Can you eat your way to a life of sports without injuries?
Apparently, you can. Or at least, to a certain degree. Nutrition is key to lowering your risk of sports-related injuries.
Some may think that avoiding injuries is all a matter of proper training. But there is more to staying injury-free than proper posture and knowing how to stretch correctly. Nutrition plays a critical role, especially for young athletes. “Kids who grow quickly and don’t match that growth with good nutrition are at a greater risk for stress fractures and other injuries,” shares Dr. Shala Davis, professor of exercise science at East Stroudsburg University.
We all know that nutrition is vital for reaching fitness goals. But beyond helping you run that extra mile, or helping you get through that last set of weights, the kind of food you eat can also stave away injury. If you lead an active lifestyle, what you eat protects you from the stress you put your body through. Aside from helping you recover, the right diet can help prevent sports injuries.
Here are certain types of food and vitamins that help you build stronger tissues, joints, and bones against common overuse injuries.
A blueberry a day keeps the inflammation away
After sustaining injuries, inflammation is the body’s way of trying to prevent further damage. In the world of sports, it is commonly the result of the microtears that signal when a muscle is adapting to your workouts by becoming stronger.
However, for healthy individuals, eating food that causes inflammation like those rich in salt have been positively linked to osteoarthritis and joint pain. Joints are arguably the most overused body part in sports, and therefore the most prone to injury. Athletes can better protect and strengthen their joints by eating anti-inflammatory food sources like bright and dark vegetables, fatty fish, and olive oil.
Collagen is an important part of the body’s structural composition–the substance is 35% of the body’s total protein makeup. It allows for greater flexibility, supports the joints, and reinforces bones by increasing density.
Athletes with increased collagen intake are found to have lower rates of joint, ligament, and ankle injuries compared to athletes who don’t take collagen supplements regularly, a study finds. You can opt to take collagen supplements. Alternatively, you increase your intake of Vitamin C through citrus fruits, tomatoes, and dark, leafy vegetables. Vitamin C promotes the body’s natural production of collagen, and it is reportedly one of the most widely taken supplements by Singaporean athletes.
Vitamin D, a common deficiency
You can reduce your risk of injury by 100% when you get adequate amounts of Vitamin D, compared to athletes who do not get enough of the vitamin. Unfortunately, many athletes have been found to have Vitamin D deficiency, which can get worse during the winter months when the sun–the major source of Vitamin D for most people–is scarce, and training usually occurs indoors.
Athletes can lower their risk for stress fractures and soothe musculoskeletal pain by increasing their consumption of Vitamin D rich food like egg yolks and fatty fish. However, these rarely supply enough Vitamin D to fill the deficiency, largely because the current recommended daily dose of 400 international units (IU) has been found insufficient. Actual optimal levels are closer to 1000 to 2000 IU, research says.
Fish are friends, and food
Omega-3 is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that comes packed with many health benefits. It can help athletes defend and recover from concussions, and enables muscles to react faster. They also help synthesize stronger muscles and prevent muscle loss, which in turn helps you hold away fatigue longer and prevent overuse injury.
Unfortunately, our bodies cannot produce Omega-3 on its own, and as such is dependent on our diet for adequate intake of the healthy fatty acid. Athletes can hit the daily recommended daily dose by eating fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, and herring. However, supplements can be just as effective, as seafood may not be easily accessible for some.
Got milk? You should
Calcium is a common entry on every athlete’s dietary regimen, and for good reason. Nearly all of our body’s calcium is found in our bones and teeth, and its main functions include fortifying bones and facilitating normal muscle contractions.
Adequate calcium levels can help athletes, especially those in sports with a high incidence of bone overuse injuries and stress fractures such as running and soccer. Getting enough calcium is especially beneficial for women, with a study finding a direct correlation between adequate intake and preventing fractures. Athletes looking to increase calcium levels should take milk and milk products such as cheese, whey, and yogurt. Those with lactose intolerance can introduce non-dairy sources of calcium like winged beans or chia seeds to their diet, instead.
Make sure your diet meets your energy needs
Athletes, especially women and those trying to maintain a weight class, may not be eating enough due to strict dietary limitations. However, eating as much as you’re burning is important to avoiding injuries such as ACL tears. “Nutrition does not equal dieting. Generally women don’t eat enough and end up calorically deficient and/or dehydrated, which leads to fatigue,” says Dr. Miho Tanaka, director of John Hopkins Women’s Sports Medicine Program. ACL tears occur during pivots or twists, and having weak knee muscles can increase your risk for ligament injuries.
Meeting your caloric needs also helps your body retain muscle mass. When your body doesn’t get enough calories, it enters a catabolic state. This means that it starts breaking down your muscles in an effort to get the energy you need. Weaker muscles can lead to increased risk for overuse injuries.
Want to pivot your diet towards keeping you injury free? At the Dr. Andrew Dutton Orthopaedic and Sports Clinic, Dr. Dutton can work with you to find a diet regimen that can meet your unique needs. Book an appointment today by calling (+65) 6836 8000, or by sending a message through our inquiry form.
Dr. Andrew Quoc Dutton has clinical interests in cartilage regeneration, arthroscopic/ keyhole surgery, and arthroscopic ligament reconstruction, among many others. He is also a Clinical Orthopaedic Fellow at Harvard Medical School.