The Importance of Nutrition On Injury Recovery

By guest blogger Paul Fisher

Injuries are a part of everyday life, even more so for athletes and people with high levels of physical activity.  Patients rely on Physical Therapists to help them make a full recovery and resume their job, sport, or day to day activities.  Physical Therapists work hard to design a comprehensive rehabilitation plan that will produce optimal results for the patient.   Incorporating nutrition into the plan is one way to add value to the patient and optimize the plan for their success.

A well-balanced diet is not only important for living a healthy, active lifestyle, it can play a big role in supporting and even increasing recovery time from injury.  The most important thing to consider about nutrition as it relates to injury recovery is to avoid nutrient deficiencies.   Maintaining energy, protein intake, and other nutrients can make a difference in the patient’s progress.  Incorporating some key dietary factors into the rehab plan can not only support a patient through the immobilization and rehabilitation phases, but also help them maintain long-term healthy practices. 

If your patient already follows a nutrition plan, some of the points in the article may only require small changes or reinforcement.  Even for those who do not have a nutrition plan, many of these considerations are very straight-forward and can be included in their diet without much effort.  Consuming whole foods or products with ingredients made from whole foods is a good starting point.  Understanding current nutrition habits of your patient can make it easier to scale calorie and macronutrient consumption as the course of rehabilitation evolves. 

Injury and Immobilization Phase

Early in the recovery process, when a patient is injured or immobilized, reducing inflammation, managing caloric intake, and maintaining protein are key factors to aid recovery. 

  • Consume foods that reduce inflammation
    • Healthy fats, like Omega 3 fatty acids, play a role in muscle building, recovery, and decreasing inflammation
    • Antioxidants and adaptogens found in plants, roots, and fruits help the body handle oxidative stress and support the adrenal system, which can assist recovery and help maintain muscle mass
  • Often, when an injury occurs, physical activity decreases.  Managing caloric intake is critical to support this stage of the injury
    • Less severe injuries may allow for some physical activity, but it may still be less than normal.  Therefore, fewer calories are needed to avoid weight gain
    • Include plenty of fruits and vegetables.
    • Severe injuries requiring surgery or crutches will require more calories to allow the body to maintain strength through healing
  • Managing macronutrients during the early phase of an injury can also assist with recovery, managing weight gain, and maintaining muscle. 
    • Protein helps maintain and repair muscles
      • Muscle loss can occur when immobilized or activity is reduced
      • RDA is .8 grams of protein per kg body weight
      • Athletes may require more protein to maintain muscle
      • Protein pacing or consuming a consistent amount of protein (20-40g) with each meal
      • Consuming protein before bed can also support muscle growth and recovery overnight
    • Go smart with the carbohydrates
      • Carbohydrates are still required, but less may be needed to avoid weight gain during a low activity phases
      • Include complex carbs and whole grains as opposed to refined sugars and sweets
    • Healthy fats are important for muscle building and reduced inflammation
      • Swap out the friend, greasy, and saturated fats for healthier fats from fish, plants (avocado, coconuts), and nuts.  

Rehabilitation Phase

The same basic principles apply during rehabilitation, but increased activity and energy utilization can change the patient’s nutritional needs.  Changing the caloric intake and nutrient balance is important to ensure the patient is properly fueled for performance and recovery. 

  • Increase calories to match the increase in physical activity
    • Additional calories may come from adding in more carbohydrates, especially for athletes that reduced carbohydrates after the injury
    • Maintaining or even increasing protein intake to support muscle recovery and growth
    • Healthy fats continue to play a role during the rehabilitation process, as they will help with the healing process
  • Additional nutrients to consider during recovery for patients
    • Protein (20 – 40 g per meal) containing leucine is recommended for recovery
    • Calcium and vitamin D help recovery for fractures and strengthen bones
    • Zinc, vitamin C, and vitamin A can assist with wound healing
    • Creatine can help build healthy muscles
  • General health recommendations for healthy lifestyle and recovery from injury
    • Maintain a healthy body fat %
    • Proper hydration – drink at least half your body weight in ounce of water
    • Getting ample sleep is important in the recovery process.  The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 7-9 hour of sleep each night for adults

Helping the patient understand that nutrition does play a role in helping your body recover is the first step.  Our bodies are amazing at healing themselves, if nourished properly.  Food really is our best medicine.  Working with a wellness coordinator or nutrition program are options for Physical Therapists to consider if they prefer to keep their focus on the therapy part of the plan.  Adding additional nutritional services for the patient can differentiate your practice and provide better service to your patient. 

About Paul Fisher

Paul is a health and wellness consultant who is passionate about helping people feel their best from the inside out.  He believes that food can be the best medicine and help set the foundation for living our best lives.  Paul specializes in helping people with weight-loss, stress reduction, reduced inflammation, and athletic performance.  He works in-person and virtual with individual clients as well as with businesses and health practices. 

Paul became interested in health and nutrition when his father, a runner for over 40 years, had heart disease and needed open heart surgery.  It was that moment when he realized that food and nutrition so important to living a long, healthy life.  His father is doing great now and has adapted many healthy dietary changes to help keep him as active as ever.

Paul lives in Cranberry Twp, PA with his wife and daughter.

You can contact Paul on social media @pfisher26 on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn

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