Nutrition for Injury Recovery in Athletes


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Sports Medicine Nutrition for Injury Recovery in Athletes

Injuries and sports participation are a common occurrence and proper nutrition can assist with a speedier return to play. Poor nutrition lengthens recovery time due to impairing the healing process.

Rules to get back in the game:

1. Find the right energy balance in your diet

Too little or too many of the wrong types of calories can put the brakes on proper healing. General recommendations for calorie needs for an injured athlete are the following:

  • Start with a baseline of 30 kcal per kilogram.
  • Add 5 to 10 kcal per kilogram a day if the athlete has a soft tissue sprain or strain.
  • Add 10 to 15 kcal per kilogram a day if the athlete has a fracture.
  • Add 25 to 30 kcal per kilogram a day if athlete has had surgery or head trauma.

For an individualized calorie recommendation, see a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition.

2. Make each calorie count with nutrient-dense foods

These foods have the most nutrition per calorie, such as fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, whole grains and healthy fats. Limit sugary drinks including sports drinks and foods with added sugars. Follow a plate model for athletes during the recovery process: 

  • one quarter or the plate: whole-grain bread, pasta, brown rice, legumes and/or potatoes 
  • one quarter of the plate: lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, eggs and/or tofu 
  • one half of the plate: vegetables and fruits. 

3. Eat lean protein throughout the day to help with healing

Twenty to 40 grams of protein per meal and snack is optimal based on your needs (every three to four hours). Protein helps athletes heal and repair muscle tissue. Choose protein high in the amino acid leucine during the day (i.e., lean meat, whey protein or part skim cheddar cheese). For the last meal before sleep, choose protein slow to digest such as milk, Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese. After a rehab session, fuel up with a mix of whole grains and lean protein within 30 minutes of the session.

4. Eat a healthy fat with meals

Nuts, seeds, avocadoes, oily fish, flaxseed oil, olive oil and omega-3 fish oil help decrease inflammation. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for bone development and repair (think dairy, tofu, leafy greens, sardines, egg yolks and fortified foods). 

Following these guidelines can help the athlete get back to the sport they love quicker! After recovery, a healthy diet is essential on a daily basis to stay in the game.

Source: SCAN/ Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition/ www.scandpg.org.

Lora Edwards, MS Ed, RD, CSSD, LD Clinical Nutrition Specialist | Children’s Mercy