What to Eat When Injured? Nutrition for Sports Injury Recovery

Sports injuries can be frustrating, and the path to recovery can be challenging. Without proper interventions, injuries can linger and continue to prevent sports or activities. Nutrition is important during all phases of life but plays a special role in injury recovery and healing. Additionally, adequate nutrition can help prevent or lessen future injuries. Although injuries can vary based on incidence and type, there are general nutrition interventions that may help most injuries. This article will dive into how and why nutrition is important and what macro and micronutrients may be beneficial to speed up recovery.

Goals and importance of nutrition in recovery

Nutrition for sports performance and injury rehabilitation overlap in many ways, but recommendations vary based on goals and priorities. Preventing muscle breakdown and malnutrition and improving physical condition are vital considerations in injury recovery. Macro and micronutrients play important roles, such as promoting a healthy metabolism, hemoglobin synthesis, immune function, and maintaining muscle mass.

A poor nutritional status post-injury, and especially post-surgery, can cause many complications, including a longer recovery period, difficulty healing, and infection. It is crucial to ensure adequate nutrition status by incorporating proteins, carbohydrates, and fats and consuming enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Calorie intake for recovery

During injury, energy (calorie) needs are typically increased due to the additional process the body goes through to heal. Maintaining caloric balance and meeting increased caloric demands is the first consideration after sustaining an injury. Most injuries cause immobility, which can decrease muscle use and eventually lead to muscle loss. Therefore, it is important to consume enough calories to prevent muscle loss.

According to research, to combat sarcopenia or the loss of muscle and strength during inactivity, caloric intake should range from 25–30 kcal/kg of body weight. During the recovery phase, food should not only be nutritious but also enjoyable. Considering both the needs and personal preferences is critical to ensure the diet is well-rounded and palatable.

Know your macros for injury recovery

Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are essential for muscle, bones, and virtually any recovery.

Proteins

In addition to calorie intake, protein is another extremely important consideration during injury recovery. Protein helps athletes heal and repair muscle tissue. Protein intake is also dependent on the type and extent of the injury. According to research, protein intakes between 1.6–2.0 g/kg/day or even 3.0 g/kg/day help prevent muscle loss. In addition to total protein intake throughout the day, an even distribution of protein intake is helpful.

Most research suggests 20–40 g of total dietary protein at each meal or snack and ensuring food is eaten every 3–4 hours throughout the day. Leucine is one of the most important amino acids to consume during the recovery process. It helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which can help prevent muscle loss. Leucine-rich foods include animal proteins, like chicken, beef, fish, dairy products, and whey protein. Most research suggests consuming 3 g of leucine per serving.

Carbohydrates

Along with protein, carbohydrate intake can help reduce muscle breakdown. According to research, carbohydrates should include 3–5 g/kg of body weight or 55% of total calories during the recovery period.

Carbohydrate intake should come from complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Consuming too many carbohydrates during periods of inactivity could lead to high blood sugar, which could impact healing and recovery. In addition, consuming too many carbohydrates could lead to excess calorie and fat storage.

Fats

Fats are essential for reducing inflammation, healing, and immune function. Anti-inflammatory foods, such as olive and flaxseed oils, seeds, nuts, avocados, and fatty fish, are recommended. Pro-inflammatory foods that contain high trans and saturated fats, such as processed meats, fried foods, and vegetable oils, should be limited as these are not always supportive of the recovery process.

According to research, 20–25% of calories should be from fat during this phase, or 0.8–2 g/kg/day. Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial, which is discussed below.

Nutrient timing

When in recovery, nutrient timing is important to ensure adequate fueling, especially before and after training and rehab sessions. Consuming nutrients throughout the day and in a timely manner can help reduce muscle mass loss and increase functionality and quicker recovery from the injury.

Micronutrient and supplement considerations

Omega-3. In order to reach the recommended amounts of 3–4 g/day of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), it may be recommended to supplement in order to meet needs. Omega-3 supplementation may help with inflammation and aid in muscle protein synthesis.

BCAA. As discussed above, consuming adequate protein, specifically leucine, may help preserve muscle mass. This can come from protein powder supplementation or high-quality protein, like animal products.

HMB (hydroxy-methylbutyrate). Research shows this may slow down the rate of protein breakdown. The recommended dosage is 3 g/day divided into 1.5 g doses for muscle maintenance.

Creatine. For the preservation of muscle mass and metabolic health, a recommended amount of 15–20 g per day for several weeks, followed by a maintenance phase of 5 g

Final thoughts on nutrition when injured

Nutrition is a key component of injury recovery to preserve muscle mass, decrease inflammation, and accelerate recovery. A nutritional strategy that focuses on the athlete’s needs and preferences and high-quality food sources, especially protein, is vital for injury recovery.

Remembering all injuries vary in incidence, type, and severity. It is beneficial to talk to a sports dietitian to learn the appropriate intervention for you.

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