Jell-O isn't typically considered a health food. But its main ingredient—gelatin—has become the latest trend in sports nutrition. As it turns out, emerging science suggests that gelatin could have real benefits for recovery after long hours in the studio.
You've probably heard that collagen can improve the health of your skin and hair. But it is also vital for the musculoskeletal system, says Keith Baar, PhD, a researcher at the University of California, Davis. Collagen forms the structures upon which our bones, tendons and ligaments are built.
Baar and his team first got interested in collagen supplementation when they found that to grow human ligaments in a lab, two things were essential: an amino acid called proline and vitamin C. Gelatin contains high concentrations of proline as well as glycine and lysine, amino acids that are key collagen building blocks. They decided to investigate whether adding gelatin to athletes' diets could help their bodies create more collagen.
It worked: The study found that athletes who supplemented their diets with gelatin and vitamin C produced more collagen. Other studies have found that collagen supplementation helps reduce joint pain.
"If your body can synthesize collagen, that's going to keep tissues like ligaments and tendons more robust," says Baar. "That's important for dancers, because like any other elite athlete, they're going to experience breakdown of those tissues."
Ligaments and tendons are typically slow to heal because they receive little blood flow. Improved collagen synthesis has the potential to speed up the healing process and prevent injury by making these tissues stronger in the first place.
Of course, no supplement is a replacement for a balanced diet, says nutritionist Heidi Skolnik, who has worked with dancers at The Juilliard School and the School of American Ballet. However, there is enough evidence for gelatin and vitamin C that the International Olympic Committee lists them as supplements that can help athletes with injury management and recovery from daily wear and tear.
The Best Sources: Jell-O, which contains sweeteners and often artificial dyes, may not be the ideal source of gelatin. One alternative is Knox gelatin, which has no sugar added, says Skolnik. Baar says that he uses hydrolyzed collagen powder. Sold by brands like Vital Proteins, the powder can be mixed into any liquid, making it easier to incorporate into your diet.
The Bone Broth Question: You may have heard that bone broth is a good source of collagen, but studies have found that the amount varies greatly, even between batches from the same restaurant. Another problem? "Most mammals store their heavy metals in their bones," Baar says. This doesn't mean you should avoid bone broth altogether, but don't make it a daily habit.
The Other Component: Don't forget your vitamin C—50 milligrams is a good daily target. "That's equivalent to one orange or about a half cup of strawberries," says Skolnik. You can easily get your vitamin C as part of your overall diet, or if you need a supplement, it's a good idea to take it with your collagen.
The Timing: Baar suggests ingesting collagen and vitamin C about an hour before activity, so that the circulation of collagen-building amino acids in your blood will peak while you're dancing.