Food as Medicine: Preventing and Healing Sports Injuries with Food

kitchenrxdec200_0I recently wrote about professional teams moving to a “cleaner” diet, with the help of sports nutritionists, trainers and chefs. Both the LA Lakers and the Green Bay Packers have had great success with their new “clean diets” (Read more HERE). When interviewed, both teams admitted making the change was not easy, but they noticed not only more energy and stamina, but healing times after injuries were significantly reduced, so today I decided to explore what foods to eat and avoid when injured.

Sports injuries can be classified as “acute traumatic injuries,” (think fracture, bruises (contusions), muscle sprains, strains or abrasions) or “chronic injuries,” like stress fractures and tendinitis. It is important to treat both types of injuries seriously, and of course seek the opinion of a medical professional or physical therapist.

Staying off the injured list is key in becoming an elite athlete; athletes who spend the least amount of time hurt spend the most time conditioning their bodies and improving their skills. However, injuries happen, and taking care of them appropriately with rest, ice, elevation, etc depending on the situation will improve your chances of a quick recovery…but did you know certain foods can HELP or HURT your recovery?

  • What to EAT:
    • CALORIES matter: Our metabolic rate increases when injured, and the body uses a significant amount of calories to build new tissue and repair muscles, bones and tendons. Therefore, it is important to eat an adequate amount of calories (but we’re talking calories from healthy foods, don’t go hitting the fast food joints every day to “increase your calories!”). All joking aside, this can be difficult, especially since many athletes lose their appetite due to decreased physical activity, medications or fear of weight gain. Make sure you don’t skip meals, and eat at least every 4-5 hours. If you have a long healing time, it’s ok to weigh yourself once a week to make sure you maintain a healthy weight.
    • PROTEIN rebuilds: protein is important not only in rebuilding muscle after a workout, but it’s a key factor in repairing bones, ligaments and tendons. Make sure to eat 20-30 grams of protein 4-6 times each day, with every meal and snack, especially after physical therapy or rehab exercises. Eat good quality proteins from lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds and low fat dairy.
    • OMEGA-3s reduce inflammation: Omega-3 Fatty Acids are not only essential for good joint and heart health, but many new studies have shown that they can suppress inflammation. Inflammation is present in almost all injuries and delays the healing process, so anything that can reduce inflammation is helpful. Omega-3  fatty acids are found in salmon, tuna, flaxseeds and walnuts. Make sure you eat at least 2 servings of omega-3 rich foods per week. However, injured athletes may want to take a fish oil supplement to meet the necessary amount of omega-3. Some reports recommend 3-9 grams of omega-3s when injured, but consult with your health care professional before starting any supplement.
    • VITAMIN D heals bones : we know vitamin D plays a key role in repairing bone after a fracture. It has also been shown to be very important in regulating our immune system and preventing infections. Our bodies naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, although research shows most of us are still deficient in it, especially during the winter months. Eat vitamin D-rich and fortified foods, like salmon, milk, fortified yogurt and consider supplementing with 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily. 
    • VITAMIN C: vitamin C is an important nutrient for repairing connective tissue, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. Consume vitamin C throughout the day to help with healing. Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, berries, kiwi, peppers and broccoli.
    • VITAMIN A: vitamin A promotes the production of white blood cells, which help fight off infections caused by viruses and bacteria. Giving your body extra vitamin A prevents post-injury infections. Eat carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, winter squash and kale or other greens daily. 


  • FOODS TO AVOID: Just as important as what foods to eat, these foods will actually prolong the healing process and keep you off the field! (or court, or pool, rink or wherever you play!)
    • SUGAR: pretty obvious, too much sugar is never a good idea but especially evil when healing from an injury (or a cold, for that matter!) Your body will have a harder time processing sugars while injured, so just stay away from it for a while, especially HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP!
    • PROCESSED FOODS AND FATTY SNACKS: These foods contain oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, which unlike omega-3s, actually INCREASE inflammation. Pay special attentions to products with “partially or hydrogenated oils.”
    • ALCOHOL: none of you should be drinking anyway, but when injured, STAY AWAY! Alcohol has been shown to reduce your muscle’s ability to rebuild and repair.

Good luck out there and I wish you an INJURY-FREE SEASON!


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