Eating for Strength and Recovery

By Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD
eating for strength and recovery

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Active people don't want to think about injury, but anyone who participates in sports knows that muscle pulls, sprains, broken bones, stress fractures or orthopedic surgery may sideline you for a while. What you eat after injury can help you recover from surgery, heal wounds and strengthen bones and muscles to get you back on your feet and back to an active lifestyle.

When injury strikes and you have to limit your physical activity, there is no need for the post-workout protein shakes or energy bars to fuel your workout. Instead, eat nutrient-rich foods three to four times a day to provide the needed vitamins and minerals without extra calories from pre- or post-workout snacks.


Focusing on high-quality protein foods aids wound healing and keeps your immune system strong. If you've had orthopedic surgery, it is normal for your appetite to be depressed. Try eating a small amount of protein at each snack and meal. Eggs, low-fat cheese or cottage cheese, yogurt and plain baked chicken all provide quality protein and are usually well-tolerated in the early days after injury or surgery. Vegetarians can get high-quality protein from soy-based foods. Almond milk is popular, but it is low in protein compared to cow or soy milk. Protein is not just for muscle building; it is a key nutrient in bone building. So, if you have a fracture, make sure to include protein with every meal and snack.

Vitamin C and Zinc

While all nutrients are important in healing, vitamin C and zinc are superstars for their roles in healing. Vitamin C is needed to make a protein called collagen and is needed for repairing tendons, ligaments and healing surgical wounds. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C; however, don't overlook other sources of vitamin C, such as strawberries, kiwi fruit, baked potatoes, broccoli and bell peppers. Zinc is a mineral found mostly in animal foods — meat, fish, poultry and dairy foods — but it also is present in whole-grain breads and cereals, dried beans and peas (legumes) and nuts and seeds. It is better to get zinc from foods than supplements, especially because high-dose zinc supplements can cause nausea and vomiting.

Vitamin D and Calcium

Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients associated with healthy bones. So, if you have a stress fracture, make sure to get plenty of these two nutrients to strengthen your bones. Milk and fortified soy milk are good choices. Yogurt, also a good source of calcium, is not always fortified with vitamin D so check the nutrition label of your favorite yogurt to make sure you are getting vitamin D.


It may sound odd to mention fiber with healing foods, but pain medications commonly prescribed after injury or surgery can cause constipation. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds contain fiber. Prunes or prune juice (along with drinking plenty of water) have a natural laxative effect that can alleviate constipation while on pain medications.

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