How to “Eat to Heal” During Recovery

March 21, 2019 1:20 am / Category: Physical Therapy , Wellness


When you are recovering from surgery or acute injury, focusing on how to fuel your body can make a huge difference in your rehab success and recovery time. PT Kevin Capata shares five simple tips to help you get started building the habits for “eating to heal.”


So, you’ve been coming to physical therapy twice per week for a month now, you’ve been doing all your exercises at home, you even had a therapeutic massage and tried Pilates! And yet, that pain in your back continues to linger. What gives?

There is more than just musculoskeletal injury that affects pain levels, in fact there are a myriad of other factors that can contribute to chronic pain, such as age, gender, weight, genetics, activity level, stress, and sleeping patterns, but the one most often overlooked is diet and nutrition. While physical therapists do not have the training and education to prescribe specific dietary plans like a dietician or nutritionist can, it is within our scope to understand how nutrition can aid or hinder our patient’s road to recovery.

When you are recovering from surgery or acute injury, focusing on how to fuel your body can make a huge difference in your rehab success and recovery time.

Don’t be scared of calories

Some patients, especially if they cannot walk or exercise like they normally do, try not to consume too many calories because they’re afraid of gaining weight while they’re recovering. While you obviously want to avoid over-eating, what is even more detrimental is under-eating and risking a caloric deficit, which will slow down recovery by stimulating muscle loss.

When you are recovering from injury, the dietary and nutritional requirements are similar to those during muscle growth. Our metabolism actually speeds up in order to help us heal–while it is a large range, we will burn somewhere between 5-50% more calories/day when recovering from injury. So if you want to recover quickly, limiting your caloric intake is not the answer!

Anti-Inflammatory foods are your friend

blueberryTo prevent excessive inflammation that results from the stress our bodies go through while trying to heal from surgery or injury, the key is to fuel up with adequate nutrients and “anti-inflammatory” foods. Go for dietary fats high in omega-3, such as salmon, sardines, olive oil, walnuts, almonds, and avocado, as well as fruits and veggies high in anti-inflammatory properties, such as blueberries, strawberries, cherries, spinach, kale, and other dark leafy greens. You can search online for more anti-inflammatory food ideas, just remember that whole foods (not the grocery store, but real food that comes from the ground!) is always preferred to supplements or packaged or processed goods.

Protein is power

After the inflammatory phase of healing, you have to go through the proliferation and remodeling phases. Musculoskeletal injuries cause a decrease in your muscles’ ability to integrate protein, known as “anabolic resistance.” To ensure patients recovering from injury maintain the ability to build strength and decrease the chance of disuse atrophy, I recommend integrating at least 1.0 g/kg/BW of protein into their diet.

However, keep in mind that not all protein is created equal. When you can’t get it from natural food sources (e.g. beans, quinoa, eggs, fish, lean meats, nut butters, etc.) then look for supplements containing “whey” protein. Unless you have a dietary restriction and can’t consume dairy products, “whey” should be your first choice ; it is digested faster than other sources like soy or vegan and it has a greater anabolic response to aid in healing processes.

Five simple tips to eat to heal

“Actually it’s remarkable how much consensus there is about the fundamentals of healthy eating… diets that emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils, water for thirst, and food that’s minimally processed. These findings have been reaffirmed again and again. The fundamentals are there.”
-Dr. David Katz MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM (Founding Director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and current President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine)

Dr. Katz said it best, “If people stay confused about what a healthy diet is, you can keep selling the next diet book.” Doing something, anything at all, is always better than nothing at all! Take action and follow these simple tips to get started building the habits to eat to heal:

  1. Shop on the perimeter of the grocery store. This will force you to buy minimally processed foods, and eat as close to the earth as possible.
  2. Do not overthink it, and be realistic with yourself. You will sometimes have to resort to processed foods, such as energy bars, rice and beans, or nut butters. Just keep the “grandmother rule” in mind: If your grandma would recognize the ingredients listed on the package, then you should be good to go!
  3. Plan ahead and do some prep work. Again, KEEP IT SIMPLE. The more you complicate things, the less likely you are to follow through with it. When you are prepared and have meals or snacks planned out, you will automatically make better food choices when those “HANGRY” moments strike. Figure out what you want to eat for the week, write out a plan and list of ingredients you may need, and take action!
  4. Quit restricting yourself with fad diets or strict rules. This way of thinking and eating is not sustainable, and while it may lead to short term results, your long term health will suffer. Instead, eat with a purpose besides weight, looks or performance. Make eating a pleasurable experience, as it should be! Chew your food, take note of how it tastes, try new ingredients or recipes with your loved ones, and enjoy it without feeling guilty.
  5. Start with small, short term goals, then build upon those habits. Each week decide on one new habit that you are going to be consistent with. It could be making breakfast at home each morning, cooking dinner with mainly vegetables twice per week, or just making an effort to stop eating when satisfied rather than grossly full. Regardless of the new habit, the idea is to make a few small changes and let them build upon each other.

You can make this concept of “eating to heal” complicated by asking too many questions: “Exactly what do I eat?” “How often?” “How much, and at what time?” What it really boils down to is this: Eat mainly fruits and veggies, whole grains, small portions of meat, and minimally processed foods.

For some more pointers on tasty recipes and ways to make it simple but good, check out my Instagram @thelifestylephysio and message me your questions or concerns!

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


KCapataKevin Capata, PT, DPT, CSCS is a licensed physical therapist at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance. After receiving his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Columbia University, Kevin started his career at Rausch PT, where he used to work as a physical therapy aide. Now, Kevin enjoys helping his patients recognize and fix movement faults to help them overcome their injury or pain, as well as empowering them with the knowledge and tools to prevent re-injury or potential new injuries.

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