Foods that help heal injuries
Our bodies need nutrients to heal after injury. Which foods promote quick recovery?
Injuries are an unavoidable part of working out and participating in sports. They generally result in a cessation or reduction in sports participation and an overall decrease in physical activity. Whether the injury is minor or severe, our bodies transform during the healing process. The three stages of transformation are inflammation, proliferation, and remodelling (Tipton 2015). This article will explore how nutrition affects injury recovery and we’ll delve into nutritional strategies to optimise our recovery.
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Before we talk about how nutrition plays a part in this process, it is important to understand how our bodies heal after an injury. Damage to cells occurs when blood flow and oxygen levels are disturbed after trauma. To eliminate damaged cells and form new ones, the body launches an inflammatory response that can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. Inflammation manifests as heat, redness, swelling, and pain. After the damaged cells have been eliminated and the inflammation has decreased, the body produces temporary scar tissue to form new blood vessels. Collagen, a stronger, longer-lasting tissue, replaces the scar tissue and restores the strength of the injured area.
Proteins are the productive machines of cellular repair, serving as the basic building blocks of tissues. The body’s demand for protein increases during injury as it works to repair damaged tissues. During the recovery phase, it is critical to consume adequate amounts of protein. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy, and their demand also increases during recovery. Choosing complex carbohydrates provides the sustained energy required for the healing journey. Additionally, fibre content from complex carbohydrates helps with appetite regulation, assisting weight management while inactive due to injury.
“Healthy fats in fish, nuts, and seeds boosts our immune system”
Because fat supports so many different body functions, it is essential for recovery from injuries. An important part of the healing process is the reduction of inflammation, which is facilitated by essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6. Fats are also essential for the synthesis of hormones, the structure of cells, and the absorption of nutrients. Consuming fish, nuts, and seeds as well as other healthy fats boosts the body’s immune system and promotes general healing.
No matter how big or small the injury, it’s important to know what your body needs to support the healing process. In addition to conventional protein sources like lean meats and legumes, consuming plant-based substitutes like tofu, quinoa, and lentils guarantees a wide range of amino acids necessary for tissue regeneration. Furthermore, the consumption of high-protein snacks in between meals can further stimulate muscle protein synthesis, facilitating ongoing support for healing.
During the recovery phase, the body requires more energy in addition to proteins. Healing is an energy-intensive process, and supplying the body with the calories it requires is critical. However, it is essential to focus on nutrient-dense foods to support healing and weight management. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables not only provide essential vitamins and minerals, but also ensure a balanced intake of dietary fibre. Dietary fibre promotes gut health by aiding digestion and allowing the body to absorb nutrients more efficiently.
Good bone health requires essential nutrients and must be given extra consideration in cases of bone injuries. The building blocks of bone tissue, calcium and phosphorus, should be included in one’s diet. Adequate sources of calcium include dairy products, nuts, leafy greens, and fortified plant-based milk. Making sure you consume enough of these foods aids in the mineralization of bone tissue as you heal. In bone injuries, the calcium needs to jump to about 1500mg per day (the equivalent of drinking about 1L of skimmed milk per day).
For a healthy recover, make sure to consume enough:
It’s essential to have good nutrition for weight management. A reduction in physical activity, or time off from training, due to an injury will typically lower energy requirements and expenditures. It can be simple to believe that the only way to prevent weight gain is to exercise, but when you are hurt, you should take the appropriate time to rest. This doesn’t mean you must severely restrict your food intake because your body needs proper nutrition to heal. Our resting metabolic rate actually rises during the early stages of recovery (Tipton 2015). Depending on the nature and extent of the injury, this rise can be 15-50%.
A calorie deficit, or eating fewer calories than you are burning, can slow down the healing process and lower the synthesis of muscle protein. A practical rule of thumb is to place an athlete in a 10% caloric surplus once all factors are considered to enhance recovery. Injury is not the time to focus on weight loss.
Awareness of the right diet and nutrition habits can reduce both fat gain and muscle loss. Calorie awareness is critical when it comes to fat gain. Choosing nutrient-dense, voluminous foods over higher-calorie meals and snacks will help mitigate the risk. Appetites may take time to adjust for athletes who typically consume higher volumes of calories to support their training.
While injured, it’s critical to consume enough protein to minimise muscle loss. Higher intakes in the 2-2.5g/kg bodyweight range may be helpful, though there are no official recommendations (Tipton 2015). It is advised to spread out your protein requirements throughout the day to improve muscle protein synthesis to further combat anabolic resistance. This is resistance to the effects of protein on muscle growth and is frequently experienced during injury.
The anti-inflammatory qualities of omega-3 fatty acids may support the body’s natural healing process and improve the general health of joints and tissues. Consuming a diet high in omega-3-rich foods, like fish and fish oil supplements or chia seeds, will likely speed up the healing process. In practice, high doses of omega-3 (more than 3g daily) are used to dampen inflammation. However, in the very acute phase of an injury, we do not want to suppress inflammation as it may impair the recovery process. Fatty acid supplements should be used when an athlete is returning to sport.
Additionally, creatine may be beneficial because it accelerates the process of regaining muscle during the healing phase. This means a quicker return to the pre-injury level of competition and exercise. For injuries that result in immobilised limbs (ACL etc.), the use of creatine or HMB alongside high protein diets can prevent muscle loss enhancing return to sport. Similarly, the use of supplements such as collagen can facilitate the repair of damaged connective tissues when used with balanced diets that are high in protein, typically to the tune of 10-20g per day.
A thorough approach is required to fully explore the relationship between nutrition, weight management, and injury recovery. Using the techniques described and recognising the functions of energy, protein, and other nutrients will lay a strong basis for the best possible healing. It is crucial to exercise caution when making dietary decisions, particularly when recovering from an injury. This will help us grow stronger, more resilient, and recover more quickly from our injuries.
Interested in learning more about supplements? Check out leading nutritionist Ben Coomber’s ‘Supplements Simplified’ blog for more information.
Tipton, K.D., 2015. Nutritional support for exercise-induced injuries. Sports Medicine, 45(Suppl 1), pp.93-104.Back to articles