Nutrition for the Injured Athlete

Reduced Diet for Long Term Injury

If you child suffers a sports injury, nutrition will play an important role in her recovery process. Here are some things you should know.

  • No change in diet is necessary when a quick recovery is expected. There is little need to modify food intake when an injury limits activity for less than a week.
  • Long-term recovery may require a reduced diet. If recovery is expected to take longer than a week, your child may need to reduce food intake to meet her lower energy needs. 
  • Surgical trauma, fever, or infection requires dietary changes. In these cases, carbohydrate and protein intakes should be increased during the early stages of recovery, because of the additional demand for protein to replace and repair damaged tissues. 
  • Protein is important. Protein is also important for immune function. If a slow recovery is expected, the injury might cause significant emotional stress. Fear, anxiety, and anger are all typical reactions to injury. These emotions can increase the secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal gland. This in turn can cause a series of metabolic changes that result in increased loss of nitrogen (protein) through the urine. 
  • Psychological support is important. An injury can be particularly distressing for the eating-disordered athlete. In general, the importance of psychological support for injured athletes varies depending on injury severity, length of recovery, and the extent to which they define themselves in relation to their sport.
  • Watch out for food cravings. On the other hand, anxiety about the injury might lead to increased food cravings and reliance on food as comfort. More free time and less structure in the daily routine can lead to boredom and increased opportunities to eat. Some injured athletes simply do not adjust their energy needs and continue to follow their typical training diet, the result being unwanted weight gain.

Nutrition Recovery Road-map

With the help of a sport nutritionist, the injured athlete should revise nutrition goals to:

  • Reduce overall calorie intake to meet lowered energy requirements.
  • Focus on nutrient-dense foods that provide important micronutrients 
  • Maintain adequate protein intake (.5 gram per pound of body weight) 
  • Adjust fluid intake to account for reduced physical activity 
  • Keep a food log to monitor eating patterns and dietary intake 
  • Adopt strategies to avoid emotional overeating

No Nutritional Quick Fixes

  • Athletes want to speed the recovery process, but there is no "magic bullet" for a quick recovery. 
  • View with caution any treatment process or supplement that promises rapid recovery from injury. 
  • One such product --oral proteolytic enzymes -- is being marketed to athletes to treat acute athletic injuries such as sprains, strains, and contusions. 
  • There is no indication, however, that these enzymes reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain and accelerate healing as claimed. The duration of therapy is from 3 to 6 weeks -- about the time it would take most uncomplicated athletic injuries to heal with standard treatment. 
  • In fact, these proteases might increase the tendency to bleed when combined with anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen) or certain dietary supplements (vitamin E, gingko biloba). As a result, these products should be avoided before surgery because of the increased risk of bleeding. 
  • Several vitamins (vitamins C, A, K, B-complex, folic acid, and B-6) and minerals (calcium, iron, zinc, and copper) play key roles in the healing process. Although lack of these nutrients can lead to a prolonged healing time, there is no evidence that mega doses of vitamins, or minerals will speed recovery. 
  • Nonetheless, depending on the injury and level of metabolic stress, an increase in certain nutrients might be warranted. For example, for a stress fracture, adequate calcium, vitamin K, and vitamin D are important and can be obtained through food sources or in a dietary supplement. 
  • Overall, it is important that your child's diet be nutrient dense and supply ample amounts of micronutrients. If food choices tend to be less than optimal, a one-a-day multivitamin plus minerals is recommended as "supplement insurance."

The keys to recovery are a balance of nutrient rich foods and a focus on lowering calories to adjust for reduced physical activity. This will promote healing and prevent unnecessary fat gain. As rehabilitation progresses, energy intake can be adjusted accordingly to support greater energy needs.

Updated November 15, 2011

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