Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD
Athletes don’t like to think that they will be injured while competing in the sport they love, but sometimes it happens. The most common orthopedic injuries for swimmers are shoulder and knee problems (“breaststroker’s knee) and when injury leads to surgery, choosing foods packed with healing nutrients is crucial. As I am recovering from hip surgery, I have been sure to include foods to help me recover from the trauma of surgery, healing of surgical wounds, and long-term muscle and bone health.
1. High quality protein foods (those that contain all of the essential amino acids) are needed for wound healing, building blood cells to replace the blood losses of surgery, and to keep your immune system in top shape to prevent infection. After surgery it is normal for your appetite to be depressed so try to eat a small amount of protein at each meal and snack. An egg for breakfast, a piece of string cheese mid-morning, yogurt for lunch, chicken breast shredded into chicken soup for dinner and a handful of almonds in the evening can provide needed protein. As your appetite improves, add cereal and milk, tuna salad, turkey on a bagel, grilled cheese, a small, lean steak, tofu noodle bowl, or peanut butter on toast.
2. Vitamin C-rich foods are important to make the protein collagen that helps provide strength to the surgical wound, as well as providing needed materials for tendon, ligament, and muscle repair. Citrus fruits are well known for their vitamin C content, so include orange or tangerine slices or a small glass of 100% orange juice each day.
3. Zinc is a mineral found in meat, fish, poultry and dairy foods, and to a lesser extent in whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Zinc is needed to repair cells and keep your immune system healthy. Get zinc from food rather than supplements, as it is easy to overdose on zinc supplements and too much zinc can cause nausea and vomiting.
4. Vitamin B12 and iron help to rebuild red blood cells to fight fatigue post-surgery. Both nutrients are found in protein-rich foods so if you are eating high quality protein you are most likely getting enough vitamin B12 and iron. Dark meat chicken and turkey provide more iron than chicken or turkey breast (and more zinc, too), so don’t be afraid of the dark.
5. Fiber may not quite seem to fit with healing foods but after surgery including high fiber foods in your diet can alleviate constipation. The medicines prescribed to reduce pain can affect the urge to use the bathroom so using foods and fluids to combat the problem is better than using harsh laxatives. Snack on dried fruit and eat a couple of prunes every day to keep things moving (along with drinking plenty of water).
No one wants to have surgery, but if it happens, use foods to help you heal and get back into the pool to be stronger than ever.
Chris Rosenbloom is the sports dietitian for Georgia State University Athletics and is the editor of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition, 2012. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.