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Collagen seems to be the nutrition craze du jour. People are adding collagen to coffee, smoothies and more in hopes that it will help slow aging and alleviate wrinkles and arthritis symptoms. But will eating collagen lead to a healthier you? Here's a closer look at what collagen is, what it does and whether you should give it a try.

What is collagen?

Collagen is a rich source of protein found in our connective tissue, cartilage, bones and tendons. Our bodies make collagen -- but production slows down as we age. You can eat collagen-rich foods or buy collagen as a powder or pill (see below). Vegetarians beware, though; collagen-rich supplements are animal products.

Collagen has beauty benefits.

Want dewy, hydrated skin with fewer wrinkles? Collagen, found naturally in our skin, nails and hair, might be an anti-aging secret. Collagen supplements specifically claim to reduce wrinkles, firm skin and relieve arthritis pain, and they may do just that. When people took hydrolyzed collagen, a form that's already been broken down, combined with vitamin C as a supplement, it helped decrease wrinkle depth and improve their skin's elasticity and hydration. And, eight weeks of collagen supplements significantly increased skin hydration, per research in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Though the anti-aging marketing claims seem too good to be true, they may actually have some validity.

Collagen may reduce joint pain.

What about the pain-relief claim? Studies on collagen supplementation show that it can replace the synovial fluids between the joints and help repair and build cartilage. That can help reduce joint pain and stiffness and may help treat conditions like osteoarthritis. Another study, performed on healthy athletes at Penn State University, investigated the effects of collagen on activity-related joint pain in athletes. After 24 weeks of liquid supplementation with 10 grams of collagen, athletes felt less joint pain at rest, and when walking, standing and lifting. These results suggest that collagen supplementation may prevent joint deterioration in healthy athletes. A recent literature review also confirms that collagen is good for bone health.

You can also get collagen through food.

Though our body makes collagen, some of the food we eat is also rich in collagen. Cuts of meat such as chuck, roast and rump are naturally rich in collagen. You can also buy a collagen-rich bone broth, which can be used in soups, stews and other dishes, or take it as a supplement, similar to a protein powder. But taking supplemental collagen probably isn't any better than eating the foods rich in collagen. Try eating more foods rich in the proteins that help build collagen, such as meat, fish, dairy products, soy, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, dairy products, eggs, mushrooms and wheat germ. And eat more vitamin C-rich foods (since vitamin C is important for collagen production), such as bell peppers, kiwis, citrus fruit, broccoli and kale.

Bottom line: Try it.

There's promising research around collagen's anti-aging and beauty benefits. Eating more vitamin-C rich foods and protein-rich foods with the right amino acids can help. Lifestyle choices can too. Quit smoking, wear sunscreen and avoid high-glycemic-index foods like sugars, white bread and white rice, as they can all speed up the breakdown of collagen and the aging process.

(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)

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