Almost everyone has had a wound that required some extra care at some point, whether it was from an accident or a planned surgery.
Your body is good at healing itself, but sometimes it can use extra help, especially for serious wounds or if you have diabetes.
So how does your diet impact wound healing, and what kind of foods should you eat and avoid to help?
We’ll answer those questions in this article and leave you with plenty of realistic tips to help your body heal.
Wound healing and your diet
When you have a wound, your body starts working hard to heal itself. The process of creating new tissue (skin, muscle, etc.) takes a lot of work energy- and nutrient-wise, so if you’re not eating well, you might experience delayed wound healing.
If you have severe wounds such as decubitus ulcers, major burns, and other serious injuries, your body is working so hard to recover that it can use up the calories you eat to repair itself.
If you aren’t eating enough calories (energy), you might experience weight and muscle loss as your body pulls from your energy stores to meet its increased energy needs.
Having a wound that takes a long time to heal puts you at risk of getting an infection, which can prolong your healing and cause other health issues.
A healthy diet can support your immune system, which means your risk of infection might be lower since your body can effectively fight off potential infections.
Finally, your diet plays an even larger role in wound healing if you have diabetes. If your blood sugar levels are uncontrolled, you’re more likely to experience delayed wound healing and infections.
If these infections become serious, you can be at risk of needing an amputation, which is common among people with uncontrolled diabetes.
Foods to avoid during wound healing
Foods and drinks high in added sugar
Added sugar can wreak havoc on the wound-healing process in several ways. First, added sugar can spike your blood sugar if you have diabetes, which prolongs the wound-healing process.
Second, eating a diet high in added sugar can cause your body to be in a more inflammatory state, which delays wound healing if it is prolonged.
A certain amount of inflammation early in the wound healing process is normal, but if it persists, it can become a problem.
Sugary drinks are the biggest contributors of added sugar in a typical Western diet, such as:
- Soda (both cola and caffeine-free varieties like lemon-lime, grape, etc.)
- Sweetened iced teas
- Sweetened coffee drinks
- Fruit-flavored drinks
- Energy drinks
Sugar is hidden in many processed foods as well. It might surprise you that sugar isn’t just in the more obvious foods like desserts and sweets – it’s also hidden in condiments, soups, nutrition bars (even the ones that seem healthy!), cereals, and many more.
Tips to spot added sugar
Since the list of foods that can be high in sugar can get incredibly lengthy, here are some tips to spot and reduce added sugar in your diet to promote wound healing!
Check the nutrition facts label for added sugars
The goal per the United States Dietary Guidelines is to limit added sugars to fewer than 10% of your total calories, which would be 50 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet.
However, the American Heart Association recommends a much lower amount of no more than 24-36 grams per day for women and men per day, respectively.
If a food or drink provides more than 20% of the daily value for added sugar, that means it’s very high in added sugars and you should limit or avoid them for wound healing.
RELATED: How to Read Food Ingredient Labels.
Identify the different words for sugar
Look at the ingredients list and spot words like sugar (cane, brown, etc.), corn syrup (including high-fructose corn syrup), dextrose, honey, and molasses, among many others.
If one of these is in the first three ingredients, it means the food or drink is primarily made of added sugar.
Like foods high in added sugars, refined grains (those that have been processed to remove the healthy high-fiber parts) can spike your blood sugar level and delay wound healing, especially if you have diabetes.
Some refined grains to avoid for wound healing include:
- Any grain made with enriched flour (bagels, bread, pasta, etc.)
- White rice
You probably have a good idea of which foods are nourishing to your body and those that aren’t. Aim to make the foods you eat really count when it comes to their benefits.
For instance, instead of filling up on potato chips, crackers, and other foods that don’t offer many nutritional benefits, try to include foods that are helping you to heal, which will primarily be whole foods that aren’t overly processed.
Fast food and otherwise processed food high in preservatives, salt, and sugar aren’t the best to include in your diet while your body is healing.
They often don’t contain beneficial nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, and others. They’re okay to eat every once in a while (no one eats perfectly all the time!), but they shouldn’t be taking center stage in your diet during wound healing.
Foods to eat that are important for wound healing
Protein needs are increased during wound healing, especially if any of your muscles were torn (surgery, deep wounds, etc.).
You might need to consume as much as 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight during wound healing (compared to around 0.8 grams normally), which would be around 102 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound (68 kg) person.
Some examples of protein-rich foods to eat for wound healing include:
- Eggs: not only are eggs high in protein, but they are a source of an amino acid called proline. Proline is necessary for the production of collagen, the primary building block of collagen (the main protein in connective tissue like skin, muscle, and bone).
- Dairy products like Greek yogurt, cheese, and milk
- Nuts and seeds
- Soy (edamame, soy products like tofu, etc.)
Hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen throughout your body through your blood. Your body needs oxygen-rich blood to promote healing, and if you don’t have enough hemoglobin, you’re said to be anemic.
Iron, a mineral found in certain foods, helps build hemoglobin molecules. Iron deficiency and blood loss can cause anemia, which can delay wound healing and increase the risk of amputation, especially if you have diabetes.
Focus on iron-rich foods during wound healing like:
- Red meat
- Shellfish (oysters, clams, etc. – must be well-cooked)
- Liver and organ meats (e.g., liver)
- Beans & lentils
- Nuts & seeds
- Soybeans/soy products like tofu
- Cereals and grains fortified with iron
- Dried fruit
Vitamin C-rich foods
Vitamin C plays several important roles in wound healing. First, vitamin C helps form collagen, a protein that makes up bone and skin and helps with scar formation.
It also helps boost the absorption of iron while supporting a healthy immune system to help reduce inflammation and infections.
You can get plenty of vitamin C in your diet by eating plant-based foods like:
- Citrus fruits – oranges, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit, etc.
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower
- White potatoes
Vitamin A-rich foods
Vitamin A is essential for increasing cell turnover (helps new skin cells to grow and close wounds), reducing inflammation, and assisting with collagen formation.
You can find vitamin A in many plant sources as well as some foods that are also high in protein and iron, which means you’d be getting several beneficial nutrients with one food!
- Leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli, etc.)
- Orange and yellow vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, etc.)
- Red bell pepper
- Cantaloupe, mango
- Beef liver
- Fish oils
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Other tips for wound healing
Not only are your energy and protein needs increased during wound healing, but your fluid needs also increase.
This is especially true if you have burns or wounds that drain, which means you’re losing fluids and can become dehydrated.
In addition, water is a primary component of blood. Blood helps transport oxygen and other nutrients to damaged tissues to promote healing. Without enough fluid, your blood volume can decrease, which can impair wound healing.
Keep up with wound care
Maintaining a healthy diet is important for wound healing, but it won’t matter as much if you aren’t keeping up with your wound care routine.
This often involves changing bandages, cleaning your wound, monitoring your wound for signs of infection, and keeping up with regular wound care appointments with a wound care specialist or your healthcare provider.
By being proactive during the wound healing process, you’ll be able to identify signs of infection or other issues that need to be addressed promptly.
To aid in wound healing, some of the nutrients of most importance include energy (calories), fluid, protein, vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron.
Foods to avoid for wound healing are those high in added sugars, refined carbs, and otherwise low-nutrient foods.
In addition to eating a healthy diet, be sure to keep up with your regular healthcare appointments as advised and follow your provider’s instructions for wound care.