Does diet expedite recovery from a torn ACL, Achilles tendonitis, or broken bones?
Would more vitamins be helpful? What about collagen supplements?
At the 2020 virtual conference of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the nation’s largest nutrition professionals), several presentations offered updates on nutrition for injuries.
Here are some food tips on how to heal and ideally reduce the risk of sports injuries.
While you don’t need a “perfect diet,” you certainly want your meals and snacks to include at least 90% quality calories. The rest can be fun foods!
If you know you’ll be having surgery for, let’s say, a rotator cuff injury, you certainly want to enter into the surgery being well-nourished, with your liver stockpiled with the vitamins and minerals needed for healing. (A well-nourished person’s liver stores enough vitamin C to last for about six weeks.)
Well-nourished patients have shorter hospital stays and faster recoveries. A lightweight rower who restricts food intake or a runner with anorexia could easily be under-nourished.
Be proactive; eat well every day. Pre-habilitation makes (unexpected) rehabilitation easier!
By focusing two-thirds of your plate on wholesome grains, fruits, and vegetables, you’ll not only optimize your intake of vitamins and minerals but also fiber.
Fiber feeds the microbes in your gut. These microbes influence the strength of your immune system.
Other foods that boost the microbiome’s health include yogurt, kefir, blue, and other “moldy” cheeses.
In contrast, low-fiber ultra-processed foods do little to enhance gut health and immune power. Keto-athletes, take note: some (but not all) studies suggest low fiber keto diets may be detrimental to the microbiome.
Injured athletes may be tempted to over-restrict calories, not eating enough because they’re not active. Wrong. Even when you are on bed rest, your body burns about ten calories per pound of bodyweight just for your resting metabolic rate (energy used to fuel organs such as heart, lungs, liver, brain—and be alive).
If you weigh 150 pounds, you likely need about 1,500 calories for your resting metabolic rate + more fuel for your (limited) daily activity (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.) + 10% to 20% additional calories for healing the injury.
When healing injuries, you do not want to restrict your intake of valuable nutrients severely! Instead, add structure to your day with scheduled meals and snacks.
A sports dietitian (RD CSSD) can create for you a nutrition plan to optimized recovery. The plan will:
- Identify the amount of protein you need to prevent loss of lean muscle.
- Suggest an appropriate calorie intake to optimize healing but guards against “getting fat.”
- Offer suggestions for ways to boost your intake of iron and zinc (to optimize healing).
Ruptured Tendons, Torn Ligaments, & Muscle Pulls
Soft tissue injuries such as ruptured tendons, torn ligaments, and muscle pulls (muscle torn off tendons) can be season-ending. Preventing them from happening in the first place could save a lot of angst. Research suggests strength training (more so than stretching) reduces the incidence of these injuries.
According to Keith Barr, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California at Davis, tendons, and ligaments have a collagen-filled matrix. Baar reports loading (stressing) them helps to make more and stronger collagen to heal tendon and ligament injuries. For example, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) gets thicker (i.e., stronger) during training.
Unlike muscles, your tendons and ligaments get very little blood flowing through them, providing nutrients. Rather, fluid in connective tissue gets squeezed out when the muscle stretches during exercise; nourishing fluid then gets sucked in when the muscle relaxes.
Consuming a collagen supplement 30 to 60 minutes before exercise assures having collagen-building amino acids circulating the damaged tissue. This has been shown to enhance healing.
To create more injury-resistant tissues, athletes in sports that include explosive movements (basketball, soccer, track, and field) might want to take collagen supplements prophylactically. One study suggested hydrolyzed collagen during training also improved explosive performance compared to a placebo.
While research is limited (and commercial collagen products are exploding), hydrolyzed collagen, collagen peptides, and, yes, Knox gelatin all offer the amino acid glycine needed to heal tissue.
Dana Lis Ph.D. RD, a researcher with Baar at UC-Davis, reports not all collagen supplements are created equal. Bone broth, for example, has low levels of glycine. Hydrolyzed collagen seems to be absorbed better than gelatin and tends to be more palatable.
Lis notes vitamin C is a co-factor needed to repair damaged tissue, so athletes should consume 50 mg vitamin C (for example, the amount in 4-oz. orange juice or ½ cup of cooked broccoli) along with the collagen supplement.
To date, research has not been done to determine if glycine-rich foods (meat, fish, and poultry, or lesser amounts in soy, nuts, and plant proteins) are as effective as supplements.
Would eating pre-exercise chicken + orange juice do the same job? Stay tuned.
The bottom line: don’t underestimate the power of nutrition in preventing and healing injuries!