For a long time, whey protein powder has been considered the gold standard choice for active people, particularly for those looking to build muscle. More recently, there’s been a new addition to the shelves that many people are talking about: collagen. While collagen itself is well known, collagen supplements are a newer approach that’s gaining popularity because of their health benefits, and you might see it in a variety of products, from protein shakes to gummies, and in every corner of social media.
This might spark some curiosity. Is collagen better than whey protein powder? Do I need to choose between the two, or can I take them together? And more importantly, what can collagen and whey protein supplementation do for my health and fitness? We’ll answer all of these questions to help you decide what’s the best option for you and why, as well as understand the difference between these two supplements, so you can have the best experience possible throughout your fitness journey!
What is collagen?
Collagen is a fibrous protein that is synthesized to provide structure and support to our skin, bones, cartilages, hair, nails, and more. In fact, our body’s protein composition is about 1/3 collagen, making it the most abundant and essential protein in our body! Initially, we were thought to have 16 different types of collagen, but more recent research has found that there are at least 28 types that play different important roles in our bodies, the most common ones being types I through IV. One of the main aspects of collagen is that it has a high amino acid profile, which are the building blocks of protein, containing 19 of the 20 amino acids that make up proteins, while a total of 8 of them are essential (lacking the 9th essential amino acid needed to make it a complete protein - tryptophan). And while your body naturally makes its own collagen, after you enter your 20s the collagen production decreases around 1% every year, which is why it has been so closely linked to aging. So let’s talk a little bit more about what collagen does for you exactly...
The amino acids found in collagen are incredibly important for our body function, the three main ones being glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Glycine contributes to cellular growth and health as well as the decrease of oxidative stress, while proline is a key element in protein synthesis and helps repair damaged skin and joints. Hydroxyproline on the other hand is a derivative of proline that contributes to collagen’s elasticity and strength, which in turn improves your bone, ligament, and hair strength, among other benefits. You can get collagen through natural food sources, such as bone broth, animal meat, and foods that contain gelatin. However, these might not be common meal options for a lot of people, which is why collagen supplements are in high demand right now! Most collagen supplements are hydrolyzed, meaning that they are partially broken down and can be digested and absorbed more easily than when you get your collagen from food sources. But even though they’re supplements, they’re still derived from land animals and sometimes even fish, which makes them unfit for a vegan diet. But they’re still great for those who rarely eat animal meat because they provide you with the important amino acids that your body needs.
The benefits of collagen supplementation have been researched and proven several times by clinical trials, such as a blind study that demonstrated that oral collagen peptides can significantly improve skin elasticity, hydration, roughness, and density after three months of intake.  Another study published by the Current Medical Research and Opinion journal show that collagen hydrolysate supplementation may help reduce the risk of joint deterioration and alleviate joint pain and other parameters that have a negative impact on athletic performance.  No significant side effects or negative reactions have been found when researching the supplementation of collagen, proving to be safe and well-tolerated for human consumption.
So, to summarize, collagen:
- Makes up 1/3 of your body’s protein composition which makes it essential for your organism
- Helps keep your skin, bone, ligaments, and other body tissues healthy and dense
- When supplemented, it can be absorbed more easily by your body than the collagen found in food sources
- Has a high amino acid profile that keeps your body healthy and functioning
- The body naturally makes plenty of it during your first 20 years of life, so taking collagen supplements is perfectly safe and has no known side effects
What is whey protein?
Whey protein is a byproduct of the cheese-making process, which means that it’s derived from milk, and it’s known for being one of the best protein sources out there. It’s considered a fast protein because of the body’s capacity to digest and absorb it very quickly, making it the go-to supplement for many active people. The amino acid profile of whey protein is very high, containing 20 amino acids, of which 9 are essential, making it a complete protein, and including the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine. This group of amino acids is responsible for preserving your muscle glycogen stores, which is the primary fuel used for energy production by your body, making it essential for those looking to minimize muscle protein breakdown. It is important to note that these essential amino acids, as well as BCAAs, can be found in protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, so whey protein supplementation is recommended for those who don’t get enough protein from their diet. And given that whey is a dairy product, this supplement isn’t fit for a vegan diet, just like collagen supplementation.
There are three types of whey protein: whey protein concentrate, which contains a higher amount of fat and lactose and better flavor, as well as around 70-80% protein; whey protein isolate, which contains fewer nutrients than whey protein concentrate, as well as lactose and fat, and a higher amount of protein (around 90%); and whey protein hydrolysate, which has been processed to break down the proteins into smaller parts so it can be digested and absorbed faster, and can cause a higher insulin spike than whey protein isolate. While a lot of whey protein research has been done with isolate, whey protein concentrate is the one that most people go for because of its higher nutrient content and richer flavor, but if you prefer an option with less fat or lactose, then isolate or hydrolysate might be better for your goals. As a supplement, whey protein usually comes in powder form, but it can also come in pill form and even protein bars. Since whey doesn’t have a neutral taste, they usually come in different flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry, but you need to be careful when buying your whey protein and check the nutrition label since many supplements contain unnecessary additives such as refined sugars.
Among protein supplements, whey protein is one of the best-studied ones in the world, basing a lot of sports nutrition and research on this particular supplement. One study found that whey protein consumption increases whole-body protein balance over the 24 hour recovery period post-workout, as well as an enhanced recovery performance after a resistance training session.  Another study published by the Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism journal shows that whey protein hydrolysate supplementation on physically active women is beneficial for reducing symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage and improving muscle recovery.  This makes whey protein a great option for those looking to make serious gains at the gym while making sure they’re recovering properly from their workouts.
All in all, whey protein:
- Contains 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential amino acids that your body can’t produce by itself
- The important trio of BCAAs is included in those amino acids, helping support muscle performance and minimize muscle protein breakdown
- Can be digested and absorbed quickly pre-workout for a better exercise performance
- Aids in muscle recovery and reduces muscle damage symptoms post-workout
- Can make up for the proteins that your diet may be lacking, helping you better support your health and fitness
Choosing the best one for you
Now that we’ve gone into detail about both supplements, let’s talk about which one you should be taking... Collagen powder and whey protein powder aren’t directly comparable since they have different amino acid profiles like we previously talked about, which means that they have different strengths and benefits for your health, and the one you take depends on what you and your body need. Let’s look at some of the key differences between collagen and whey:
- Muscle performance: Whey protein powder is more effective when it comes to muscle protein synthesis and muscle building, mostly due to its BCAAs content (particularly leucine) that you can’t find in collagen powder. On the other hand, collagen can be more beneficial for workout-related injuries and pain relief because it’s directly related to your bone and joint composition.
- Side effects: Since collagen is naturally produced by the body, supplementing with it has been proven safe and without any significant side effects. Whey protein in high doses can cause stomach problems, cramps, and fatigue, especially if you’re allergic to milk or whey specifically.
- Nutritional value: Collagen is incredibly essential for your body, especially after it stops producing as much as it did before your 20s, so collagen supplementation can make up for that slight protein deficiency. On the other hand, you can get both the essential and non-essential amino acids contained in whey protein from a rich diet that focuses on whole foods, but it can be a great alternative for those who need to boost their protein intake, particularly if they’re strength or resistance training.
- Composition: Whey protein comes from milk, which may not be a good option for those who can’t eat dairy or keep a dairy-free diet, so collagen protein can be a good alternative. Even then, neither of them is vegan, but there are plenty of vegan supplement options out there that you can try!
- Flavor: While whey protein powder usually needs artificial flavoring to taste good and can be found in many flavors, collagen powder is naturally unflavored and can be added to anything without worrying about the taste.
As you can see, collagen and whey protein serve different purposes in your body. If you’re more focused on muscle growth and improving gym performance, whey protein might be a better option for you. Collagen has more full-body benefits as it’s one of the main components of your bones and joints, as well as hair, nails, and other connective tissue, and it gets more and more essential with the passing of the years if you want to keep your body composition in great shape.
So... Does this mean you need to choose between the two? Well, not at all! You can take whey protein powder and collagen powder together to fully support your health and fitness goals, but make sure to always keep your actual needs in mind. What we mean by this is, if you’re getting enough protein from your diet, you don’t need to take any protein powder because you already have what you need. This goes for collagen too, because a gelatin-rich diet (one that includes bone broth and animal meat, for example) might not need any collagen supplementation. So make sure to assess your needs first before making a decision!
The bottom line is: supplementation can be great if that’s what your body actually needs, and these two supplements are among the best options for you and your goals! Make sure to consult with a dietitian first before taking any new powders or pills to make sure that they’re safe for you, and always check the nutrition labels on the products that you’re going to buy. Supplementation can be tricky at first, but with the right information, you’ll be on your way to an effective fitness journey!