Rice, vegetables, salmon, olive oil, citrus fruit and spices are shown. All of the ingredients are being prepared for a Mediterranean diet meal.
Rich in healthy fats and plant-based foods, the Mediterranean diet is the ideal meal plan for fighting inflammation. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Looking for a better way to bounce back from a sports injury or orthopedic surgery? The solution may be as close as your fork.

Experts say choosing the right foods—and avoiding the wrong ones—can help bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments repair faster, getting you off the couch and moving again.

“There are two things to keep in mind,” said Kristi Veltkamp, RD, who counsels Spectrum Health patients on eating well. “First, make sure you are managing inflammation. And second, get the nutrients needed to help you heal and repair.”

Inflammation after any injury is normal.

“There’s often heat, swelling or redness,” Veltkamp said. “To calm that inflammation, look for foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in salmon, walnuts and flax seed. Olive oil also helps. And try to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.”

If that all sounds familiar, it should. It’s the basis of the Mediterranean diet, which is shown to reduce inflammation, Veltkamp said.

Also avoid foods that are high in sugar, refined flour or trans fats. Alcohol, which slows healing, should be avoided as well.

Building blocks

Alongside managing inflammation, you should focus on getting plenty of the nutrients required for healthy rebuilding.

Start with protein.

“The majority of our tissues are made up of protein,” said Matthew Axtman, DO, a sports medicine specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group Orthopedics. “So even though protein is part of your normal diet, look to increase healthy sources, like chicken, fish and nuts.

Dr. Axtman recommends getting plenty of vitamin C.

“It helps build collagen, which is the basis of tendons and ligaments,” he said. Look for it in citrus fruits, kiwi, peppers and tomatoes.

Calcium is also essential, especially if you’ve injured a bone. You can find it—along with Vitamin D, which aids in absorption—in dairy products and dark-green, leafy vegetables.

Avoid salt and caffeine during your recovery because they cause you to urinate more. This makes your body lose calcium, Dr. Axtman said.

Meanwhile, those deep-green vegetables are also a great source of fiber.

“If you’re sitting around more and moving less, it can affect your gut,” Dr. Axtman said. “Fiber-rich foods will help.”

Mind and body

During the rebuilding process, it may help to take supplements for about two to four weeks. This holds true even if you typically prefer to get all your nutrients from a balanced diet.

“While you’re healing, consider adding vitamin A, naturally found in many orange vegetables, at 10,000 IUs a day,” Veltkamp said.

Look for a multivitamin that contains 2 to 4 milligrams of copper and 15 to 30 milligrams of zinc, which is shown to help with wound healing.

Veltkamp also recommends HMB, a protein that can help prevent muscle wasting. It’s found in sports supplements such as Myoplex Muscle Armor.

Finally, give a little thought to the emotional aspects of eating. Recovery can be as tedious as watching grass grow, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of eating from boredom instead of hunger.

“Have a list of things you can do when you feel like reaching for food for the wrong reasons,” Veltkamp said. “Like knitting, taking a bath, anything soothing and distracting.”

It’s normal to have food cravings during recovery, but that’s because food can make us feel better. Don’t be afraid to treat yourself now and then.

“Just look for healthier alternatives,” Veltkamp said. “Like chocolate-banana smoothies.”