Gelatin as a Supplement by Dana Carpender
I have a new dietary discovery that has me more excited than anything since low carb itself. I have, for two weeks, been taking gelatin as a supplement. Just plain gelatin, the stuff you’d find in a box labeled “Knox” or similar at your grocery store. (Gelatin is available from CarbSmart here)
I started because I had been reading a lot about human growth hormone (HGH), the true Fountain of Youth. HGH will quite literally make your body function as if it were younger – burning fat, building muscle, creating thicker, more resilient skin, a stronger immune system, more energy, you name it. Unfortunately, here in the States it’s hideously expensive, in the neighborhood of $18K/year. I’d need to write several more best-sellers to afford it.
There are, however, nutrients that will, at least in some people, cause the body to release stored growth hormone from the pituitary gland. This is controversial, definitely works better for some people than for others, and apparently is less effective the older you get. Still, it doesn’t cost $18K per year, so it seemed worth a look.
Many growth hormone releasers are amino acids. The proper protocol is to take them on an empty stomach, either 90 minutes to two hours before working out, or at bedtime, or both. In either case they need to be taken on an empty stomach. I ordered a couple of supposed growth hormone releasing supplements from a company I trust. While waiting for them to arrive, I latched on to something else.
I was curious about claims for hydrolyzed collagen products as weight loss supplements. One such product, called “Calorad,” popular in the early ’90s, has drawn everything from deepest scorn to highest praise, with people claiming everything from no result at all to dramatic weight loss and health improvement. Many people claim that any weight loss that Calorad users experience is due to the fact that the instructions direct that it be consumed on an empty stomach, and therefore users are instructed to stop eating three hours before bedtime. People pretty commonly report not eating in the evening as being helpful for weight control, so this criticism has credibility. Still, it seemed to me that some of the results people were claiming were greater than could be explained by going to bed on an empty stomach. I wondered if Calorad could be releasing growth hormone in some people. It was, after all, basically purified amino acids, especially glycine, and to a lesser degree argenine, both of which have some growth hormone releasing effect.
At $55 for a month’s supply, Calorad is pretty hideously expensive in its own right. But I had a big ol’ box of collagen in the house, also known as gelatin. A good sixteen years or more back (I know it was before I went low carb) I bought a five pound box of bulk plain gelatin, because it’s vastly cheaper than the little envelopes at the grocery store, and so long as you keep it dry it never goes bad. I’ve used it off and on for recipes. I’ve also given some to my big dog Jed in his breakfast, because he gets a little stiff in his back end, as big dogs nearing the decade mark are wont to do, and I knew gelatin had a rep for being good for joints. Why it didn’t occur to me before this to swallow the stuff myself I cannot say. But it seemed like a reasonable substitute for the over-priced Calorad.
I started taking gelatin two weeks ago, on Saturday night. I made sure to quit eating a good 2 1/2 – 3 hours before bedtime. Right before crashing, I swallowed a teaspoon of plain gelatin powder with a big glass of water. (Which meant I had to get up a half-hour later, if-you-know-what-mean-and-I-think-you-do, but I wasn’t asleep by then anyway.) Weighed myself the next morning and was… wait for it… FOUR POUNDS LIGHTER. Holy moley.
I do not believe that a teaspoon of gelatin took four pounds off me overnight; it defies my sense of how physiology works. Some of that weight had to be water, or intestinal contents, or something. And anyway, a pound of it is back since then. Still, it was more than encouraging, and I took another teaspoon of gelatin, along with a gram of l-tyrosine (I’ll write about l-tyrosine soon) right after weighing, grabbed some tea in a travel cup, and went for a walk. For me to be so energetic at 7:30 am that I go for a sunrise walk is, up till now, unheard of, but I’ve done it more days than not for the past two weeks.
Got back home, and just had to read more about gelatin. That Nice Boy I Married wasn’t up yet, so I spent some time googling, and found this article by a PhD biologist. Fascinating stuff, and very, very encouraging.
Here’s the main thing I gathered from it: You know how, over the past century or so, we’ve skewed our fatty acid intake by eating less animal fat and more vegetable oils, so that we’re getting way too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3s, too many unsaturates and not enough saturates? In exactly the same way, we have been skewing our balance of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Gelatin-rich foods, from bone broths to head cheese to foods like pig’s feet and ox tails, were a large part of a traditional diet. Our ancestors relished every part of the animal, and just as they ate organ meats that most modern Americans now spurn, they also ate all the gelatin-rich bony and cartilaginous bits of the animal. In this modern era of muscle meat and little but muscle meat – think boneless skinless chicken breast – much of this gelatin has vanished from the diet, but our bodies’ need for persists.
In part, Dr. Peat says that while collagen makes up about 50% of the protein in animals, the quantity in the muscle meats is considerably lower. Since collagen has a different amino acid profile than muscle meats – no tryptophan or cysteine, but a great deal of glycine and proline – lowering our intake of gelatin and raising our intake of low-collagen muscle meats has changed the amino acid profile of the common diet. He further states:
Although Clive McCay’s studies of life extension through caloric restriction were done in the 1930s, only a few studies have been done to find out which nutrients’ restriction contributes most to extending the life span. Restricting toxic heavy metals, without restricting calories, produces about the same life-extending effect as caloric restriction. Restricting only tryptophan, or only cysteine, produces a greater extension of the life span than achieved in most of the studies of caloric restriction. How great would be the life-span extension if both tryptophan and cysteine were restricted at the same time?
Both tryptophan and cysteine inhibit thyroid function and mitochondrial energy production, and have other effects that decrease the ability to withstand stress. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, which causes inflammation, immunodepression, and generally the same changes seen in aging. Histidine is another amino acid precursor to a mediator of inflammation, histamine; would the restriction of histidine in the diet have a longevity promoting effect, too?
It happens that gelatin is a protein which contains no tryptophan, and only small amounts of cysteine, methionine, and histidine. Using gelatin as a major dietary protein is an easy way to restrict the amino acids that are associated with many of the problems of aging.
Did you get all that? Looks like this says that one of the charges against a meat-heavy diet – that it can shorten lifespan and increase inflammation – can be true if one constructs the protein part of one’s diet largely of muscle meats and other collagen-poor proteins.
Gelatin, on the other hand, with its glycine and proline, apparently does everything from reducing susceptibility to stress, to fighting tumors, to soothing the intestinal tract, to improving thyroid function. Dr. Peat also says it stimulates natural sleep, exciting stuff for this lifetime insomniac. It should be generally relaxing. And it should do very good things for skin. You’ve heard of collagen cream, right? I’ve known for years that collagen molecules were too big to penetrate the skin when applied topically, so these creams did nothing to strengthen our own collagen. On the other hand, taking it internally should be helpful. If I suddenly start getting mistaken for a 35 year old I’ll let you know.
I have upped my dose of gelatin to a tablespoon at bedtime (swallowed a teaspoon at a time, since swallowing a tablespoon of gelatin powder at one go would be rough) and two teaspoons on arising. I also take a teaspoon in the afternoon, if I think of it. (Hey, I just thought of it! Maybe I’ll go take some. You stay here, I’ll be right back.)
What I can tell you from two weeks is this: I feel far stronger; I find I’m moving differently because I feel like I could really kick ass. I am sleeping well with less medication. (Remember, I have a diagnosed sleep disorder.) I have fewer background muscle aches and pains, though I still ache the day after working out. And my energy level is through roof, just really ridiculous. Mood is terrific, too. It’s a cliche to say “I feel X years younger!” but I genuinely do feel younger, and by quite a lot. Not losing weight hand over fist, but I’m also not having as much trouble keeping the cookbook weight off.
Along with taking gelatin, I plan to cook with it more, and to incorporate more gelatin-rich foods into my menus and recipes. What foods are high in gelatin? Gelatin lurks not only in the bony cuts like ox tails, lamb shanks, pork neck bones and chicken wings, but also in skin. Yeah, that chicken skin you were told to throw away because it’s fatty. And those pork rinds everyone tells you you’re crazy to eat. Turns out pork rinds are a terrific source of gelatin. You may now feel not only okay, but downright virtuous, for eating them. Poke gentle fun at self-righteous low fat types for not getting what’s good for them.
Now that it’s autumn, haul out your slow cooker (I have to; when I’m done with my 15 minute recipes I have to come up with 100 new slow cooker recipes) and start braising tough, gristly, bony cuts of meat. Long, slow, moist cooking turns them silky and succulent, with more flavor than you can believe. Don’t forget to eat all the juices in the pot! Serve chicken wings often – the real ones, not those dopey “boneless chicken wings” that are really pieces of breast.
I intend to start adding gelatin to things, too. In particular, I plan to mix gelatin into ground meat dishes, from burgers to meat loaves to chili. Why not? It’s flavorless, and I’m betting in the burgers and meat loaves it holds moisture, and also acts as a binder. I’ve also started adding pork rind crumbs to a lot of ground meat recipes, not only for flavor, but for the gelatin.
Bone broth is a terrific source of gelatin, of course. That’s why homemade soup gels in the fridge while commercially-made soup does not. It’s also one of the reasons why homemade soup has long had a strong reputation as a healing food. I save chicken bones and steak bones to make broth, have for a long time. I’ve written before about how to make broth, but here goes again:
Save up your chicken or beef bones (separately, of course.) I stash mine in a plastic grocery sack in the freezer. Doesn’t matter if they’re picked completely clean; naked bones will make great broth. However, if you’ve cooked with strong seasonings, you might want to rinse the bones before freezing. You can also throw in onion, carrot, and celery trimmings. When you have a sack full of bones, dump them in a stock pot or slow cooker — the slow cooker is better if you’re out of the house a lot, because you can safely leave it going. Cover the bones with water, add maybe a teaspoon of salt – not too much – and about 1/4 cup vinegar, any kind, which will help draw calcium out of the bones. Set the pot over a low burner, or set your slow cooker to low. Then leave it. For a long time. A long, long time. I generally simmer my broth for two solid days – I cover it tightly and bring it to a hard boil before turning it off at night; this should keep it safe. In a slow cooker you can just let it cook for 24 hours or more.
Then cool, strain, and either make soup right then, or store in snap top containers in the freezer and use it for all sorts of cooking.
(By the way, if you want to make broth but have no stash of bones, chicken necks and backs work very well, as do turkey necks, if you can get ’em. And most grocery stores carry beef soup bones. Those beef bones will make tastier broth if you slowly roast them for an hour or two before simmering.)
If you have to fall back on packaged broth, read the labels, of course, for the one with the least junk. I like Kitchen Essentials brand. Then, for a quart, dissolve a teaspoon or two of plain gelatin in a half-cup of cold water and whisk it into your broth, for improved texture and nutritional value.
I have also devised a gelatin-enriched lemonade that I use as a sports drink and even as a light snack: I put 1 cup of water in my 1/2 gallon pitcher, and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of plain gelatin over it. Let it sit for a few minutes, then I add 2 cups of boiling water, and whisk till the gelatin is completely dissolved. I add four “stix” of AriZona Lemonade Mix stir till dissolved, and add 5 more cups of cold water.
When I first made this, it did not gel over ice. After overnight refrigeration it was gloopy, but I’d found the flavor a little strong anyway. I pour three-quarters of a glass over ice and filled with water or sparkling water, and it was great. I’ve discovered that my favorite is berry-flavored sparkling water with my gelatinous lemonade; super-refreshing and tasty.
As you can tell, I am dazzled by the impact two weeks of increased gelatin intake has had on my sense of well-being. I would very much like it if some of you tried it and let me know if it’s as beneficial for you as it seems to be for me, or if I’m just crazy, always a possibility. Andrew has started stocking bulk gelatin at my request here. You could also see if your local health food store could order it for you; that’s how I got mine 16 years ago. But those little envelopes of Knox at the grocery store are going to be overpriced because of the packaging.
Please, I’m dying for feedback here! Let me know what you think.
Since I posted about my gelatin program at Hold The Toast and started talking about it on my Facebook page , there’s been a lot of reader interest, and they’ve raised a lot of questions. Here are some answers:
- Although I did wake up four pounds lighter the next morning, as I said I do not believe gelatin made me magically lose four pounds of fat overnight. I have not been dropping weight like crazy, though I’ve remained a couple of pounds lighter. I do feel like my body is a bit firmer, like the gelatin is doing good things for my muscles. Keep in mind that I’m doing Slow Burn on my Total Gym every 4-6 days or so.
- I am, indeed, swallowing plain, dry gelatin powder. Some readers write that they have found it nasty to swallow. I have been taking a lot of supplements for over thirty years, and am an accomplished swallower; it really doesn’t bother me. I do make sure to have a glass of water right there, ready to drink right away, rather than putting the gelatin on my tongue and then running the water. The less time allowed for the gelatin to interact with saliva, the less sticky gunk will wind up in your mouth.
- There is absolutely no reason not to stir the gelatin into a glass of water and drink it down. I just find swallowing the dry powder easier, especially with the quantities I’m taking.
- The only reason to take the gelatin on an empty stomach is in hopes of getting a hypothetical growth hormone release. There are apparently many benefits to increasing your gelatin intake, of which the possibility of growth hormone release is only one – and one I’m not even sure of.
- If you are hoping for a growth hormone release, then not only do you need to stop eating (and drinking anything but carb-and-calorie free beverages – no alcohol!) 2-3 hours before bedtime (I try to allow three hours,) you mustn’t eat anything after taking the gelatin, either. The point is for concentrated doses of specific amino acids to hit your bloodstream without a bunch of anything else interfering. And again, many people find that quitting eating a few hours before bed helps control weight in and of itself.
- This also means that if you want that (again, I stress, hypothetical) growth hormone release you shouldn’t mix the gelatin with another food, like yogurt.
- On the other hand, I see no reason why double-strength Knox Blox, Jello Jigglers or other finger-gelatin wouldn’t be fine, so long as it has only calorie-and-carb free liquid added to the gelatin.
- One reader mention “jello water” being used for diarrhea. Yes, gelatin is soothing to the intestinal tract. Just another benefit, and a good reason to use real, homemade broth instead of packaged stuff if you’re getting over a stomach bug.
- If you like Jello dessert gelatin, might as well eat the sugar-free stuff, though come to think of it, is it still sweetened with aspartame? I don’t know. If you’re sensitive to aspartame but otherwise not worried about artificial flavors and colors, remember that Jello is basically gelatin and Kool-Aid. No reason not to use add-your-own-sugar Kool-Aid plus the sweetener of your choice to make a gelatin dessert.
- One reader wondered about the possibility of a choking hazard from swallowing dry gelatin, citing the problems some people have had swallowing guar or xanthan by themselves. Again, I’m so used to swallowing supplements that I just take it for granted I won’t have a problem. But gelatin doesn’t swell the way guar or xanthan do. I was frankly shocked the first time I used guar!
I still feel ridiculously strong and positive. And today I once again woke up early and took a sunrise walk. Of all of the effects of the gelatin so far, this is the one that absolutely stuns me. I am a lifetime insomniac and night owl; my entire adult life has been organized around the principle that Dana Doesn’t Do Early. (Be glad; if I’d been a lark instead of an owl I might have been a lawyer or something, instead of a cookbook author.) That I’m waking up cheerful and energetic around 7 am, more mornings than not, is nothing short of bizarre, given my history.
I’ve put off trying my growth hormone releaser supplement, continuing with just the gelatin for another week or two, to see what happens.
I will keep you posted. If you try gelatin, I’d love to hear from you.
You can purchase Unflavored Beef Gelatin Powder 1 lb. tub by Now Foods through CarbSmart.
© 2010 by Dana Carpender. Used by permission of the author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.