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Collagen vs. Whey: Which Protein is Best For Your Needs?

Collagen or whey. Which should you choose?

For years, collagen/gelatin was maligned by bodybuilding enthusiasts as an “incomplete protein” because it doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids, nor does it contribute directly to muscle protein synthesis.  There’s definitely truth to this. If you ate nothing but gelatin for your protein, you’d get sick real quick. That’s exactly what happened to dozens of people who tried the infamous “liquid protein diet” fad of the 70s and 80s, which relied heavily on a gelatin-based protein drink. Man—or woman—shall not live by collagen alone.

As for whey, it’s an extremely complete protein. It’s one of the most bioavailable protein sources around, a potent stimulator of anabolic processes and muscle protein synthesis. I consider it essential for people, especially older ones in whom protein metabolism has degraded, and for anyone who wants to boost their protein intake and get the most bang for their buck.

This said, which is best for your needs today? Let’s take a look….

Collagen and whey are two completely different foods. Whether you take one or the other depends on a number of factors.

The first thing to do is explore the different benefits and applications of whey and collagen.

Whey Protein: Uses and Benefits

Whey is one of two primary dairy proteins, the other one being casein. It gained its reputation in the fitness world as a proven muscle-builder, but it actually has some interesting health effects that have little to do with hypertrophy.

In fact, whey is more than just protein. It also includes bioactive components such as lactoferrin (which improves bone health [1]), beta-lactoglobulin (which can promote glutathione synthesis and protect against allergy [2]), alpha-lactoalbumin (which can improve resistance to the cognition-depleting effects of stress [3]), and immunoglobulins (which have antimicrobial effects). Whey also turns into some interesting peptide metabolites upon digestion which, according to a review [4], can improve blood lipids [5] and lower blood pressure.

What Are Some Good Applications Of Whey?

Obesity: Whey tends to reduce fasting insulin levels in the obese and overweight [6] (but not healthy prepubertal boys [7], who could use the growth promotion), increase satiety [8]reduce food intake [9], and improve resting energy expenditure [10]. If you’re trying to lose weight or prevent obesity, you can’t ask for a better trifecta than increased energy burning, increased satiety, and reduced intake.

Diabetes: Eaten before a meal, whey reduces the glucose spike [11] from the subsequent meal in non-diabetics and type 2 diabetics alike [12]. It achieves this by “spiking” insulin [13], but transiently; the insulin area under the curve improves [14] even as the immediate insulin response increases. Plus, as seen above, fasting insulin tends to lower in people consuming whey protein. Spikes are not persistent elevations [13].

Fatty liver: In obese women, a whey supplement reduces liver fat [15] (and as a nice side effect increases lean mass a bit). Fatty liver patients also benefit from whey [16], enjoying improvements in glutathione status, liver steatosis, and antioxidant capacity. Rats who supplement with whey see reduced fat synthesis in the liver [17] and increased fatty acid oxidation in the skeletal muscle.

Stress: In “high-stress” subjects, a whey protein shake improved cognitive function and performance [18] by increasing serotonin levels. The same shake had no effect on “low-stress” subjects. And dietary whey also lowers oxidative brain stress [19], at least in mice.

Cancer: Both the lactoferrin found in whey and the glutathione synthesis whey promotes may have anti-cancer effects. Lactoferrin shows potential to prevent cancer [20] that has yet to occur and induce cell death in existing cancer cells [21]. In a recent human study [22], oral lactoferrin suppressed the formation of colonic polyps. And in animal cancer studies and human cancer case studies [23], whey protein has been shown to increase glutathione (“foremost among the cellular protective mechanisms”) and have anti-tumor effects.

HIV: People with HIV experience a drastic reduction in glutathione levels. As the master antioxidant, getting glutathione higher is pretty important. Whey won’t cure anything, but it does improve CD4 (a type of white blood cell) count [24]lower the number of co-infections [25], and persistently increase glutathione status [26].

Cardiovascular disease: Last year, a review [27] of the effect of whey on major cardiometabolic risk factors found that whey protein improves the lipid profile, reduces hypertension, improves vascular function, and increases insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. Whey peptides that form during digestion actually act as ACE-inhibitors, reducing blood pressure similarly to pharmaceuticals without the side effects [28].

Sarcopenia: Muscle wasting, whether cancer-related or a product of age and inactivity, is a huge threat to one’s health and happiness. Studies show that whey protein is the most effective protein supplement for countering sarcopenia [29], especially compared to soy [30]. An anti-sarcopenia smoothie I always have people drink on bed rest is 20-30 grams of whey isolate, a couple egg yolks, milk, cream, and ice. Tastes like ice cream and works like a charm. One time a friend even gave this to his grandmother who was on bedrest in the hospital with diarrhea, mental confusion, and a total lack of appetite. She was in a bad state. After a day or two of the smoothie, she recovered quite rapidly, regaining her appetite and alertness.

Gastrointestinal disorders: Dairy gets a bad rap in some corners for its supposed effects on the gut, but a component of dairy can actually improve gut health [31], even in patients with gastrointestinal disorders. In Crohn’s disease patients, a whey protein [32] supplement reduces leaky gut [33]. In rodent models of inflammatory bowel disease, whey protein reduce gut inflammation and restore mucin [34] (the stuff used to build up the gut barrier) synthesis.

Oh, and whey is great for hypertrophy.

When To Choose Whey

So…

Along with foods like organ meats, egg yolks, and shellfish, I consider whey to be an important “supplemental food”—a food that acts like a high-density nutrition supplement, powerful in small doses and worth including in almost every diet.

Collagen Protein: Uses and Benefits

I advocate collagen protein as a fourth macronutrient. It’s different enough from whey and other “regular” proteins, serving a totally different function in the body.

If whey has been the gold standard for the muscle building amino acid profile for 30 years, collagen is the gold standard for supporting collagen-based structures in the body (fascia, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, skin, hair, nails). We don’t get much collagenous material in a normal diet these days, and meat proteins and/or plant proteins and/or milk, eggs, etc. don’t have the collagen peptides nor the ideal ratio of glycine, hydroxyproline, and other amino acids found abundantly in collagen. Furthermore, metabolism of the amino acids present in muscle meat deplete our reserves of glycine, thereby increasing the requirement even further. The more meat you eat, the more collagen you need.

Why We Need Collagen So Much These Days

This (non)relationship with collagen is extremely novel for our species. For millions of years up until very recently we ate nose to tail. We ate the entire animal. To give you an idea of how much collagen we’d have eaten, the average cow is about half muscle meat and half “other stuff,” which includes bones, skin, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and other bits extremely rich in collagen. That’s a ton of glycine and a far cry from eating nothing but ground beef and ribeyes. And more recently, even when we moved toward shrink-wrapped select cuts of meat and away from bones and skin, we still had jello. Then, when jello got maligned, we had nothing. So for the past 20-30 years or so, most Americans have had no appreciable source of collagen peptides in their diet.

Just based on what we know about human biochemistry, this is a disaster. The human body requires at least 16 grams of glycine per day for basic metabolic processes [35], yet we can only synthesize 3 grams, and the typical omnivorous diet provides just 2-3 grams per day, so we’re looking at an average daily deficit of 10 grams that we need to make up for through diet. Collagen is roughly 1/3 glycine, so that means we need to be eating about 30 grams of collagen per day to hit our 10 gram dosage. And in disease states that disrupt glycine synthesis, like rheumatoid arthritis [36], or on plant-based diets that provide little to no dietary glycine, we need even more.

I suspect a lot of pro athletes who have connective tissue issues could use even more collagen, especially since they’re exposing their tissues to such incredible stress. I know I did back during my competition days.

What Does Collagen Do For Our Bodies?

It supports our connective tissue and collagen-based structures: fascia, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, skin, hair, and nails.

It improves sleep quality. Human studies show that 3 grams of glycine taken before bed increases the quality of your sleep [37] and reduces daytime sleepiness following sleep restriction [38]. Now that’s isolated glycine rather than collagen, but collagen is the best source of glycine. I can say that a big mug of bone broth or a couple scoops of collagen peptides before bed knock me out and give me great sleep.

It balances your muscle meat intake. I mentioned this earlier, and we see both observational and interventional evidence for it.

It improves gut health. When I gave up grains and stopped endurance training at age 47 my gut health improved immensely. Like, world-changing for me. But I was still at 90-95%. When I started supplementing with collagen, my gut finally had that last 5% of repair/support/healing it needed to get to 100%.

It’s a great pre-workout. Though maybe not for the reasons most people take “pre-workouts.” I’ve also experienced rapid healing of tendinitis through using pre-workout collagen [43] with vitamin C. I’m not just imagining it because I’ve dealt with a ton of tendon issues over the years, and they never healed that quickly until I introduced pre-workout collagen.

I’ve noticed that my hair and nails grow much faster than before.

Final Answer: Which One?

So, should you use whey or collagen? Let’s get to the bottom line, Sisson.

I made Primal Fuel [44] because I wanted a high quality, low-sugar, moderate-fat meal replacement whey protein.

I made Collagen Fuel [45] and Collagen Peptides [46] because I wanted an easier way to get more collagen into my diet.

Personally, I had a need for both.

If I had to choose one, collagen is a better choice for the vast majority of you.

Essential amino acids aren’t a big problem on most ancestral diets, like paleo, Primal, or Primal-keto, and if you’re eating enough animal protein you don’t really need whey. Now, can you benefit from whey despite eating meat? Sure. Necessary does not mean optimal; whey has been shown to improve hypertrophy and muscle recovery from resistance training, plus all the other benefits I already detailed earlier. Almost anyone who does anything in the gym will see benefits from adding 20 grams of whey per day.

But almost no one is getting enough collagen, even the ancestrally-minded eaters who are aware of its importance. And that is a historical aberration on a massive scale. It hasn’t been done before. I wouldn’t recommend testing those waters.

And of course, powders aren’t the only way to get collagen [47] and whey [44]. They both appear in plenty of foods. The powders are just convenient to have on hand when you forget to make the bone broth (chicken [48], beef [49], turkey [50]) or throw the oxtails [51] in the crockpot. (Check out those linked recipes if you prefer broth or stew sources.)

Which do you prefer—whey or collagen? What benefits have you noticed from each?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know your thoughts, and take care.

References:

Wodarski KH, Galus R, Brodzikowska A, Wodarski PK, Wojtowicz A. [The importance of lactoferrin in bone regeneration [1]]. Pol Merkur Lekarski. 2014;37(217):65-7.

Markus CR, Olivier B, De haan EH. Whey protein rich in alpha-lactalbumin increases the ratio of plasma tryptophan to the sum of the other large neutral amino acids and improves cognitive performance in stress-vulnerable subjects [3]. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;75(6):1051-6.

Pal S, Ellis V, Dhaliwal S. Effects of whey protein isolate on body composition, lipids, insulin and glucose in overweight and obese individuals [52]. Br J Nutr. 2010;104(5):716-23.

Hall WL, Millward DJ, Long SJ, Morgan LM. Casein and whey exert different effects on plasma amino acid profiles, gastrointestinal hormone secretion and appetite [8]. Br J Nutr. 2003;89(2):239-48.

Shertzer HG, Krishan M, Genter MB. Dietary whey protein stimulates mitochondrial activity and decreases oxidative stress in mouse female brain [19]. Neurosci Lett. 2013;548:159-64.

Bounous G. Whey protein concentrate (WPC) and glutathione modulation in cancer treatment [23]. Anticancer Res. 2000;20(6C):4785-92.

Meléndez-hevia E, De paz-lugo P, Cornish-bowden A, Cárdenas ML. A weak link in metabolism: the metabolic capacity for glycine biosynthesis does not satisfy the need for collagen synthesi [35]s. J Biosci. 2009;34(6):853-72.