I want you to think of a healthful food, just the first nutritious food that comes to mind. Did you think of gelatin? I’m guessing not. And I bet it wouldn’t even make your top-10 list if I asked you to keep going. Yet gelatin is quite good for you, in its natural form, that is—not artificially colored and sugar-laden like Jell-O.
Gelatin may keep osteoporosis at bay, heal your gut, and help you sleep, among many other valuable health benefits. Keep reading for all the reasons why you should eat gelatin, plus how to incorporate it into your diet in delicious ways.
Whether you follow a Paleo diet or you’re vegan/vegetarian, you need to eat gelatin. Find out why, and learn how to incorporate it into your diet. #paleo #optimalhealth #chriskresser
The What: A Powerful Protein You’re Not Getting Enough Of
Gelatin is the key ingredient in Jell-O (and similar products)—right after sugar and before the artificial flavors—and it’s what makes this brightly colored dessert jiggly yet firm, served up on cafeteria trays in hospitals and schools for generations. It’s easy to see why most of us would overlook gelatin as a dietary must. Here’s what you should really know about this unexpected health food.
It Comes from Collagen—and You Need Collagen
Gelatin is derived from collagen, the most plentiful protein in humans and animals. Once simmered, the decomposition of collagen into gelatin is irreversible; its long protein fibrils, or tiny fibers, are broken down into small amino acid compounds. However, gelatin’s chemical composition is very similar to its parent molecule.
Eating gelatin boosts our collagen levels. Collagen is found almost everywhere in the body, but it is most abundant in the skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments. It holds our tissues together, providing the skeleton with a sturdy yet flexible structure (just as it does wiggly desserts); some types of collagen fibrils are, gram for gram, stronger than steel. (1)
It’s Made Almost Entirely of Protein (98 to 99 Percent)
One half-cup of gelatin provides nearly two grams of protein. As I often discuss here on my site, protein is a macronutrient, which means your body needs a large amount. (Yes, fruity-flavored Jell-O and its imitators have protein as well, but the same serving size may be loaded with sugar—about 19 grams, or nearly five teaspoons!—as well as artificial ingredients that cancel out any protein benefits.)
Gelatin Is Rich in Vital Amino Acids
It doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids, making it an incomplete protein. But the amino acids it does include are particularly important for health, especially glycine. Other notables include: (2)
- Glutamic acid
It Was Part of the Typical Ancestral Diet
Our hunter–gatherer ancestors ate much more gelatin than we do today. That’s because they widely practiced nose-to-tail eating, meaning they cooked with and consumed the entire animal, including its skin, tendons, and other gelatinous features. We’ve lost the practice of whole-animal eating, and gelatin-rich cuts are typically discarded, or at least undervalued, now. (Some, such as beef shank or chuck roast, are also considered “tough” and therefore not as appealing as more tender—and more expensive—cuts.) What’s more, vegetarians don’t eat many (or any) animal products.
This means we’re getting a lot less gelatin than our ancestors did, if any at all.
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The Why: Six Reasons to Eat Gelatin … Now!
Because we usually don’t use the whole animal, or in some cases avoid meat altogether, we miss out on this unique health food’s many benefits.
1. Gelatin May Lower Your Risk for Cardiovascular and Other Diseases
Eggs and muscle meats—as opposed to organ meats and meaty bones—are high in methionine, an amino acid. In some people, eating too much methionine can lead to a buildup of a toxic compound called homocysteine in the blood. High levels of homocysteine are an independent risk factor for a variety of serious concerns, from dementia and Alzheimer’s to heart disease (and it has also been found to increase the risk of fracture). (3, 4, 5) This might explain why researchers sometimes find a correlation between high meat intake and chronic disease.
What helps keep methionine and homocysteine levels in a healthy balance? Glycine, which gelatin contains lots of. In fact, it accounts for roughly 27 percent of gelatin’s composition, making gelatin the richest food source of this amino acid. Although your body can make glycine, you usually don’t produce enough to cover your needs, meaning you need to obtain ample amounts from your diet. (6, 7)
2. It Protects Your Bones and Joints
Bone is living, growing tissue, comprising mostly collagen. And as I discussed here already, collagen is the glue that holds our tissues together. So, it’s easy to see why getting more collagen in the form of gelatin is good for bone and joint health.
Research shows that gelatin may have a beneficial effect on cartilage metabolism and inhibit the breakdown of collagen in bone. It may be effective in treating both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. (8, 9, 10) Its amino acids glycine and proline are anti-inflammatory and are likely responsible for research results finding gelatin effective in reducing arthritis-associated joint pain. Lysine, also in gelatin, strengthens bones by helping the body absorb calcium and form collagen. The body can’t make this amino acid, so it must come from diet. Lysine has also been shown, in animal studies, to hasten fracture healing. (11)
3. It Preserves Your Muscle Mass
Glycine is the hero again here: research has found that increasing glycine intake, either through supplementation or high-glycine foods such as gelatin, can help slow or reduce the age-related loss of muscle. (For some people, this weakness can cause them to become less physically active as they age or even to fall due to reduced strength and stability or injure themselves when they exercise.) Supplemental glycine can protect muscle in a variety of wasting conditions brought on by serious illness such as cancer or due to very reduced calorie intake. (12, 13)
4. Gelatin Is Good for Your Gut
Thanks to the amino acids glycine, proline, and glutamine, gelatin can improve gut integrity and digestive strength by enhancing gastric acid secretion and restoring a healthy lining in the stomach. (14, 15) Gelatin also absorbs water and helps keep fluid in the digestive tract, promoting good intestinal transit and healthy bowel movements. (16) Gelatin-rich soups and broths are one of the key components of the GAPS diet, which has been designed to heal the gut and promote healthy digestion.
5. It Makes Your Skin Shine and Your Locks Long and Lustrous
Collagen is one of the primary structural elements of skin. As we age, we naturally lose collagen, causing our skin to sag and wrinkle. Gelatin provides glycine and proline, building blocks for collagen, and can help your body create enough of this important protein to improve your skin’s health and appearance. In particular, several studies have shown improved skin elasticity and hydration, as well as a reduction of deep wrinkles, with collagen hydrolysate supplementation. (17, 18) A diet rich in gelatin may also protect against the aging effects of sunlight, preventing wrinkles in the future. (19) And gelatin appears to induce hair growth and even lead to thicker, fuller locks. (20, 21)
6. It Can Help You Sleep
Gelatin has been found to help with sleep due to its abundance of glycine. Just a few tablespoons can provide roughly three grams of glycine, which is enough to cause measurable improvements in sleep quality. (22, 23) Glycine is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it can decrease anxiety and promote mental calmness to let you sleep through the night. (24)
And the list of benefits goes on: Research suggests that gelatin may also aid in weight loss, help control blood sugar, improve cognitive and mental health, slow the growth of certain cancers, and much more. (25, 26, 27, 28, 29)
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Are You Vegetarian? A Warning
While gelatin isn’t acceptable to vegans, who shun all animal products, it may be to vegetarians who are open to eating some animal-derived foods, such as eggs and dairy. If this describes your dietary approach, here’s why you should go out of your way to eat gelatin.
Vegetarians Often Have Low Glycine Levels
As I’ve written before in an article on the pitfalls of meat-free diets, vegetarians and vegans don’t consume as much glycine as meat eaters, and we’ve seen here just how important this building block of collagen is for health.
You Might Be at Risk for Cardiovascular Problems
Studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans have significantly higher homocysteine levels, on average, than omnivores, putting them at significant risk for cardiovascular trouble. (30) This is possibly due to nutrient deficiencies in vitamin B12 and choline, which help keep homocysteine in check.
The Best Ways to Get More Gelatin: Bone Broth and Beyond
One obvious way to incorporate gelatin in your diet is to eat more skin and gelatinous cuts of meat, especially those that are on the bone like shank pieces or ribs. However, I recognize that these aren’t necessarily the most palatable parts of the animal to everyone. There are other options out there.
Make Your Own Bone Broth
In traditional cooking, meat bones serve as a base for delicious stocks and sauces, and bone broth is a first course that enhances digestion of the food to come. Today, I’m glad to see nose-to-tail eating making a bit of a comeback in this regard, as many people are using their ancestors’ “secret” for great recipes and as a powerful health drink.
Best of all, bone broth is easy to make at home. Just follow these tips.
Cook It Low and Slow
To transfer the active chemical ingredients from the bones into the broth, you need heat, time, and acid (typically vinegar, tomato, and/or wine). Don’t rush it: Cook your broth slowly over low heat to extract as much nutrient content as possible. A slow cooker is immensely helpful.
Go with Grass Fed
Grass-fed beef and farm-raised, free-range chicken bones give the best results. You can also use bones from duck, lamb, turkey, or pork, as well as fish. Seek out chicken feet, heads, and necks or calves’ feet (and heads and necks, if you can find them) from a local farm or butcher. When selecting from beef, look for cuts with a lot of bone in them, including some knuckle bones, if possible. Marrow bones are excellent.
The Longer You Cook It, the Better
Simply put the bones, browned or not, based on your preference, into a stock pot or slow cooker. Cover with enough filtered, cold water to cover the bones by an inch. Then add your acid, bring everything to a low boil, then simmer on very low, removing any scum that has risen to the top. After skimming, add vegetables and herbs and spices if you wish and simmer six to 48 hours for chicken and 12 to 72 hours for beef, making sure to check in on it regularly. The longer you can let it cook, the better.
Strain It, Store It, and Sip It
Once finished and cooled, strain your broth using a fine strainer. For a clearer stock, line your colander or sieve with cheesecloth.
Store covered in the refrigerator for about five days or in the freezer for several months. Try the “ice cube” method: Put stock in ice cube trays, freeze until solid, then store in freezer bags and take out one or two at a time for recipes.
Pour warmed broth into a mug and sip like tea, or use as a base for gravies, sauces, and soups—or anytime a recipe calls for cooking liquid.
Buy High-Quality Bone Broth
If you don’t have the time (or desire) to make your own bone broth, there are great packaged options out there. Just remember:
- Choose broth that’s organic and made from pasture-raised animals or wild-caught fish. This minimizes toxins and maximizes nutrients.
- Avoid buying broth in containers, especially cans, that contain bisphenol A (BPA), which is a toxic, hormone-like molecule.
Many grocery stores don’t sell bone broth; it is not the same as the chicken or beef stock that’s widely available in the soup aisles of most supermarkets, which doesn’t have the same high level of nutrients as homemade or organic broth. You can, however, find organic, pasture-raised bone broths online. Kettle & Fire is a good option for organic, high-quality bone broth.
Buy Gelatin Powder
If you eat a Paleo or ancestral diet, you can easily incorporate gelatinous cuts of meat and bone broths into your meals. But if you’re vegetarian, it’s difficult to get gelatin from a meat-free diet.
My favorite brand of powdered gelatin is Great Lakes, which comes from grass-fed animals. It’s available in both hydrolyzed and whole form; each type has its own health perks.
Hydrolyzed means the protein is broken into individual amino acids, making them easier to absorb. Use this type to improve skin and joint health or get better sleep. Hydrolyzed gelatin can be mixed into any type of liquid, including cold liquids, so it can be added to smoothies or juices. It is also great as a real-food protein powder.
Whole-protein gelatin is better for improving gut health. It helps carry fluid through the intestines and can even coat the lining of the digestive tract as a soothing and protective layer. This is the type used to make gummy snacks and desserts and must be mixed into warm liquids.
Fish gelatin is available if you prefer not to consume land animals.
I sometimes supplement with Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides myself, which is another option. It’s similar to collagen hydrolysate, the gelatin supplement often used in scientific studies. I’ll typically add it to a smoothie three to four times a week.
An important note: Some people report a histamine reaction after consuming gelatin or gelatin powders and supplements, so gelatin may not be appropriate for those with severe histamine intolerances.