Nutrition for Rehabilitation

Written by Health Loft
Published on October 17, 2023
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Injury and Nutrition

If you’re an athlete, you’ve likely experienced a few injuries. No matter where the injury occurs or what kind of damage you sustain, your body will immediately experience inflammation around the injury site. This inflammation is meant to clean the wound and prepare it for healing. Fluid will pool, resulting in swelling. It will become warm as the body heats up to kill off any pathogens that may have made  their way into the body from the injury. Blood flow to the area increases, often leading to redness. The more severe the injury, the longer and larger the inflammation response. After inflammation, our body uses stem cells to regrow the tissues that were damaged or destroyed. Nutrition plays a key role in the speediness and success of injury recovery. Your body is trying to sew muscle and ligament fibers together after an injury. Ever tried to sew without thread? It’s impossible. That’s what healing an injury is like without proper nutrition. Remember that inflammation causes an increase in needs, so you will likely need to eat more than you think, even though you’re resting instead of training. If you’re not eating enough calories, carbohydrates, and protein, you are going to have a slowed rate of healing.

What should I be eating?

Calories get really misconstrued by the media. Every day, we hear that we need to restrict and control our calorie intake. However, a calorie is simply a unit of energy. Without energy, we will not be able to rebuild tissues and prevent infection during the healing process. While healing, it is just as important to have enough energy as it is while you are training.  Carbohydrates are often overlooked in the shadow of protein. For athletes, carbs are vital. The inflammation caused by injury can often come with an increase in blood glucose as the body mobilizes energy to be used immediately. Ensuring that you have a consistent supply of energy by eating carbohydrates is critical to healing. Focusing on slow release carbs like whole grains and fruits will help dispense carbs without a blood glucose spike. And of course, nothing heals the ego like a warm chocolate chip cookie or cold scoop of ice cream. Don’t forget about the emotional stress after an injury, it’s just as important to tend emotional wounds as it is physical wounds. You need about 15-25% more protein than usual when you are injured. If you’re exercising while you are healing, or if your injury is more severe, you will likely need even more than this. Proteins are the building blocks of tissues. If we don’t have enough of it, we either take from existing muscles, which weakens them, or worse: we don’t heal the injury.

Can supplements help?

When we’re feeling pain, it can be really hard to eat frequently enough to get everything we need. Supplements can help make up for what we didn’t eat in a day. Collagen is the protein found in bones, ligaments, tendons, and skin, which means it contains almost everything that you might need to heal after an injury! The collagen we eat does not go directly from our mouth to our sprained ankle. It’s first broken down into amino acids in the gut, and then reassembled at the injury site. It contains 8 of the 9 amino acids required to rebuild tissues, so it’s a worthy addition to your recovery regime.  Vitamins and minerals play a vital role in recovery. Antioxidants, such as Vitamin C, can be beneficial for recovery. Rebuilding muscles takes a lot of energy from the cells, and the result of them using energy is creating free radicals. To remove these from our blood stream, we need antioxidants (ie, vitamins) to neutralize the free radicals so they can be excreted from our body without causing harm along the way. Vitamin A aids collagen formation and soothes inflammation. Zinc is a proven antiviral that can help with weakened immunity that can sometimes occur after a big injury; it also helps with tissue regeneration. If you’ve broken a bone, calcium and vitamin D are necessary to repair it. If you notice your diet lacks one of these, a supplement is necessary for proper healing.

Are you getting enough fluids?

Proper hydration allows for lubrication of joints, ligaments, and tendons. It keeps our blood ready to flush out muscles as they build lactic acid and cell waste while exercise. It also allows sufficient supply of water soluble nutrients to reach our injured tissue. After an injury, we may experience swelling. Swelling is water pulled from the surrounding tissues, meaning we need to replace it. You may be more thirsty after an injury, make sure you quench it! Exercise without proper nutrition is like running a car non stop at full speed. While it may be fun at first, eventually the tires will wear out, the tank will empty, and the engine will overheat. We need to rest and repair to keep going. For our body, this requires consistent nutrition. And if we’re injured, we may not feel good enough to eat large meals. This is where snacks can be really helpful if you don’t have much of an appetite. Going from a bustling athlete to resting all day can also mess with our ability to know what foods we need. If you are used to feeding your body in motion, it can be hard to know how much food you’ll need while resting and recovering. A good starting point is to have meals that include several servings of carbs, fat, protein, and fruits/vegetables at every meal. Most athletes will also need protein and carb rich snacks to keep them fueled, as injury repair requires lots of energy. A day of eating may look like:

  • Breakfast: Toast topped with peanut butter and berries
  • Lunch: A sandwich with cheese, turkey, and mayo with a hearty salad of spinach, almonds, and dried cranberries with dressing
  • Snack: Trail mix with peanuts, raisins, and chocolate chips
  • Dinner: Pesto-topped salmon with brown rice and broccoli
  • Snack: Greek yogurt with honey and a banana

If you are interested in learning more about how your diet can affect your injury recovery, consult with one of our Health Loft Dietitians in Chicago, virtually via our telehealth platform or in person, by calling us at (312) 374-5399, or by scheduling an appointment online. Remember to also check out our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter pages for more articles on nutrition, physical therapy, and healthy living!   Submitted

by Brenna Topham
Edited by Alexander Franz
Reviewed by Morgan Murdock, RD




Sato. “The Presence of Food-Derived Collagen Peptides in Human Body-Structure and Biological Activity.”

Food & Function, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017,

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