How Does Nutrition Affect Injury Recovery?

— BY Kayla Adam | Reading Time: 6 min

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Maybe you pushed yourself a bit too hard at the gym, or perhaps you took a tumble out on the trail. No matter the case, you’ve joined the other 4.2 million Canadians who suffer a severe injury each year. So, what to do now? After an injury, there are two immediate steps you should take.

First, you should visit a doctor’s office for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Next, you should head to the grocery store, so you can stock up on a post-injury diet. Though not always the most obvious destination after an injury, the grocery store holds the key to an effective recovery.

Don’t believe me? Check out how much nutrition truly affects injury recovery below!

Does Nutrition Affect Injury Recovery?

If you thought a healthy diet wasn’t essential for healing an injury, think again. Nutrition affects every system in the human body, including the three systems that control your ability to heal:

  • Digestive system absorbs and metabolizes nutrients,
  • Immune system decreases inflammation and removes injured cells,
  • Circulatory system enhances healthy blood flow and distributes nutrients.

These three systems are primarily involved in normal cellular turnover, the process that removes damaged cells and replaces them with newer, healthier cells. The food you put into your body each day powers each of these systems and provides the building blocks necessary for recovery.

Yet, while nutrition is your primary source of energy after an injury, the quality of the food you eat truly impacts recovery. Your diet must be able to provide the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants required to limit inflammation, combat oxidative stress, and build injured tissue back stronger.

Injury inflammation biological human body response vector illustration scheme. Skin surface injury cross section poster with capillary, phagocytes and platelets.

Can a Bad Diet Increase Your Risk of Injury?

A bad diet can absolutely interfere with the systems that keep your body strong and resilient against injury. Poor diets, especially those with high levels of processed junk food and artificial ingredients, cannot support the healthy cellular turnover that limits new injuries and heals current damage.

For instance, foods high in refined carbohydrates (think white flour and refined sugar) are associated with increases in inflammation and oxidative stress, which can harm the immune system. A damaged immune system cannot fight back against inflammation before or after an injury.

Similarly, processed foods (like sugary drinks and bakery products) can slow down the digestive process and even dehydrate the digestive tract. The result? An extremely slow and occasionally painful digestive process that limits the amount of readily available nutrients for the body.

6 Pillars of a Post-Injury Diet to Enhance Recovery

Injury recovery is a complex process, but the steps to support healthy healing are actually quite simple. With three main bodily systems powering recovery — the immune, circulatory, and digestive systems — your diet must cater to the needs of each system. That’s where a wholesome diet of healthy calories, fresh produce, lean proteins, hearty fiber, and robust spices comes in!

Here are the six pillars of a post-injury diet to include in your recovery grocery list

1. Healthy Calories

You should never be in an energy deficit — also known as cutting calories — while acutely recovering from injury. The recovery process is an anabolic or growth process, which requires that you have a growing environment. Therefore, calories should never be restricted during this time.

But reader beware, there are good calories and then there are bad calories you should avoid.

Good calories are those that provide healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, like lentils, brown rice, and potatoes. Bad calories are those that fail to provide your body with actual nutrition, like sugary sweets, refined flours, and fried fast food that lack vitamins and minerals.

Fresh, whole foods are your best shot at bulking out your grocery cart with healthy calories. These foods are the primary source of fuel in the injury recovery process and create the energy necessary to remove damaged cells and develop newer, healthier cells in their place.

2. Fresh Fruit

Fresh fruit salad on the table

Fresh fruit is the key to managing healthy inflammation levels post-injury. Fruit is packed with vitamins, like vitamins C, A, and E, that have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In fact, certain fruits can even improve crucial blood flow to your injured tissue, like: 

  • Apples
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries

Not to mention, a deficiency in vitamins C and E can actively slow down tissue repair after an injury. For instance, a lack of vitamin C can reduce cell growth and the formation of new blood vessels, whereas a lack of vitamin E can cause excess scar formation around the wounded tissue.

3. Cruciferous Vegetables

Fresh Broccoli, Cauliflower and Cabbage on Bowl

Cruciferous vegetables are a rich source of phytonutrients and glucosinolates, plant-based compounds that can help lower inflammation and protect against further damage. Phytonutrients and glucosinolates give cruciferous vegetables their deep green color, such as in produce like:

  • Broccoli
  • Broccoli sprouts
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Collard greens
  • Kale

Most cruciferous vegetables — especially those listed above — are high in vitamins and minerals, like Vitamins A, C, and K. They’re also packed with iron, folic acid, and fiber, to help keep you feeling fuller longer (and prevent the urge to snack on processed or sugary foods).

A healthy diet includes at least two and a half cups of vegetables per day. Two cups of raw leafy vegetables, like kale and collard greens, is equal to a one-cup vegetable serving; whereas one cup of raw or cooked vegetables, like broccoli or Brussels sprouts, is equal to a one-cup vegetable serving.

4. Lean Proteins or Protein Powders

ingredients for protein diet

Protein is one of the most important aspects of nutrition while actively healing an injury. Protein not only reinforces your body’s muscle tissue but also helps reduce the risk of losing muscle mass while in recovery. A protein deficiency can ultimately impair cellular growth and the formation of new blood vessels, and decrease the ability of the immune system to lessen inflammation.

Adults should aim for approximately 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal, for a total of three to four meals per day. You can find protein in lean meats, like chicken or turkey breast, or in convenient protein powders or protein bars. Also aim to include 2 to 3 grams of Leucine per meal.

Leucine is one of three essential branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that provide energy to skeletal muscle and other tissue during exercise. Leucine helps enhance tissue recovery post-injury and can be found in foods like poultry, fish, milk, and eggs.

5. Nuts and Seeds

Various Nuts in bowls

Inflammation is the primary injury symptom that can prolong recovery. Fortunately, you can include healthy foods in your diet that help control this inflammation, particularly foods with omega-3 fatty acids. Though present in fish, you can also find essential omega-3 in foods like nuts and seeds like:

  • Almonds
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Hemp seeds (hearts)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds 
  • Walnuts

Nuts and seeds are also an awesome source of healthy carbs. Plus, they’re high in recovery-boosting nutrients, like vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc. Stock up on nuts and seeds when grocery shopping to replace sugary breakfast cereals or snacks like pretzels and chips.

6. Robust Spices

Various spices selection

I know what you’re thinking… spices for injury recovery? Yes! Herbs and spices have been proven to show anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Here are five herbs and spices to include in your cooking to enhance injury recovery:

  • Cumin: Rich in phytonutrients called flavonoids that help improve blood flow and reduce soreness.
  • Black seed (black cumin): Proven to reduce inflammation and relax smooth muscles, as well as provide a healthy serving of copper, iron, and zinc.
  • Ginger: Presents strong anti-inflammatory properties and can assist with pain management. 
  • Turmeric: Contains the compound curcumin, which offers anti-inflammatory properties that match the effectiveness of certain anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Cayenne pepper: Source of Vitamins C, A, B6, and K that can increase enzyme production in the stomach to more effectively break down the nutrients in food.

And did I mention that the above spices can make your food more delicious, too?

Dietary Changes to Reduce the Risk of Injury

What you put into your body dictates what you get out of it. If you’re looking to reduce the risk of injury, it’s important to fuel your body with foods that allow its systems to truly thrive. It’s also important to implement dietary changes that provide your body with a healthy dose of nutrients.

Be sure to avoid long-term energy deficits, like weight loss diets or short-term crash diets. These dietary changes — along with fasting — should always be supervised and monitored by a trained professional. Similarly, avoid any overt deficiencies in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Tools like Cronometer.com or MyFitnessPal.com can track your nutrient intake to learn what’s lacking.

Lastly, attempt to get the majority of your calories from a wide variety of minimally processed, whole foods that YOU digest and absorb well. A cheat sheet for a generally healthy diet includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, protein, complex carbohydrates, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Work with a holistic nutritionist to learn what foods digest and absorb best for you.

Black Guy Holding Shopping List Taking Notes In Supermarket

Is it Ever Too Late to Make Dietary Changes?

It’s never too late to make dietary changes! What you eat today will impact your health within minutes to hours. This means you can decide to overhaul your diet today and begin to experience the benefits almost immediately. While you might not be able to heal your injury overnight, you can fuel your body with the nutrients it needs to repair and protect itself from further damage.

If you’re unsure where to start, reach out to a local naturopathic doctor with a focus on sports medicine and injury recovery. Together, we can discuss dietary changes, optional nutraceuticals or supplements, and other lifestyle changes that can assist in a healthier, happier you.

Can you find injury recovery in the grocery store?

Nutrition plays a major role in injury recovery and prevention. If you’ve been injured, reach out to a trusted naturopath to learn how to fuel your body for optimal recovery.