When it comes to recovering from injuries, nutrition tends to be overlooked. You will be told to RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), take anti-inflammatory medications, and/or follow a rehabilitation program. But rarely will you be recommended to eat certain foods to assist with healing. Optimal nutrition can play a key role in providing important nutrients for rebuilding injured tissue and minimising muscle loss while preserving strength1. The following covers the energy/calorie needs during the healing process.
Meals and snacks always need to be readjusted based on someone’s exercise type, frequency, and intensity. Even though it may seem logical to eat less because you are moving less, the body still requires calories. When injured, the body goes into hyperdrive and increases the metabolism anywhere from 15% to 50%1. In other words, food will be burned off a lot quicker even if you are just lying in bed all day!
Despite knowing this, an injured person can easily undereat during the healing period. Their appetite may be reduced due to various reasons including low mood, gastrointestinal side effects (i.e. nausea, constipation…) from medications, lack of exercise, or a concern for weight gain. Unfortunately, not meeting your calorie needs can result in a1-2:
- Loss of lean muscle mass: The body breaks down muscles to get the energy it needs to recover.
- Slower wound recovery: Rebuilding tissue is impaired without a consistent supply of calories and nutrients.
- Longer injury period: Injuries worsen or show little improvement and so, getting back to normalcy is delayed.
- Weakened immune system: The body becomes more susceptible to viruses and infections which only puts more strain on the healing process.
I think you get the point I am making. Now is really not the time to be restricting your calories.
Fuelling the healing process
The recommended calorie requirements and quantity of food that should be ingested will depend on a few factors including diet and exercise before injury, the injury type and severity, age, medications, and any medical conditions1. Having said this, since the body is exerting itself healing 24/7, eating small frequent meals and snacks throughout the day would be one of the ideal methods of ensuring you are getting enough food. Here is an example of how meals and snacks could be planned for someone with a sprained ankle.
Sample meal plan for a sprained ankle (partial tear)
|7 a.m.||Breakfast||Eggs + wholegrain toast + spinach + avocado|
|10 a.m.||Snack||Smoothie: peanut butter + milk + bananas|
|1 p.m.||Lunch||Wraps: wholegrain tortillas + roasted chicken + mixed leaves|
+ tomatoes + hummus spread
|3:30 p.m.||Post-rehab||Tart cherry juice + yoghurt|
|5:30 p.m.||Dinner||Salmon + vegetables + brown rice|
|8 p.m.||Snack||Cottage cheese + berries + mixed nuts|
I know I’ve been putting a lot of emphasis on eating enough, but the quality of the food is equally important. Ideally, your calories should NOT be coming from foods high in saturated or trans fats (i.e. fish and chips, schnitzel, salami, mayonnaise…), sweets (i.e. cake, soda, candy, milk chocolate…) and/or alcohol. These types of foods have little, if any, protein, vitamins and minerals, and can contribute to inflammation, thus negatively impacting the healing process1.
As such, you need to have a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and wholegrains that will fuel and support rehabilitation1-2. Similarly, mono – and polyunsaturated fats, like avocado and extra virgin olive oil, have anti-inflammatory properties to assist with healing the injured area1. If you are struggling with drinking less alcohol, swap for a bubbly beverage like soda water with fruits or choose a light beer and limit consumption as much as possible.
To ensure you eat the appropriate type and amount of foods, it is always worth seeing a dietitian as we are qualified and equipped to calculate energy/calorie requirements for each individual based on their injury and situation.
Stay tuned for the next article on ‘Nutrition For Injury Recovery: Protein Needs (part 2)’…
- 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 Suppl 1:S93-104.