A plant-based diet can be great for your health and for the environment - but is it good for wound healing? Recent scientific findings point to the fact that a plant-based diet and wound healing might not actually go hand-in-hand.
If you eat a majority (or wholly) plant-food diet, and have found yourself struggling with slow wound healing, it’s possible that your food could be the culprit. Today, we will examine a plant-based diet and wound healing, to help you better understand if your diet is working against you.
Just how can vegetarian and vegan diets affect wound healing, and what is the ideal diet for wound healing?
Let’s discuss what you should eat for optimal wound healing, the effects of a plant-based diet and wound healing, and how you can improve your natural wound healing process through simple nutrition.
What is the best diet for wound healing?
Generally speaking, the best diet for wound healing is a well-balanced, high-protein diet. It’s also not much of a “diet” at all - it’s the opposite!
In fact, most doctors will recommend that their patients increase their food intake after surgery or when healing a chronic wound, as wounds heal faster on a caloric surplus. The reason is simple: Your body is working extra hard to send resources to the site of your wound, repair your bones, muscles, tendons, etc, and build new tissue.
On average, women should increase their daily caloric intake by about 14%, and men should increase their caloric intake by 21% to promote swift wound healing.
There’s a caveat to this: You must be getting adequate protein and be aware of underlying conditions (such as diabetes) that slow wound healing. What you eat is just as important as how much you eat. A proper wound healing diet should consist of ample protein, iron, vitamin C, and zinc.
Let’s investigate a little more and take a look at what that means for a plant-based diet and wound healing.
Your body needs protein to maintain and repair body tissue, particularly collagen protein. When you have a wound, your body breaks down protein into amino acids to start collagen synthesis. This creates collagen fibers that are used to fill in your wound during the proliferation and remodeling stages of healing.
Our natural collagen production starts to slow down as we age, starting around the age of 25. So, if we don’t already have enough collagen stores to pull from for wound healing, we really need protein from our diet to assist us!
Sources of protein include: meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, soy products, tofu, nuts and seeds, and pulse vegetables (beans, chickpeas, and lentils).
If you are worried about balancing a plant-based diet and wound healing, it's very important to up your intake of nuts, seeds, pulses, and soy products in your diet. A vegan protein shake may also help you meet your wound recovery protein needs. Otherwise, you might not be getting enough protein for healthy wound healing.
It’s also important to understand that plant-based and fully vegan collagen doesn’t exist. By its very nature it is an animal product, and collagen is found in bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. There are some plant-based products on the market that promote natural collagen production.
But, keeping in mind that your natural collagen production slows down around your mid-twenties and that your body needs extra collagen for wound healing, a collagen-boosting supplement is simply not enough.
If you are diabetic, suffer from chronic wounds, or are struggling to heal a wound after an operation, you may want to forgo your plant-based diet for wound healing purposes. This could be just a short-term change to help your body heal.
Iron is necessary for the transportation of nutrients in your bloodstream, which makes it important in the healing process. If oxygen, infection fighting white blood cells, and important nutrients can’t easily make it to your wound site, it could delay healing.
Sources of iron include: meat, fish, and eggs. You can also find some iron in pulses, green vegetables, and dried fruit, but it is harder for your body to absorb iron from plant-based sources.
If you are concerned about your iron levels when dealing with a plant-based diet and wound healing, be careful about drinking coffee, tea, cola, and alcohol, which can all further inhibit your iron absorption.
A few ways people can continue with a plant-based diet and wound healing (and still get enough iron) is by increasing their Vitamin C intake, cooking with a cast-iron pan, and taking a vegan-friendly iron supplement.
Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron and the synthesis of collagen, which is directly beneficial to your wound healing process.
Vitamin C is found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, but it can be destroyed during the cooking process, so it’s best to eat your fruits and vegetables raw, steamed, or lightly cooked.
Sources of vitamin C include: citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and leafy greens.
If you are looking for ways to improve the relationship between a plant-based diet and wound healing, increasing your vitamin C intake may help. The good news is, this is one that’s very easy to do as a vegetarian or vegan! Just remember that, while vitamin C is an excellent “collagen builder,” it is not a replacement for protein in your diet.
You can’t rely solely on vitamin C to improve the relationship between a plant-based diet and wound healing. It still may be worth looking into short-term protein supplements to boost your protein intake, especially after a serious injury or operation.
Zinc is another important component in the wound healing process. Zinc helps in the formation of new tissue, which in turn, helps wounds heal.
Sources of zinc include: red meat, shellfish, milk, cheese, bread, beans, lentils, pumpkin seeds, and some fortified grains.
When working to improve a plant-based diet and wound healing, it’s important to get enough beans, lentils, and seeds into your diet, as the foods with the highest amounts of zinc aren’t vegan-friendly.
Some wounds may require a higher intake of vitamins and minerals than you can comfortably consume through your diet alone. In this case, you may want to consider supplementation. If you are looking for supplements for vegan or vegetarian diets and wound healing, you can ask your doctor if you should add zinc to your wound healing supplements.
So now you have a good idea of what you should be ingesting more of to promote proper wound healing.
But why do a plant-based diet and wound healing at such odds in the first place?
Let’s look into how a plant based diet might affect your wound healing process.
The effects of a plant-based diet and wound healing
Recent studies have found that a plant-based diet and wound healing may not mix as well as one might think. In a study published in the December 2020 issue of Dermatologic Surgery, it was found that a vegan diet negatively affected wound healing in multiple ways.
The study followed the wound healing journey of 21 omnivores and 21 vegan patients over the course of six months. At the end of the observation period, the vegan patients had a worse scar spread, more frequent atrophic scars, and worse overall healing than the omnivore patients.
The vegan patients also had significantly less iron and vitamin B12 in their blood, which may have impacted their healing process.
As mentioned above, iron is necessary for effective wound healing. If you have an iron deficiency, it’s possible that the delayed transport of nutrients to the wound site could slow down the healing process.
In addition, vitamin B12 is important in the early healing stages, where it can improve the tensile strength of wounds. Unfortunately, even supplementing with B12 during wound healing won’t help if there isn’t adequate protein intake.
Which brings us to an important point.
Lack of high-quality protein may be one of the main reasons a plant-based diet and wound healing don’t mix.
A plant-based diet and wound healing: Is vegan protein enough?
To understand the issues with a plant-based diet and wound healing better, it’s important to understand about different kinds of protein. Generally speaking, there are two types of protein: complete protein vs incomplete protein.
Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that cannot be made by your body. These are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Animal products such as meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy all tend to be complete proteins, while plant-based forms of protein tend to be incomplete proteins - meaning they are missing one or more essential amino acids.
If you are only eating plant-based protein, and don’t have a well-balanced diet, it’s possible to develop some nutritional imbalances and deficiencies.
So you may be wondering: “Well then, what can I eat to make my wound heal faster as a vegan?” Don’t worry, you don’t need to eat animal products (though you can see the many benefits of doing so, at least temporarily).
You simply need to be more intentional about balancing your plate.
How to balance a plant-based diet and wound healing
If you want to know how to balance out the amino acids that are lacking in plant-based protein sources, you can use this helpful chart.
Grains, seeds, and nuts
Grains, seeds, and nuts
As long as you are getting a good mix of legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains in your diet, your body should be able to balance out the nutrients.
You can also eat more soy, with caution. While soy is a plant-based protein and a complete protein, there are conflicting claims about the positive and negative effects of long-term, high-soy diets. Eating edamame, soy milk, tofu, and tempeh may be beneficial to a plant-based diet and wound healing, but may not be something you want to do for an extended period of time.
That being said, depending on your injury, even soy protein might not be enough to benefit your wound healing.
One study found that milk protein is far better at supporting muscle tissue synthesis than soy protein. Researchers speculated that this was because milk and other animal proteins contain the 20 amino acids (including the 9 essential ones) in higher concentrations than in soy.
If you have a deep wound and need to knit your muscle fibers together, it’s possible you might need a little more help than your plant-based diet can give you.
If you’ve balanced your diet and are still having issues with wound healing, it’s important to speak with your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that is keeping your wound from healing, such as diabetes, hormonal imbalances, or something else.
It’s also possible that you really do need extra nutritional assistance.
Your doctor or nutritionist should be able to help you determine if this is the issue. If it is, it might be worth looking into collagen supplementation just during the wound healing period.
Why isn’t there vegan collagen?
Remember that we said collagen is found in the connective tissues of animals, so there is no such thing as plant-based collagen.
If you’re trying to improve the relationship between your plant-based diet and wound healing, this could be frustrating to hear. Especially as we’ve just said that plant-based protein supplements might not be best for wound healing.
Of course, we are not suggesting that you throw out your values or diet overnight.
If you want to stick to a plant-based diet, you can boost your own body’s collagen production through vitamin C and zinc supplementation.
If you feel like you are running out of options though, have an operation wound that’s not healing, are diabetic, or simply want to fast-track your wound healing process, you might want to talk to your doctor about making a temporary dietary change.
That’s what Travis Barker, the drummer of Blink-182, decided to do after he was in a plane crash.
Barker had suffered third-degree burns and his skin grafts weren’t taking. His doctors suggested he try eating meat for a few weeks at the hospital, and that is what Barker contributes to the turnaround in his healing. He is now back to being a vegan.
Here’s another option: using high-quality, medical-grade collagen supplements.
This will jump start the healing process and let you get the benefits of animal protein without needing to sit down and physically eat meat. Plus, many collagen products - like our ProT Gold liquid collagen and powder collagen - come in tasty (read: not meat) flavors like chocolate, vanilla, berry, and more. Our collagen products are safe for daily use, have been extensively tested for effectiveness, and are used by thousands of medical facilities across the USA to promote faster wound healing.
In closing, we’re not saying to give up on your plant-based diet and wound healing.
But short-term, supplemental collagen for wound healing can be extremely beneficial, as your body needs collagen to create new skin and muscle tissues. By going this route, you would be providing it with the exact thing it needs to close your wounds.
Only you and your doctors will be able to determine the best nutritional course of action for your own wound healing journey. But, collagen supplements may be a great alternative to eating full meat products if you decide you need animal protein in your diet for medical purposes.