What to Eat When You're Injured
Foods such as pineapple and garlic can help fight inflammation.
Whether you’re recovering from a muscle strain or facing a season-stalling bone break, it's important that athletes pay attention to nutrition during the rehab process. “Sticking to good eating habits can actually help you get back to full health faster,” says Brian St. Pierre, R.D., CSCS, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition in Scarborough, Maine. And he would know—St. Pierre and his team helped tennis pro Sloane Stephens tweak her diet and come back from an ankle stress fracture to beat Madison Keys in the 2017 U.S. Open final, all in under a year. Here, a few of the dietary tips St. Pierre says can help you get back on your feet faster.
1. Focus on inflammation-fighting foods and spices.
“There are three phases of healing: the initial inflammatory phase (when the injury first occurs), the coagulation phase (when damaged tissue is removed and blood flow increases to the area), and a long-term remodeling phase (when your body fully recovers and builds new tissue)," explains St. Pierre. To get the inflammation under control during the first phase, he recommends consuming at least three daily servings (a total of three tablespoons for women and six for men) of healthy fats such as nuts, olive oil, flax and chia seeds, omega 3-rich fish, and avocado. You should also limit highly processed foods, which can make the problem worse.
In addition, spices such as turmeric, which research has shown acts as a powerful antioxidant, can boost your body’s natural recovery process. Another pantry staple, garlic, can also help quell swelling. St. Pierre recommends consuming two to four cloves a day (during the initial inflammation stage) or taking it in supplement form to avoid bad breath. And it turns out that Stephen’s personal favorite, pineapple, is a carrier of bromelain, an enzyme that calms irritation, which is why St. Pierre is a fan of including it in anti-inflammatory smoothies. He’s also a proponent of “berries, dark chocolate, and green tea—any foods that have flavonoids can be extra helpful.”
2. Watch your caloric intake and adjust accordingly.
It may seem obvious that if you’re exercising less, you should eat less, but the equation isn’t quite that simple. “Injury does increase your metabolic rate,” explains St. Pierre. “Even if you’re doing nothing, you’re still burning more energy than if you were not injured, because of the tissue remodeling that’s being done by your body. But how much depends on the type of injury. If you’ve had significant burns, your metabolic rate can go up as much as 50 percent, or if you have a small bone break, it might only be going up 10 percent.” Figuring out your dietary needs during the second phase depends on the amount of activity you’re able to get in, and how that compares to your workouts at full-steam. For example, you’ll need fewer carbs than when training but enough to support recovery. Include minimally processed carbs such as whole oats and sprouted grain, suggests St. Pierre.
In Stephens’ case, the difference was significant: “We were already working with Sloane when she developed the foot injury, so we reduced our recommendations for her total consumption, especially since she was laid up for a while. In particular, with things like juices, there was some room for that only when she was really active. Instead, we tried to emphasize whole food versions of juices that she likes, such as pineapple. An eight-ounce glass of pineapple juice probably has about 30 grams of sugar, and you would have to eat a substantially larger amount of the actual fruit to get that same amount. Thus she was still able to enjoy a food she likes while also getting more of the fiber and flavonoids that would otherwise be lost in the juicing.”
3. Explore different ingredient combinations.
One important component of recovery is realizing that perfection is not always possible when it comes to diet, reminds St. Pierre. “Especially in Sloane’s case, when she’s on the road at tournaments sometimes there are great food options, other times not so much. So we really tried to outline what she needed at each meal—a palm-sized piece of lean protein, healthy fats, a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, and high quality carbs like whole grains. We have a chef, Jennifer Nickle, who also did a lot of work teaching Sloane and her mom to cook, and taste-testing with her to know which food combinations she liked. Just those fundamentals were a big step up in helping her recover quickly, and as she started to feel better and see results, she had an increased commitment to sticking with the program,” he explains. As you build stronger, more permanent tissue during the third phase, take the time to experiment in the kitchen, whether it’s a simple no-cook recipe or lunch meal prep.