Is Gelatin the new SUPERFOOD?

Are horses’ hooves the next superfood? VL‘s nutritionist Amanda Watts looks at new research to see if gelatin can help us avoid injury.

It always happens when you least expect it. One minute you’re on, crushing moves and a split second later you’re off, staring down the barrel of months of rehab and weekends on the couch, rather than at the cliff. For any of you who have heard that heart-dropping ‘pop’ of a ligament or pulley, you know what I’m talking about. Amongst climbers and any other active group of people, musculoskeletal (i.e. tendon, cartilage, ligaments or bone) injuries are very common. Most people we know have had a sprain, strain or rupture of something, at one time or another. Climbing injuries suck and I’m sure we would all love to avoid them and the inevitable time off for recovery. New research from the Australian Institute of Sport and the University of California suggests that a combined nutrition and exercise intervention could increase collagen synthesis in the body, potentially reducing injury and strengthening musculoskeletal tissue. So, is a simple gelatin and vitamin C supplement the key ingredient missing from your training regime?

Collagen is the main component of connective tissue and makes up approximately 30% of body protein. Ligaments, which attach two bones and consequently hold the joints together, and tendons that attach the muscles to the bones, are two examples of connective tissue. Bones, ligaments, tendons and our skeletal muscles are made up of proteins and one of the key proteins is collagen. Collagen protein is essentially the cement that holds things together. Collagen synthesis is crucial for repairing, strengthening and giving durability to your connective tissue and this synthesis declines with age. So, a supplement that could increase collagen synthesis in the body would be very handy for many.

Gelatin used in food is collagen that has been irreversibly hydrolysed. A lot of climbers I know are quite partial to a bag of retro party mix or red frogs. If you’re one of them, you are already familiar with eating gelatin. For those of you who aren’t, gelatin is a clear, flavourless food, derived from collagen that is made by boiling down animal bones, hides and connective tissue. It is used as a stabiliser, thickener, or texturiser in foods. So why is gelatin potentially the next super supplement? It seems gelatin contains a rich supply of amino acids (primarily proline and glycine) needed for collagen synthesis.

Early research suggests that gelatin could be very useful in your fight against crook fingers. Simon Madden

Early research suggests that gelatin could be very useful in your fight against crook fingers. Simon Madden

A few months ago, a small study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Eight healthy male recreational athletes were given a drink containing 0, 5 or 15g of gelatin, enriched with vitamin C. One hour post drink, each athlete performed a six-minute bout of continuous exercise (to stimulate collagen synthesis). This protocol was repeated for three days, three times a day, with a minimum of six hours between exercise sessions. Researchers collected blood samples at specific times to test for the presence of the amino acids that signify increased collagen synthesis (and hopefully strengthened tendon, ligament or bone).

It’s important to remember that this study was very small – eight people only were involved – and there is still a lot to understand, however, the results were encouraging. Blood tests showed that the gelatin supplement did increase certain amino acids in the blood, indicating that collagen synthesis was boosted. Alongside this, researchers wanted to see what actually happened to ligaments treated with the gelatin supplement. It’s tricky to find a bunch of people willing to be cut open, so engineered ligaments were used instead. Post treatment the engineered ligaments showed increased collagen content and improved mechanics.

What does this mean for us climbers? The research suggests that adding gelatin to some exercise could help prevent injury and aid the repair of tissue. There are lots of follow up studies to be done and much more that needs to be understood before the ‘perfect’ supplement can be produced. Follow up studies will see if the =increased collagen synthesis was due to amino acid availability or unique bioactive peptides in collagenous foods. If it’s the former, then it’s good news for vegans, as we can get these from plant-based sources.

Be aware that the supplement giants will jump on this and there will be hundreds of pointless gelatin supps on the market before you can say ‘let’s go climb in the south of France’. Right now we know that 15g gelatin taken one hour prior to exercise showed increased collagen synthesis. If you decide to try it, there is a little more detail you will need. The timing of the gelatin supplement and the start of your exercise are important. The larger the gelatin dose, the longer you need to wait to exercise for the most effective gains and you need a six hour break between exercise bouts.

As with everything regarding training and nutrition, everyone is different. If you’re injured or concerned about preventing injury, I highly recommend working with an expert to tailor the supplement intervention to you and to make sure you’re working with someone who is on top of the current research.

Sponsored by Evolv, Black Diamond and Beal, Amanda Watts is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist and SDA Sports Dietitian at Thrive

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