Whey Protein or Collagen Protein?
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An athlete recently asked how if they could use collagen powder interchangeably with their whey protein powder. They explained that if they use 20 grams of protein powder or grams per kilogram of their body weight, how do they know how much collagen powder to use?
Before we can answer that question, we need to know: What is your performance goal? What are you trying to achieve using whey protein powder or collagen?
Whey protein contains amino acids and provides protein, while collagen also contains amino acids and provides protein. If they are similar what makes them different?
The specific amino acids and the amount per serving vary in whey and collagen. Looking at the whey protein powder and collagen powder, you can compare grams of each amino acid and see that some are higher in whey versus collagen. For example, collagen provides more glycine, hydroxyproline and proline per serving than whey protein powder. Yet, whey provides more of three essential amino acids leucine, valine, isoleucine, collectively known as branch chain amino acids. Choosing whey or collagen depends on what your goal is.
If your goal is to gain lean mass, a minimum of 2.5 grams of leucine in combination with the entire spectrum of essential amino acids is required to synthesize muscle tissue. This is available in whey protein. If your goal is general protein intake, either product will provide 18 – 30 grams of protein per serving. If your goal is to heal from a tendon or ligament injury, or reduce joint pain related to inflammation, collagen is known to support and improve health of connective tissue.
The amino acid most abundant in collagen is glycine. Glycine is needed to synthesize glutathione a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant that manages oxidative stress throughout the body. It plays a role in modulating the inflammatory cascade of reactions that occur in the body. According to Vieira et al., a 5% glycine diet (100 mg out of 2000 calorie diet) provided beneficial effects against toxicity and inflammation since glycine may restructure the collagen molecules faster due to its broad anti-inflammatory effects (1).
To calculate the total amount of glycine in your diet, add the amount quantified in supplements plus the amount in each protein source you consume. If you prefer a food-based collagen source, there are many bone broth soups on the market. Since they are food based and regulated by the USDA with a Nutrition Facts label, they will be less likely to be contaminated, and therefore more acceptable for athletes who may be tested for banned substances.
The “effect” a collagen supplement has, or the degree to which you measure its success, e.g. reduced joint pain or faster than usual hair growth depends on your usual diet. A vegan or vegetarian may report different levels of effectiveness compared to someone who eats animal protein every day. If their diet is usually low in glycine, hydroxyproline and proline, simply supplementing and bringing those levels in the body up to a “normal” threshold or enough to provide above normal amounts for a person, may be more obvious than if someone is maintaining their levels of the same amino acids daily. If someone uses a whey protein powder daily, and a different person uses one serving of collagen four times per week, it is obvious they would report differences in their results.
Total protein intake is important for athletes of all ages and training volume. It is necessary for muscle protein synthesis during recovery from a 15 – 20 hour training week, from someone recovering from an injury, and an athlete in their 60’s or older who participates in daily physical activity. Muscle protein synthesis is the rebuilding and repair of lean mass but does not equate to mass gain. Strength training or other anabolic exercises are necessary, in additional to eating enough total protein and calories, to increase lean mass. If the athlete is not eating enough calories per day to support their daily activities and training, their protein intake though high, could be used as fuel and energy for the body.
The best way to use whey protein and collagen peptides, is to supplement with a whey protein or vegan enhanced protein powder during times of high training volume or intensity, and supplement with a collagen powder periodically when you are not consuming a variety of protein (amino acids), or when you may have a connective tissue injury. If you do not have a performance goal and you obtain most of your protein through food, supplementing with either one regardless of amino acid profile, may be useful while traveling or when your access to trusted food sources is limited.
- Vieira CP, De Oliveira LP, Da Ré Guerra F, Dos Santos De Almeida M, Marcondes MC, Pimentel ER. Glycine improves biochemical and biomechanical properties following inflammation of the achilles tendon. Anat Rec (Hoboken). 2015;298(3):538-545. doi:10.1002/ar.23041
- Burd, Nicholas & Phillips, Stuart. (2010). Fast whey protein and the leucine trigger. Nutrafoods. 9. 10.1007/BF03223343.
- McCarty MF, O’Keefe JH, DiNicolantonio JJ. Dietary Glycine Is Rate-Limiting for Glutathione Synthesis and May Have Broad Potential for Health Protection. Ochsner J. 2018;18(1):81-87.
- Gould RL, Pazdro R. Impact of Supplementary Amino Acids, Micronutrients, and Overall Diet on Glutathione Homeostasis. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1056. Published 2019 May 11. doi:10.3390/nu11051056
- Volpi E, Kobayashi H, Sheffield-Moore M, Mittendorfer B, Wolfe RR. Essential amino acids are primarily responsible for the amino acid stimulation of muscle protein anabolism in healthy elderly adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(2):250-258. doi:10.1093/ajcn/78.2.250
Disclaimer: As competitive triathletes you are sanctioned by the World Triathlon Corporation and it is your responsibility to know policies related to doping and prescription medication use. Any product that contains a Supplement Facts label is not regulated by the FDA and therefore, you assume the risk of consuming banned ingredients that may or may not be listed on the label. The following information is for education purposes but does not condone the use of the products or ingredients. Every person should discuss with their physician or certified sports dietitian to discuss ingredients, side effects and risks. Every individual’s symptoms and goals are unique and therefore the information below may or may not be applicable to you. If you have multiple food sensitives, autoimmune conditions, or preexisting health conditions, please consult with your practitioner. Third party certification is not a guarantee of purity; however, they are less likely to contain contaminated supplements. Look for the Informed-Choice label to know that product has been tested against the WADA list of banned substances.