Ask the RD: Should You Cut Calories When You’re Injured?
When an injury occurs, it takes time for your appetite to adjust to reduced activity. This is when people make the common mistake of second-guessing how many calories to consume. Rather than focusing on restricting calories, you want to ensure you’re listening to your hunger cues and getting plenty of nutrient-dense calories so you can speed up the healing and recovery process.
In addition to consuming enough calories, there are other nutrition techniques for dealing with injury. Here’s what to keep in mind when approaching nutrition while dealing with an injury:
Protein is essential to aid healing and promote recovery from injury, and it’s important to prioritize it whether you’ve had surgery or incurred a soft tissue or bone injury. Make sure to include a high-quality protein source with each meal and snack and spread your intake evenly throughout the day.
You’ll naturally start to reduce your caloric intake if you listen to your hunger and fullness signals. After a week or two of being sedentary, your metabolism might be slowing a bit and you could find you’re not as hungry or it takes less food to feel satisfied compared to when you were more active. This is normal. Learning to honor these changing cues when they occur can help you fuel appropriately for recovery while avoiding overeating.
Diets insufficient in the micronutrients vitamin C, calcium, zinc and vitamin D can put you at risk for injury and greatly impede healing from one. Vitamin C and zinc are both important for wound healing if you’ve had surgery, and it also plays a crucial role in the synthesis of collagen, a key player in tendon and ligament repair. Vitamin D and calcium work together to strengthen bones, and while it’s important to get enough of both on a regular basis, it is vital when recovering from bone injuries.
It’s entirely possible to consume enough of these nutrients through foods, so aim to include some of the following with your meals and snacks before turning to a dietary supplement (research is still lacking on those):
- Vitamin C: citrus fruits, berries, cantaloupe, bell peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, leafy greens
- Zinc: beef, shellfish, beans, chicken, turkey, pork, dairy products, fortified cereals
- Calcium: dairy products, dark leafy greens, soy products, fortified cereals and orange juice, fish with bones (e.g., sardines, salmon)
- Vitamin D: fatty fish, egg yolks, liver, fortified dairy products, cereals, soy products
It can be easy get into the mindset that the main reason you need to eat or “fuel” is to maintain a certain exercise schedule for weight loss. When that activity ceases, confusion about nutrition can be challenging, especially if you’ve previously struggled with disordered eating habits. Taking a step back to realize how many other body functions depend on adequate nutrition and plenty of energy (or calories) can be helpful. In fact, your organs (brain, heart, lungs, digestive system etc.) utilize the majority of the energy you consume regardless of exercise. Dietary restriction can force the body to prioritize keeping your organs functioning and, in turn, reduce energy and nutrient availability to the injury and slow healing.
Depending on the severity of the injury and level of activity your doctor clears you for (from cross-training to walking to the bathroom), it’s fairly common for the body to undergo slight changes in composition and weight. This often has mental and emotional effects — you might be extra hard on yourself for being “out of shape” or feeling uncomfortable in your body. But feeling down about yourself can negatively influence food choices and healing. I recommend staying away from the scale and not worrying about weight fluctuations during an injury. Focus on healing so you can come back to your previous health and activity sooner than later.