Q. I’ve been hearing a lot about collagen and how good it is for health. Can you tell me more about what it is and what I should know?

A. Collagen is the protein most prevalent in the connective tissue in the body. It plays a role in healthy skin, muscles, digestive system, tendons, and ligaments. Basically, it’s the “glue” that holds organs in place, attaches muscle to bone, and knits skin cells into elastic sheets. While collagen is naturally produced in the body, once we reach our 20s, our production begins to decrease.

While many people think of collagen for its beauty benefits (hair, skin, nails), the benefits of adequate collagen on joints (for active individuals) and gut health (may be especially helpful for those with IBS, leaky gut or other digestive issues) shouldn’t be ignored.

Supplementation with collagen has never been easier. You’ll find a variety of products in the nearest supplement or protein powder aisles. From capsules, to powders and beverages, the options are plentiful. However, focusing on consuming foods that contain nutrients to maximize collagen production should be your first priority.

To make collagen, the body needs adequate amounts of the following nutrients.

Protein. Lysine, proline, and other amino acids that the body uses to make collagen are found in protein. Protein-rich foods include beef, chicken, tuna, cod, shrimp, beans, eggs, cheese tofu, and lentils. Daily amount: 50 g/day (this is based on a 2,000 calorie diet and may be higher or lower depending on specific needs)

Zinc. This mineral promotes cell growth, cell division, wound healing, and healthy, elastic skin. Zinc-rich foods include almonds, beans, beef, turkey, eggs, oysters, salmon, shrimp, quinoa, lentils, spinach, and pumpkin seeds. Daily amount: Men 11mg/day; women 8mg/day.

Vitamin C. Known for its immune help also fights damage to connective tissue caused by inflammation and free radicals. Foods to grab include citrus fruits, berries, bell peppers, tomatoes, and kale. Daily amount: Men 90 mg/day, women 75 mg/day

Copper. The body requires small amounts of copper to replace damaged connective tissue. Find copper in liver, oysters, lobster, beef, shiitake mushrooms, cashews, almonds, sesame seeds, cooked Swiss chard, cooked spinach, pumpkin seeds. Daily amount: Ages 19 and older, 900 mg/day.

April Graff is a dietitian for Hy-Vee.

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