Often used as a key ingredient in moisturisers, cosmetics and other beauty products for its anti-ageing qualities, collagen has formed a reputation for being a rejuvenator and turning back the clock.

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All these topical treatments may not be necessary; certain foods may actually help improve your skin's appearance from the inside out. And using dietary collagen and foods that are thought to help boost collagen production may even be more potent that using lotions and creams.

What is collagen?

Collagen is a naturally occurring protein which helps maintain the elasticity of connective tissue that is found throughout the body in skin, bones, ligaments, cartilage and tendons. The reason for its focus in the beauty industry is because collagen supports the skin's structure, making it appear firmer and smoother which prevents sagging and wrinkles.

The body continually produces new collagen to replace and repair what is damaged, however, as we age, the cells that make collagen begin to slow down their production. They can also be affected by inflammatory processes such as smoking, sun exposure and pollution. This causes the skin to thin and lose its appearance of fullness over time.

How to boost collagen with your diet

All dietary sources of collagen are of animal origin, and as previously mentioned are found in animal parts that may have been eaten by our ancestors in the past but today are often discarded. When these animal parts are cooked, collagen is drawn out and becomes gelatin; tasteless and translucent.

Eight years ago in Japan, there was a trend in 'beauty' restaurants serving up dishes rich in collagen - hot pots that incorporated foods such as chicken skin and pig's trotters. Today you're most likely to find it in bone broths, soups and stews that use bones or sinewy tougher cuts of beef.

However, some research has indicated that eating collagen directly is no better for anti-ageing than eating any other form of protein, and instead it may be better to focus on supporting your body's own natural collagen production.

The true benefits of collagen may actually come from the amino acids which are found in any protein-rich foods. There are also certain vitamins and nutrients that may help boost your body's collagen production and help protect the cells that produce it.

Boost collagen with your diet

If you want to include more collagen-rich foods into your diet, you could use beef chuck steak, brisket or oxtail in dishes such as casseroles or stews; perfect for a warming hearty meal this winter. These cuts of meat are best used when slow cooked as it helps to tenderise the meat and melt the collagen.

To increase your protein intake and benefit from the amino acids - particularly lysine and proline which are important for collagen production - you could add lean meats to your diet (rich in lysine), egg whites (rich in proline), or oily fish such as salmon and tuna which also include omega-3 fatty acids to make your skin cells stronger.  For vegetarians, you could add nuts, legumes and flaxseed into your diet.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) helps increase collagen levels and protects against free-radical damage which can affect collagen production. To boost your Vitamin C intake, eat more berries, kiwifruit, dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, oranges and other citrus fruit.

Vitamin A may also increase collagen production by helping promote healthy skin and cellular renewal. Add more to your diet with carrots, capsicums, dried apricots and dark leafy greens.

NZ Real Health is an online blog by Ange Noy where you can find practical information and advice on health, wellbeing and fitness. For more articles like this, visit www.nzrealhealth.co.nz.