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Injured Athletes: Nutrition Tips to Hasten Healing


Being injured is one of the hardest parts of being an athlete. If your child is unable to exercise due to a broken bone, knee surgery, stress fracture, or concussion, you may wonder: What can she eat to heal quickly? How can she avoid getting fat while she's unable to exercise? Should she be taking supplements? This article will address those concerns, and more.

Don't treat good nutrition like a fire engine

To start, I offer this motherly reminder: Rather than shaping up your child's diet when they get injured, strive to help her maintain a high quality food intake every day. That way, she'll have a hefty bank account of vitamins and minerals stored in her liver, ready and waiting to be put into action. For example, a well-nourished athlete has enough vitamin C (important for healing) stored in the liver to last for about six weeks. The junk food junkie who gets a serious sports injury (think bike crash, skiing tumble, hockey blow) and ends up in the hospital is at a big disadvantage. Eat smart every day!



Don't diet

A big barrier to optimal fueling for injured athletes is fear of getting fat. Please remember: even injured athletes need to eat! I've had a runner hobble into my office on crutches saying, "I haven't eaten in three days because I can't run." He seemed to think he only deserved to eat if he could burn off calories with purposeful exercise. Wrong! Another athlete lost her appetite post-surgery. While part of her brain thought "what a great way to lose weight", her healthier self realized that good nutrition would enhance recovery.

Despite popular belief, it is the body's organs (brain, liver, lungs, kidneys, heart, etc.), not exercising muscles, that burn the majority of the calories an athlete consumes.  Organs are metabolically active and require a lot of fuel.  About two-thirds of the calories consumed by the average (lightly active) person support the resting metabolic rate (the energy needed to simply exist). On top of that, your body can require 10% to 20% more calories with trauma or minor surgery; major surgery requires much more. Yes, your child may need fewer total calories because they are not training hard, but they definitely need more than their sedentary baseline.  An athlete's body is his best calorie counter, so remind your young athlete to respond appropriately to their hunger cues: eat when hungry and stop when the stomach feels content. 

Other weight myths

  • Muscle turns into fat. Wrong. If you are unable to exercise, your muscles will shrink, but they will not turn into fat. Wayne, a skier who broke his leg, was shocked to see how scrawny his leg muscles looked when the doctor removed the cast six weeks later. Once he started exercising, he rebuilt the muscles to their original size.
  • Lack of exercise means you'll get fat. Wrong. If you overeat while you are injured (as can easily happen if you are bored or depressed), you can indeed easily get fat. Joseph, a frustrated football player with a bad concussion, quickly gained 15 pounds post-injury because he continued to eat lumberjack portions. But if you eat mindfully, your body can regulate a proper intake. Before diving into meals and snacks, injured athlete needs to ask themselves, "How much of this fuel does my body actually need?"
When injured, some underweight athletes gain to their genetic weight. For example, Shana, a 13-year-old gymnast, perceived her body was "getting fat" while she recuperated from a knee injury. She was simply catching up and attaining the physique appropriate for her age and genetics.

Eat "clean"

To enhance healing, serve your injured athlete a variety of quality foods that supply the plethora of nutrients their body needs to function and heal. Don't eliminate food groups; they all work together synergistically! Offer her body:
  • Carbohydrates from grains, fruits, vegetables. By having carbs for fuel, the protein consumed can be used to heal and repair muscles. If an injured athlete eats too few carbs and too few calories, their body will burn protein for fuel, which hinders healing.
  • Protein from lean meats, legumes, nuts and lowfat dairy. Protein digests into the amino acids needed to repair damaged muscles; the injured body needs a steady stream of amino acids to promote healing (especially after physical therapy). Extra protein is needed post-injury or surgery, so be sure to include 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal and snack. A portion with 20 to 30 grams of protein equates to one of these: 3 eggs, 1 cup cottage cheese, 3 to 4 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish, two-thirds of a 14-ounce cake of firm tofu, or 1.25 cups of hummus. While you might see ads for amino acid supplements including arginine, ornithine, and glutamine, those amino acids can be obtained via food.
  • Plant and fish oils. The fats in olive and canola oils, peanut butter, nuts and other nut butters, ground flax-seeds, flax oil, and avocado have an anti-inflammatory effect. So do omega-3 fish oils. While recovering from injury, an athlete should eat at least two or three fish meals per week, preferably the oilier fish such as Pacific salmon, barramundi, and albacore tuna. Reduce the intake of the omega-6 fats in packaged foods with "partially hydrogenated oils" listed among the ingredients, and in processed foods containing corn, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, and soy oils. Too much of these might contribute to inflammation.
  • Vitamins. By consuming more colorful fruits and vegetables, the injured athlete will get more nutrition than in a vitamin pill. Fruits and veggies have powerful anti-oxidants that knock down inflammation. Don't underestimate the healing powers of blueberries, strawberries, carrots, broccoli, and pineapple. Make smoothies using tart cherry juice, PomWonderful pomegranate juice, and grape juice.
  • Minerals. Many athletes, particularly those who eat little or no red meat, might need a boost of iron. Blood tests for serum ferritin can determine if iron stores are low. If they are, your child's doctor can prescribe an iron supplement. You might also want a little extra zinc (10 to 15 mg) to enhance healing.
  • Herbs, spices and botanicals. Anti-inflammatory compounds are in turmeric (a spice used in curry), garlic, cocoa, green tea, and most plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. For therapeutic doses of herbs and spices, take them in pill-form. Yet, consuming these herbs and spices on a daily basis, in sickness and in health, lays a strong foundation for a quick recovery.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

Posted January 22, 2013 

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