Accelerate recovery: 6 ways proper nutrition helps heal sports injuries


by Marcela Salinas Domene and Carolina Flores Villarreal

Oct 27, 2023

Healing from a sports injury can be challenging, as your limited mobility can interfere with your normal, everyday activities. But in addition to rest and physical therapy, there is something you can do to speed your recovery: Eat properly.

Many people don’t realize that getting the right nutrients in your diet can help your path back to health and prevent delays in healing. Good nutrition is crucial to repairing and regrowing tissue, reducing swelling, supporting bone growth and more.

Here are six ways to support your recovery from a sports injury through nutrition.

1. Get more protein

It’s essential to make sure you’re getting adequate protein after an injury, as it plays a vital role in wound healing and acts as the building block of tissue, ligaments, muscles, tendons and bones. After an injury, you likely won’t be able to move the affected body part as much, which can reduce muscle mass. Eating enough protein can combat this and reduce the risk of significant muscle loss.

The amount of protein that should be consumed per day varies depending on your age, sex and physical activity level, but a general recommendation of protein needs after an injury is between 1.3-1.8 grams/kilogram/day for non-athletes. (To determine your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.) If you’re an athlete or consider yourself to be highly active, you can increase your protein intake to as high as 1.6-2.5 g/kg/day for injury recovery. If your injury is minor, like a sprained wrist, you should aim to get enough protein to meet the lower end of the recommendations. On the other hand, if your injury is more serious, try to hit the higher end of the recommendations.

Spread your protein intake out throughout the day. Try to include at least 25-30 g of protein per meal and 10-15 g protein per snack to help you meet your protein intake goals. Some good sources of lean protein include eggs, chicken breast, lentils, Greek yogurt, tofu and low-fat milk.

2. Include anti-inflammatory foods

Injuries can cause inflammation in the body, so including anti-inflammatory nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can aid in recovery. Omega-3s are also involved in the body’s process of creating new muscle proteins.

Some omega-3 rich foods that you might already have in the kitchen are walnuts, tuna, salmon, chia seeds, fortified eggs, canola oil, and flaxseeds or flaxseed oil.

3. Eat fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that carries anti-inflammatory properties. Along with its ability to help decrease inflammation, it also plays a role in wound healing, tissue growth and repair, and bone growth and repair.

Some foods high in vitamin C include broccoli, bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, brussels sprouts and kiwis. But beware: Taking in too much vitamin C through supplements may actually slow healing. Relying on food sources for your vitamin C is the best way to avoid getting too much through supplements.

4. Incorporate foods high in zinc

The micronutrient zinc is needed in nearly every stage of wound healing. Some zinc-rich foods include beef, oysters, fortified breakfast cereals, whole grains, eggs, broccoli, turkey breast and lentils.

5. Stay hydrated

Proper hydration is not only important for recovery, but it’s helpful for preventing injuries, too. The recommended total water intake for men and women is around 3 quarts per day. If you spend your day outside in the heat or sweat a lot from exercise, make sure to drink some extra water to rehydrate.

If plain water doesn’t appeal to you, try adding some flavor with lemon juice or sugar-free flavoring drops, making infused water by adding fresh fruit or drinking flavored sparkling water. You can also get fluids from coffee, tea, soups, and water-rich fruits and vegetables like melon, strawberries, lettuce and celery.

6. The type of injury matters

If you sustained a concussion during a football game or are recovering from a major surgery, your nutrition needs will be different—and higher—than if you twisted your ankle on a run. These tips can be followed by people of all ages, but if you have an intense injury, consider talking to a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider about what dietary changes you can make to support your recovery.

Incorporating these nutrition strategies into your recovery plan can make a significant difference in your healing process and help you get back to your active lifestyle sooner. Your body has an incredible capacity to repair and regenerate when provided with the right fuel. Whether it's the muscle-building power of protein, the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3s, the healing magic of vitamin C, the wound-supporting qualities of zinc or simply staying well-hydrated, your nutritional choices can be the missing piece in your path to recovery. With the right nutrition, you'll not only recover from your sports injury but come back stronger than ever.

Need advice on eating during recovery? Want to improve your overall nutrition? Our dietitians can work with you to meet your goals. Find one near you.

About the Author

Marcela and Carolina are dietetic interns in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness program.

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