

“The studies done on oral ingestion of collagen are very limited and there’s a lot of false information out there,” says Valdez.

For starters, there’s no research that shows that the collagen we consume automatically gets turned into the collagen in our tissues.

Quick science refresher: Collagen, like all proteins, is made up of amino acids. The collagen you consume in a collagen powder is going to be broken down into those amino acids with the help of enzymes in the stomach, says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N.

That’s where we lose control of the process. Because just as you can’t eat cake and tell your body where to store fat, you have no say how amino acids will be used.

A rich piece of chocolate cake.
Unfortunately you can’t send this straight to your biceps. The same is true of collagen — once you eat it, you lose control of where it goes.

Instead, the amino acids derived from breaking down ingested collagen (or any other protein you eat) are distributed throughout the body based on which area needs them the most.

Because major organs like the heart and brain use collagen to function, it’s likely that you won’t immediately notice differences in your muscles, joints, or bones, says Phipps. But chances are you won’t really feel it in your heart and brain, either.

Think about it this way: B vitamins have been shown to be good for your heart, but we don’t feel  better when we take a B-vitamin supplement, or eat lean meats or green leafy vegetables (which are rich in those vitamins).

Is Collagen Good For Skin Health?

If there’s an area that’s most promising, it’s collagen’s ability to help skin health. Most evidence surrounding oral collagen supplementation shows that it can improve skin complexion and reduce so-called imperfections.

For example, a recent review published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that supplementing with oral collagen increased skin hydration after eight weeks, which suggests that taking collagen can help you beat dry, cracked winter skin.

Another study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that supplementing with collagen was effective at reducing the appearance of cellulite in women.

Is Collagen Good for Joint Aches and Pains?

If Collagen’s role with skin health is the most proven, then consider the potential for improving joint health as the most promising.

While there are very few studies performed — which means we need more time (and research) to know with certainty if collagen will help most people, type II collagen (aka collagen peptides) has shown more upside than other more common supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin.

According to Examine.com, a leader in supplement research, “The collagen in joint cartilage is 80–90% type-II collagen. Current research suggests that undenatured type-II collagen (UC-II) may reduce swelling, joint pain, and stiffness in cases of moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis and both juvenile and adult-onset rheumatoid arthritis.”

A study in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that people with joint pain or mobility who took collagen for 4 months significantly improved joint function. Other research published in Current Medical Research and Opinion suggests that collagen supplements may lessen joint pain among college athletes. And more research published in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology Research found that collagen may decrease joint stiffness and pain in women.

Your move: because research is still young, if you’re dealing with pain and swelling, Valdez recommends that you go see a doctor or physical therapist before trying to “fix” the problem through a supplement or other nutritional change.  

How Does Collagen Affect Bone Health?

While collagen may be good for your joints, claims that collagen is beneficial for bone density are unsupported.

For example, in a study published in the journal Maturitas, researchers found that collagen supplements did not improve bone health in postmenopausal women with osteopenia (a precursor to osteoporosis).

Another study published in the Journal of Agricultural And Food Chemistry did find that collagen increased bone density and had a beneficial impact on osteoporosis…in rats. Until there is evidence that collagen can improve bone density in humans, it’s best to set your expectations low.  

Will Collagen Improve Your Workout Performance?

Four athletes perform box jumps.
Don’t expect collagen to give your workouts a big boost.

Like most supplements (creatine and caffeine being exceptions to the rule), there’s no magic pill hiding in collagen.

Many of the claims of boosted workout performance are based on one study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which suggested that taking collagen supplements may help preserve lean muscle in older women. There were many limitations within the study: it only involved nine healthy women over the age of 70, all of whom were given collagen supplements for 15 days.

The bigger issue: It’s likely those subjects would experience benefits from consuming any kind of protein, Gans says. Why? Because older women typically under-consume protein, and consuming protein has been found to help preserve lean muscle mass.

So if your goal is to build muscle and chase PR’s, you could just as easily supplement with a cheaper alternative such as whey protein, which also tends to have 15 to 20 grams of protein per scoop, compared to the typical 10-gram serving in collagen products. The choice is up to you and your budget.

What About Collagen and Gut Health?

We’ll keep it simple: like most products related to gut health, there is more speculation than science. There aren’t any studies that show collagen has a positive effect on gut health.

The Buyers Guide: Good Collagen vs. Ineffective Collagen

If you decide you want to try a collagen supplement, it’s important to know that all collagen is not created equal.

Collagen can come from multiple sources, such as gelatin, or in different variations such as hydrolyzed collagen or undenatured collage. Your GI tract will break down these proteins, meaning what you put into your mouth won’t necessary have any value after it goes through the digestive process.

Research in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacological Research found that digestive enzymes break down hydrolyzed collagen. And something like gelatin is rendered almost useless.

Your option: either buy a product with the specific type of hydrolyzed collagen — “type II collagen” (sometimes labeled UC-II) — that has been shown to have benefits in research, or stick with a product that is purely collagen peptides. Both of these variations are more likely to make it through the digestive process and still provide value for your body.

If it doesn’t have type II specified or use collagen peptides, you should have less confidence that the product will deliver on its promises, no matter what the label claims.

To ensure that any supplements you take — collagen or otherwise — contain what they actually say they do (and nothing else), your best bet is to choose a tub that has been third-party tested by a company such as NSF International. You should see this mark right on the label, says Phipps.

However, people with sensitive stomachs may experience some discomfort like heartburn or nausea, says Valdez. So if you find it’s hard on your GI system, try a brand with fewer ingredients, take smaller servings, or consider stopping the supplements altogether.

How to Get More Collagen Naturally

A pile of blueberries and strawberries sit atop a wooden table.
Fruits rich in vitamin C can help you maintain collagen levels.

While collagen supplementation may be beneficial for some, you don’t need to buy a product to add collagen to your diet. Your steps can be as simple as:

  • Regularly eating vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, dark leafy greens, strawberries, and blueberries. Vitamin C is critical to collagen production, Gans says. That’s because vitamin C deficiencies are linked to a decline in natural collagen production, so prioritizing the vitamin may help keep your collagen levels up.
  • Eating foods high in vitamin A, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach can also help. Much like vitamin C, vitamin A helps your body maintain its collagen levels.
  • Eating protein-rich foods at meals and snacks, Gans says. Great options include animal proteins, eggs, and dairy.
  • Making your own bone broth or stock. Valdez says that bone broths and homemade soups are jam-packed with collagen. You don’t need to go out and buy a bone broth mix from a store. You can make your own by simply putting bones (could be from chicken, beef, pork or a mix) into a large pot with water and veggies like carrots and celery. Add a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, and let boil for several hours. The real trick: the longer you let it boil, the more collagen you’ll receive from the broth (that’s what makes bone broth different from regular stock). If you want to max out the collagen you pull out, cook the bones on low for at least 24 hours. You can make bone broth quicker (say, a minimum of 6 hours of slow cooking), but less cook time means less collagen. And be sure to keep the heat on low to prevent the breakdown of the collagen, which makes it less “usable” by your body.

READ MORE: 

What is the Best Protein Powder? 

How Much Protein Do You Really Need? 

Do Carbs Actually Make You Fat? 

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I Want to Look More Muscular. What’s the Best Way to Make Gains?

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There’s one thing that all the biggest, most muscular people on the planet have in common.

It’s not great genetics.

(Good genes help, but plenty of people have gotten huge without having been blessed with it at birth.)

It’s not that they all just live at the gym and do nothing else, or follow some magical workout. (When it comes to building muscle, many different approaches — low rep/high weight, high rep/low weight, straight sets, supersets, and on and on — can work. There is no one that’s “best.”)

And it’s not that they’re on performance-enhancing drugs. (You can pack on plenty of muscle naturally — look no further than any drug-free bodybuilding competition for proof.)

The thing they all have in common is this:

Patience.

Not the answer you expected? Here’s why being patient is so important.

The Problem with Bulking and Cutting

First, when most people set out to build muscle, they go through a phase where they eat a lot and train a lot. You’ve probably heard it called “bulking.”

Then, after a few weeks or months, they switch. Maybe they get self-conscious about the size the gained. Or maybe they think they’re starting to look fat. So they trim back on calories and change their training to try and burn the fat off. This phase is called “cutting.”

Most people bounce back and forth between these two phases — bulking and cutting, bulking and cutting — without making any real progress. Why? Because each new phase undoes the success of the last.

On our website, we’ve talked about Set Point Theory. It’s the idea that the body identifies with a certain weight and then becomes resistant to change. In our previous article, we discussed how it applied to weight loss. It’s one of the reasons why losing weight — and keeping it off — can be so hard.

But the concept also applies to muscle gain. Your body is used to being a certain weight. When you change that through strength training, it will take measures to go back to how it was — unless you teach it that this more muscular weight is it’s new normal.

Have a Born Fitness coach guide your gainz!

 

You teach your body that through what’s called a maintenance phase. In a lecture on his site Renaissance Periodization, Dr. Mike Israetel discusses how people hold themselves back if they do not include this phase in their training. (The content itself is paywalled, but totally worth buying if you like to nerd out on the science of muscle-building.)

I don’t want to give too much away or do violence to the quality and depth of his explanation. So I’ll summarize it like this: During a maintenance phase, you ease up on training a little bit. And you aim to eat what’s called an isocaloric diet, meaning you try to eat as many calories as you’d need, but not more.

Sample Muscle-Building Macronutrient Formula

This formula from Adam’s Great Abs Experiment will help:

For Total Calories Per Day:

Take the body weight you wish to maintain and multiply it by 10 if you are training 1 hour or less per week. For each additional hour you train per week, add 1 to the multiplier. So if you’d muscled up to 200 pounds, and trained 4 hours per week, you’d multiply 13 by 200 and get 2,600 calories per day as your mark. You can split that total across however many meals per day you prefer to eat (two, three, four, five, whatever).

Protein:

Eat at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. So if you were 200 pounds, you’d aim for 200 grams of protein (800 calories total) per day.

Fat:

Eat half a gram of fat per pound of bodyweight. So at 200 pounds, you’d target 100 grams of fat (900 calories) per day.

Carbohydrates:

Determine how many carbohydrates to eat by subtracting the protein and fat calories from your daily total, and then dividing the remainder by 4. To continue the example we’ve been using here, it would be 2,600 calories total minus 800 calories (protein) and 900 calories (fat), leaving you with 900 calories for carbs. Divide that by 4 and you get 225 calories of carbs per day.

While the length of your maintenance phase can vary, you’d want to approach it as if it were something you could do for several months or even years. Why? Because — again — you want this to be your new normal.

You want to think of building muscle not in terms of days and weeks, but months and years. The biggest, most muscular people in the world are the ones who show up for training, again and again, for years on end.

READ MORE: 

Adding Muscle At Any Age: Defying Genetics And Designing The Muscle Building Workout

The New Rules Of Specialization: How To Add Muscle Mass

How To Master The Art Of “Old School” Muscle Building

5 Muscle Building Mistakes (And How To Make Gains)

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Should I Cut Out Alcohol to Get Rid of Fat?

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First, I’ll toast you to a good question here. (I’m drinking green tea right now, but feel free to have a sip of whatever you wish.) When people ask “does alcohol make you fat,” or “should I stop drinking to lose weight,” the answer is complex, but can be summed up with:

  • No, you don’t have to ditch alcohol to lose fat…
  • BUT, if you do cut out drinking, it might help.

Alcohol And Weight Loss: It’s Complicated

Let’s start with the first point here. From a metabolic perspective, alcohol and your body have a weird relationship. There’s actually been a lot of research into it over the years because it’s so surprising.

Numerous studies, both observational and in controlled settings, have shown that people can consume light to moderate amounts of alcohol and not necessarily gain weight. (Moderate drinking is defined as 1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men.)

An infographic showing what one standard alcoholic drink looks like

Part of this may be due to alcohol’s unique effect on the body. Your body can’t store alcohol and the 7 calories per gram it delivers. (Yup, it does have calories — more per gram than carbs and protein, but less than fat.) So instead the body fast-tracks that booze through your system.

Additionally, a high percentage of calories from alcohol get burned up by your metabolism through a process called the thermic effect of food (TEF). The thermic effect of alcohol is about 22.5%, which puts it on par with protein (which has a TEF of 25-30%) and well ahead of carbs (6-8%) and fat (2-3%).

All of which is to say: Alcohol on it’s own won’t necessarily make or break your weight loss goals.

“If you enjoy a few drinks during the week, it is still possible to have a highly successful fat loss journey,” says Born Fitness Head Nutrition Coach Natalie Sabin.

Now for the but…

Why Alcohol Might Make You Fat

Just because your body doesn’t store alcohol’s calories, it doesn’t mean you (and your fat cells) get off scot-free.

When your body is processing those calories from all those hoppy IPAs, or just one more glass of wine, they take the place of other calories you could be burning — like the bacon double cheeseburger you had on the way home from the bar. With beer calories taking its place in the metabolic line, the burger’s calories become part of you (and your belly).

In fact, some research would lead you to believe that the problem isn’t necessarily the alcohol itself. It’s what can come along with drinking. You know, like nachos. Or two dozen wings. Or a box of Totino’s Pizza Rolls if it’s 2 a.m. and you’re in college.

“Many folks who drink alcohol also have a tendency to eat more,” Sabin says.

A review published in Physiology & Behavior backs her up on this. It found that, sure enough, drinking before or during a meal tends to increase food intake.

Also, note that even though your body can’t store alcohol, it can (and does) store the calories mixed with it — like the 83g of sugar in a frozen margarita.

So What Should You Do?

1. Examine how much you’re drinking currently. For some this can be very eye-opening on it’s own. You might see that the “beer or two” you have “now and then” is actually “a couple drinks every night, plus about a dozen on the weekend.” Remember, the studies mentioned previously involved light to moderate drinking — i.e. one drink per day for women, two for men. Drinking more than that is conclusively not good. Heavier drinking is associated with weight gain and increased waist circumference, as well as poor health. Excessive alcohol consumption is the third-leading cause of premature death in the U.S. If your drinking exceeds that one to two drinks per day guideline, then yeah, cutting back (or going dry) likely will help you lose fat.

2. Pay attention to what else you do when you drink. If your occasional cocktail with friends is just that — a cocktail — then the caloric load probably isn’t all that significant. But if your drinks seem to come with a late night pizza chaser, you might have an issue on your hands. Here again, cutting out drinks might help your fat loss.

3. Let’s say your drinking (and appetite) is under control, but you still aren’t losing fat. And let’s say your drink-per-day is a must-have. If that’s the case, you could try and offset the calories by trimming elsewhere. For example, a glass of wine is around 120 calories. A typical beer is about 150 calories (although those heavier microbrews that are so popular nowadays can be double that). Cut out 30 to 40g of carbs from somewhere else, and pay attention to any changes. “Remember, to get rid of fat you need to create a calorie deficit,” Sabin says. “That means burn more calories than you are consuming — whether that’s eating OR drinking.”

READ MORE

Why Am I Not Getting Stronger

Why Did I Gain Weight On My Diet

4 Week Fat Loss Transformation

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When to Do It, and When to Avoid It?

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When to Do It, and When to Avoid It?

I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life. Most of them having nothing to do with fitness and nutrition. But my nutrition blunders run especially deep. 

I’ve done everything from waking up twice in the middle of the night to drink protein shakes (gotta eat every 3 hours, right?) to slugging 20-30g of BCAAs throughout the day to “stay anabolic” (this still feels like my “pet rock” moment).

When it comes to carb-loading, I’ve experimented with extremes: I’d wake up 2 hours prior to my workout and eat about 100-150g of carbohydrates. (Think: Two bowls of oatmeal + fruit + 2 slices of bread just to make sure my glycogen stores were “fully loaded” to build muscle.) And I once avoided carbs completely, because fasted exercise burns more fat, right? (Nope!)

The truth is always more about sustainable behaviors than trying to “hack” your body. For instance, fasted cardio does not burn more fat, but if you feel better doing it, then go for it. And carbs can help build more muscle, but you don’t need to eat yourself silly.

Still, the question remains for most:

Should you eat carbs before a workout?

From a scientific standpoint, research suggests a little bit of carb-loading can be a great thing for your workout performance.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, compared endurance performance when consuming different amounts — and types — of carbohydrates.

The high-carb group ate 1.5g/kg of bodyweight before completing 90 minutes of intense exercise (think: a long run). This group saw better performance and were able to maintain their intensity for a longer period of time, whereas the lower-carb group had better fat oxidation, but were quicker to fatigue.

Looking at the results, it was a little murky to determine if the type of carbohydrate (low vs. high glycemic index) made any difference.

When to Carb Load

If you’re going to do long-lasting activity (especially endurance-type exercise, like running, biking, etc.) and performance is your goal (running longer, faster, and experiencing less fatigue), than pre-workout carbs is a better approach than avoiding carbs or going for a lower-carb meal.

In general, the longer the activity, the greater the “need” for carbs to help boost your workout.

But remember: if “forcing” your carbohydrate intake before a workout means you don’t work out, or makes you feel sick to your stomach, then don’t do it. Carb loading isn’t worth it if the meal that disrupts your workout.

READ MORE:

Do Carbs Make You Fat?

5 Signs a Protein Bar is Worth Eating

Understanding Fasted Cardio and Fat Loss

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