Protein. It's a key building block of our bodies, ensuring we grow strong, stay healthy and have energy. While most doctors and nutritionists recommend getting protein primarily from the foods we eat, there are many reasons you might consider taking a protein supplement.
Whether you're trying to build lean muscle or just need a filling, on-the-go breakfast, it seems like everyone from fitness pros to soccer moms are scooping protein powders into their smoothies, shakes and morning coffee.
While protein supplements often rely on whey protein, more and more protein powders have been edging their way into your supermarket shelves. The latest trendy protein supplement? Collagen.
So should you ditch your whey for the latest craze? Maybe. Here's why you may want to consider swapping it in for your whey protein powder. Or you could do what Jillian Michaels does and take both! (Keep reading for more on that.)
What Exactly Is Whey?
You're probably more familiar with whey than you know. Ever opened a container of yogurt and had that watery stuff floating on top slosh out all over your desk? Yep, that's whey. That liquid is what's left over after milk has been curdled and strained during the cheese-making process.
Along with casein, whey is one of the two primary proteins in dairy products and is naturally found in foods like milk, Greek yogurt and cheese — especially ricotta, which has one the highest concentrations. It's also one of the most common ways to make the protein powder that you have no doubt seen bodybuilders chugging at the gym.
What Makes Collagen Different?
Collagen is also a type of protein, but it specifically plays an important role in building and supporting everything from our bones and cartilage to our skin, hair, eyes and digestive system. There are more than 28 different kinds of collagen found in the human body, making it our most abundant protein and essential from head to toe.
"Collagen is a protein that we actually make on our own, but we lose it over time," says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition. Starting in our 20s, the body begins producing less and less collagen each year, a decrease that is exacerbated by elements like UV exposure and smoking.
There are ways to remedy this collagen loss, though, says Zeitlin. "We can eat foods that promote our own collagen production, such as foods high in vitamin C (like citrus fruits, strawberries and red bell peppers), foods containing collagen (such as bone broth, seafood, fish and eggs) or supplemental collagen known as collagen peptides."
Read more: Does Drinking Collagen Live Up to the Hype?
What’s So Great About Whey?
Whey protein powders have become a powerhouse in the supplement world for a few main reasons:
- Whey is one of the only protein supplement sources that's considered a
complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids (aka the ones
your body can't produce on its own and you have to consume).
- It's easy for most people to digest and is absorbed quickly by the body, making
it an effective and efficient form of protein.
- Whey works. Multiple studies on whey protein have found it to have a positive impact on metabolism, performance recovery and the creation of lean body mass.
It has also been shown to lower blood pressure as well as decrease inflammation and oxidative stress in the body.
What Does Collagen Do?
The latest darling of the supplement world, collagen, also boasts a number of its own benefits for fitness, health and wellness. A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that combining resistance training with collagen supplements led to the creation of more lean muscle mass than resistance training on its own.
Additionally, a 2008 study from Current Medical Research and Opinion found that collagen supplements also helped ease joint pain in athletes, and a 2017 PLOS ONE study found similar effects for individuals suffering from osteoarthritis pain.
"As collagen plays a big role in building and maintain healthy connective tissue, it can help fight joint inflammation and arthritis," says Zeitlin. "As a protein, it is also satiating, which will help you maintain a healthy body weight."
Collagen can also have a positive impact on your gut health. The high levels of glycine and proline in collagen can provide anti-inflammatory benefits to the gut, working to restore and repair the cell walls and decrease leaky gut syndrome.
Beyond the benefits to your muscles and digestive health, collagen supplements have also found favor with the beauty world. While topical application of collagen has been found ineffective (the molecule is too large to penetrate through the skin), multiple studies have found that orally supplementing with collagen can improve skin elasticity and hydration, encourage strong nail growth and even decrease the appearance of cellulite.
Read more: How to Drink Collagen for the Skin
The Downsides of Whey
One of the biggest downsides of whey is taste. Au naturel whey protein powder can be bitter, which is why most whey supplements come in an array of enticing flavors — from traditional chocolate and vanilla to exotic options like Orange Creamsicle, Peach Swirl and Cinnamon Bun.
But hold off on that Cinnamon Bun smoothie you're about to down. "Whey supplements tend to be flavored and sweetened with sugars or artificial sweeteners, which can have the opposite effect you're looking for when it comes to being healthier, fighting chronic illnesses or weight loss," Zeitlin points out.
If you do choose a flavored whey protein powder, look for one that does not have added sugars or sugar substitutes, Zeitlin recommends.
Another concern with whey can be for individuals who are lactose intolerant. Although most whey powders contain a minuscule amount of lactose (on average, only 0.1 grams of lactose per tablespoon of powder), it does come from milk, so those that are extremely lactose intolerant or trying to avoid dairy products altogether may also want to pass on the whey powder.
Other side effects of whey protein can included headache, loss of appetite, fatigue, swelling, cramps and increased bowel movements.
The Drawbacks of Collagen
The most common negative side effect of supplementing with collagen is hypercalcemia, an excess of calcium in the body, which can lead to symptoms like fatigue, nausea, constipation and abnormal heart rhythms.
While there's little information about the frequency of hypercalcemia in connection to collagen supplements, it's more common with marine-based collagen supplements (i.e., from fish), which contain higher amounts of calcium than bovine-based collagen (i.e., from cows).
Like whey, collagen is also an animal-derived product, so vegetarians and vegans may want to look at plant-based protein powders.
Whey vs. Collagen: Which Is Best?
So which protein supplement should you be taking? While it may depend a bit on your overall goals, collagen definitely beats out whey for its breadth of health-related benefits.
Head-to-Toe Benefits: Although whey does offer some benefits outside of muscle mass and recovery, collagen's list of head-to-toe benefits is hard to beat. From improving athletic performance and recovery time to helping build strong bones and decrease joint pain to improving skin elasticity and decreasing the signs of aging, collagen supplements offer a broader range of health and beauty benefits than whey.
More Satiating: While both whey and collagen increase your body's protein intake, collagen protein has been found to be more satiating than whey or soy protein. A 2009 study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that consuming collagen protein at breakfast was 40 percent more satiating than whey, casein or soy proteins and reduced food intake by 20 percent for lunch.
Flavor Favorite: Collagen gets the upper hand in the flavor department too. "Collagen is naturally unflavored, so it makes a great protein supplement to add to foods, as it won't change or obscure the flavor of your foods," Zeitlin says. Since whey is bitter, many whey supplements are flavored with artificial flavors or added sugars that can counteract your health goals.
Double Up Like Jillian Michaels
Can't decide which protein powder is best for you? Take both! Jillian Michaels, health and fitness expert and creator of the My Fitness by Jillian Michaels app, combines both whey and collagen supplements in her diet to get the best of both worlds.
"I use whey as part of my meals — not as a supplement," Michaels says. "It allows me to add protein to smoothies [and] chia pudding which helps to stabilize blood sugar and make me feel more satiated."
Michaels also integrates collagen for its head-to-toe benefits. "I take a multi-collagen product of eggshell membrane, hydrolyzed marine collagen, chicken and bone broth collagen — honestly — for my entire body: hair, skin and nails, connective tissue, digestive tract [and] bone density," says Michaels. Strong muscles and strong hair and nails? A win-win.
Before you start any new supplement, check with your health care professional, and be sure to introduce one new supplement at a time to check for allergies or interactions.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you use a protein supplement? Have you tried both whey and collagen? Which do you prefer? What are some of your reasons? If you haven't tried one or the other, will you? Or would you switch from whey to collagen? Or maybe take both like Jillian Michaels? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!