Once the initial shock and sting of a major injury passes, the body and mind both go through the long journey of injury recovery, diverting resources to prioritize the injury and ensure that the surrounding tissues heal properly.
During this time, the body goes through several changes in order to spur itself into action and accelerate the healing process, which generally involves repairing complex multicellular matrices and involving both the creation of new tissue (regeneration) and the implementation of connective tissue over non-regenerable damage (scarring). Depending on what kind of injury you suffered, there might be need for surgery in order to fuse or replace otherwise irreparable tissue (torn ligaments) or correct a serious fracture.
All of this is very energy-intensive, and your body will need quality nutrition and enough calories to fuel its own recovery. But rather than just eating more or sticking to the same dietary choices, catering specifically to your injury could drastically reduce the time you need to recover, and help reduce unnecessary inflammation, and thus, reduce pain during the injury recovery process (and potentially get you back on your feet faster). While a good diet won’t magically fix all your problems, you are what you eat – and eating well is key to a solid and quick recovery.
High Protein, Low Inflammation
We know that an injury triggers hypermetabolism. In other words, getting hurt causes your body to burn more energy than if it was otherwise sedentary. If you got hurt exercising, then chances are you’re used to eating as through you were exercising – obviously you don’t need the same amount of energy you did while still training, but you’ll need more than your usual base metabolic rate would suggest.
Without a test, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much more food you should be eating, but a good start is to take your previous caloric intake (minus the training) and add 10 percent. Some require as many as 30 percent extra calories when injured, so consider adjusting if you find yourself dropping in weight or gaining weight every week on your new post-injury recovery diet.
As your body works to repair any damaged tissue (be it from something major like a knee surgery, to something relatively minor like a pulled muscle), it’ll need enough protein to achieve a positive nitrogen balance, and thus help healing. A higher protein intake also reduces the muscle loss commonly seen in immobilization following injury, especially in conjunction with omega-3 fatty acids. Keeping your protein intake fairly high during an injury might be a good idea, or at least consider matching your usual protein intake.
2-2.5g of protein per kg of body weight isn’t unheard of (and can be seen as an upper limit) and can be effective in preventing the catabolic effects of post-injury recovery, while improving tissue repair. Other studies have suggested that anything above 1.5g per kg is likely wasted, so there’s a lack of clarity in the data. Staying above 1 but under 2g per kg seems advisable.
Good sources of protein include combinations of plants with complete protein (beans and rice, pasta and peas, bread and peanut butter, hummus), lean non-red meats (chicken, fish), soy, and eggs. If you’re lacking, whey isolate powder or a plant-based protein powder can work in a pinch. Avoid processed meats. The occasional piece of fresh or aged lean red meat won’t hurt while injured but try to limit red meat as it can contribute to inflammation.
It’s important to try and limit pro-inflammatory foods. The body is going to be producing plenty inflammation on its own, in an effort to help heal the injured body part. This is normal, and good – inflammation is nothing more than natural agitation initiated by the body. However, too much can have an adverse effect on the body, can slow healing, and increase pain sensitivity. Anti-inflammatory foods help balance that, keeping you on-track to healing up quickly without even more pain.
Simple, common, and, easy foods to incorporate into a variety of dishes and beverages for an anti-inflammatory effect include almonds, tomatoes, leafy vegetables like kale and spinach (as well as broccoli and Brussel sprouts), a variety of berries and citrus fruits, ginger, and fatty fish.
Cut the Omega-6, Embrace Omega-3
While a healthy diet should strive to balance both omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, most people get over ten times as much omega-6 in their diet as omega-3, which has been shown to seriously affect inflammation and pain.
Omega-6 is found primarily in processed plant oils, including seed oils, avocado oil, and a variety of plant fats used in cooking. Omega-3, on the other hand, is the fatty acid most prevalent in fish (primarily DHA) and flax (primarily EPA). Boost one and reduce the other.
As previously mentioned, research also suggests that omega-3 can be very helpful in reducing muscle loss due to inactivity and injury recovery following a major injury – and continuing a diet full of healthy, marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids can help stave off injuries in the future.
Other Injury Recovery-Boosting Supplementation
We’ve gone over the basics – more nuts, plenty of protein, good fats, and fewer inflammatory foods. But there are some supplements that might help reduce recovery time and improve healing that you might not get through a normal, balanced diet. Consider including:
- Glucosamine: produced naturally by the body in order to act as a lubricant for your joints, glucosamine levels can be boosted through supplementation. While glucosamine is often recommended for people with joint problems, it has proven potentially useful after a fracture, and to reduce joint deterioration.
- Creatine: often used as a supplement by lifters and bodybuilders, creatine helps increase muscle mass and improve performance – but it has an interesting side effect of helping you retain mass during an injury, and potentially even improve recovery.
The Bottom Line
The body needs good quality fuel when healing – not just any fuel, but anti-inflammatory, high-protein fuel. Underfeeding is a bad idea. It’s normal to expect a decrease in appetite, but that does not necessarily mean a decrease in caloric needs. Try to eat a little more than you would if you were healed, healthy, and completely sedentary.