Playing sports is a big part of life and a huge source of fun, enjoyment and physical activity for many kids. For a young athlete, there are few greater disappointments than not being able to play due to injury. Medical intervention, physical therapy and supplemental strength and conditioning are often key components of a “return to play” care plan for the injured athlete. But did you know that nutrition also plays a crucial role in healing and can speed up your athlete’s recovery process? Without adequate macro and micronutrients, the body must rely on its own stores to support the healing wound, creating the potential for an injured athlete to develop nutrient deficiencies which further impedes the wound healing process. Here are some key foods that can help promote healing and recovery from injury.
1. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, cod, mackerel and halibut are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation. While a healthy amount of inflammation is a normal part of the immune response to injury, it can become problematic when left unchecked and persists to chronic inflammation. Diets that are high in fried or processed foods, refined carbohydrates, added sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages promote inflammation and can slow wound healing, so try to minimize your athlete’s intake of these foods and instead focus on a whole-food diet.
2. Herbs and spices like turmeric, yellow curry powder, garlic, ginger, onion and cinnamon are rich in antioxidants that boost the immune system, protect cells against free radicals (highly reactive molecules that can damage cell membranes), reduce inflammation, and can assist with recovery and healing.
3. Pineapple contains an enzyme called bromelain which aids in healing and supports digestive health.
4. Orange fruits and vegetables such as yams, carrots and apricots are rich in carotenoids (precursors to vitamin A), which support skin, connective and mucosal tissues while regulating inflammation and protecting cells from free radical damage. Although it’s not orange, spinach is also an excellent source of vitamin A!
5. Nuts and seeds are rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that protects your body’s cells from free radical damage. Certain nuts such as walnuts and seeds like chia, pumpkin, ground flax and hemp are also great sources of inflammation-fighting omega-3 fat.
6. Probiotic and fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut and yogurt contain healthful bacteria that help recolonize the gut after taking antibiotic medications. There is also evidence that having a healthy gut microbiome plays an important role in immune health and may impact wound healing.
7. Lean protein. Injury, illness and significant wounds increase the body’s protein requirement to support healing. Include a lean protein source such as grilled chicken or turkey, fish, legumes or low-fat dairy at each meal and snack.
8. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are rich in vitamin C, which is needed for the immune system and to support collagen synthesis at the site of a wound or surgical incision.
9. Tart cherries are rich in powerful antioxidants that help to fight inflammation and may help reduce joint pain.
10. Water is essential to numerous functions in the body. Water helps the body to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the site of injury, while also removing waste products from the body. Adequate hydration ensures that the muscles are hydrated and joints lubricated, thereby helping them to function at their best and reducing the risk for further injury. Drink 1/2 to 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight every day to stay optimally hydrated.
Check out this sample one-day healing menu:
Breakfast: Oatmeal cooked in low-fat milk, topped with chia seeds and dried tart cherries.
Morning Snack: 1/2 cup-low fat Greek yogurt with blueberries and chopped walnuts
Lunch: Turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with spinach, tomato, avocado and onions, plus low-fat milk, baby carrots and an orange on the side
Afternoon Snack: Sliced raw veggies with hummus
Dinner: Baked salmon, sweet potato, and roasted broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts
Evening Snack: 1 cup of fresh pineapple with 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese
RECIPE: Curried Brown Rice Pilaf
Instead of water, cook brown rice in reduced-sodium chicken broth and add 1 to 2 tablespoons of yellow curry powder or turmeric.
RECIPE: Green Recovery Smoothie: 1/2 banana, 1 cup frozen pineapple, 1 handful raw spinach, 1 cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt, splash of 100% orange juice. Blend until smooth.
1. Demling, R. H. (2009). Nutrition, anabolism, and the wound healing process: an overview. EPlasty, 9, 65-94.
2. EXOS. (2008, April 16). Heal your body with food. Retrieved April 11, 2017 from http://www.coreperformance.com/knowledge/nutrition/healing-food.html
Noel Williams, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a Performance Dietitian at Children’s HealthSM Andrews Institute Sports Performance Powered By EXOS. She earned both her BS in Nutrition and Dietetics and her MS in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition from Montana State University. She conducted her Master’s research on cardiovascular and metabolic demands of Rocky Mountain Elk Hunting. Noel is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and has taught workshops on developing positive eating behaviors in children in partnership with Montana Team Nutrition. She is also a part of the following professional organizations:
•Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
•Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (SCAN)