In my last article “Nutrition For Injury Recovery: Calorie needs (Part1)“, I explained the importance of getting enough calories from nutritious foods to fuel the healing process. Now let’s have a look at a macronutrient that is crucial in nutritionally supporting an injury and rehabilitation: protein.
The role of protein
Protein has multiple roles in the body including building and repairing muscle, skin, and other body tissues1-2. It is also involved in supporting the immune system to fight infections and inflammation1-2. Much like calories, protein needs increase depending on the type and severity of the injury. The consequences of not eating enough protein when recovering from an injury include1-2:
- Muscles breaking down: The body will take the amino acids from muscles to bring down inflammation from the injury.
- Wound healing delayed: Without protein to repair the wound and rebuild tissue, healing will take a lot longer than it should.
- Poor immune system: There will be fewer antibodies to fight off viruses and bacterial infections.
Research shows having 1.6 – 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodymass per day optimises recovery2-3. For a 60kg person, it would be 96 – 150g of protein in one day. The exact amount of protein varies depending on many factors including the type of injury.
In addition to getting enough protein daily, spreading your protein evenly throughout the day has also been shown to yield better recovery results1-3. Since the body is rebuilding tissue and fighting inflammation 24/7, it needs that constant supply of protein to get the work done. It’s particularly important to schedule your protein snacks/meals around your rehab sessions and before going to bed to reduce inflammation and muscle breakdown3. If you’re thinking “I’ll just double-up on my chicken for dinner”, think again! The body can’t absorb an infinite amount of protein in one sitting and so eating meals or snacks every 3-4 hours is the more efficient way of fuelling the healing process.
If you’ve got an injury that requires immobilisation, the type of protein foods you eat can make a difference. If for instance, you’ve had surgery on your knee and can barely move it, this decreases the ability of myofibrillar proteins to respond to amino acid stimuli, also called “anabolic resistance”3. Essentially, it becomes difficult to build muscle. To help overcome this issue, researchers suggest ingesting protein foods that are rich in leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis3. It’s what allows muscle to grow and repair. Dairy foods (milk and yoghurt) in particular are good options as they have high doses of slow and fast-digesting leucine. The recommended dose of leucine can typically be found in about 20-30g of protein foods1-3 as per tables below.
Sample meal plan with 20-30g of protein and 2-3g leucine each
|7 a.m.||Breakfast||3 eggs|
|10 a.m.||Snack||Fruit smoothie: 250 ml low fat milk + 3 tbsps yoghurt|
|1 p.m.||Lunch||Wrap: 1/2 chicken breast + 60g low-fat cheese|
|3:30 p.m.||Post-rehab||Tin tuna + tub yoghurt|
|5:30 p.m.||Dinner||100g/Medium salmon fillet|
|8 p.m.||Snack||1 cup cottage cheese|
Vegan sample meal plan with 20-30g of protein and ~2g leucine each
|7 a.m.||Breakfast||150g Tofu scramble + tin baked beans|
|10 a.m.||Snack||2 handfuls of nuts + roasted chickpeas|
|1 p.m.||Lunch||Wrap: 100g Sunfed chicken (mock)|
|3:30 p.m.||Post-rehab||Fruit smoothie: 300 ml soy milk + tub YoPro vegan yoghurt|
|5:30 p.m.||Dinner||Tinned lentil bolognese sauce|
|8 p.m.||Snack||200ml vegan protein shake|
I know for some people eating every 3 hours can be daunting, especially if you’re not hungry or too tired to prepare a meal. There are ways to make it easier and more convenient. Here are a few tips:
- Cook/prepare meals in large quantities, split in small containers and store in fridge or freezer to have as meals or snacks
- Buy ready-to-eat snacks: flavoured tinned tuna, tub of yoghurt, roasted chickpeas/beans, tinned baked beans, or cottage cheese
- Pay for ready-made meals/snacks or meal-kits to be delivered weekly or fornightly for ease of mind
- Make smoothies! These are quick to make, versatile and easy to digest when not feeling hungry
I hope this article is clear in highlighting the importance of getting enough protein in your diet for injury and rehab recovery. Of course, it’s always better to see a dietitian who can recommend suitable total daily protein amounts as well as strategies around the individual’s lifestyle and any other clinical issues they may have.
Stay tuned for the next article on ‘Nutrition For Injury Recovery: Micronutrient Needs (part 3)’…
- Quintero KJ, Resende AdS, Leite GSF, Lancha Junior AH. An overview of nutritional strategies for recovery process in sports-related muscle injuries. Nutrire. 2018;43(1):27.
- Tipton KD. Nutritional Support for Exercise-Induced Injuries. Sports medicine (Auckland, NZ). 2015;45(1):S93-104.
- Wall BT, Morton JP, van Loon LJ. Strategies to maintain skeletal muscle mass in the injured athlete: nutritional considerations and exercise mimetics. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(1):53-62.