When recovering from surgery or injury, a robust wound healing diet is a must. A balanced diet for wound healing fuels your body with all the resources it needs to rebuild. But what IS the best diet to promote wound healing?
A good wound healing diet must have a base in nutritional science, but should also be customized to your individual needs. After all, no two wounds or two people are exactly the same.
For example, a wound healing diet for diabetics will look very different from a diet for someone healing post-op surgery wounds.
So what exactly should you eat for proper wound healing? And does what you eat actually affect your recovery time?
Today we will dive into the science behind nutrition and wound healing to help you figure out the right wound healing diet for your body.
Does what you eat affect wound healing?
Without a shadow of a doubt, nutrition plays a large role in wound healing. The wound-healing process is a multi-stage, complex operation, and your body requires the right nutrients and energy for it to work properly.
If the body is not fueled with what it needs, wound healing can slow, halt, or fail to progress from one stage to the next.
For example, if you aren’t getting enough protein in your diet, you won’t have enough nutrients for proper collagen synthesis. This is a problem, since collagen fibers are what fill in your wounds with new tissue!
If you notice any signs of your wound not healing properly, it’s important to contact your doctor as soon as possible. Quality nutrition may be the key to reactivating wound recovery.
The body initiates the wound healing process whether you’re aware of it or not. All you need to do is fuel it for success. Contrary to what some people may believe, post-surgery is not the time to try dieting or reducing calories.
Despite a potential reduction in mobility, the answer is actually “yes.”
On average, the first step in creating an effective wound healing diet is to increase your daily caloric intake. This should promote wound healing and may encourage wounds to recover faster.
Of course, you should follow the directions of your doctor if you have just undergone surgery. You may need a special post-surgery diet for the first few days as your body recovers. Your doctor can let you know when it is safe for you to eat the foods on this list.
10 types of food to add to your wound healing diet
If you’ve found yourself asking: “What can I eat to make my wound heal faster?” you’ve come to the right place. Here are some top recommendations from doctors and nutritionists to promote proper wound healing:
1. Foods high in protein
Wound healing diets put protein first.
We can’t stress enough just how useful protein is when it comes to wound healing. After the inflammation phase of healing is complete, wound healing becomes synonymous with the regeneration and reformation of collagen proteins.
A 2017 study on post-operative patients found that adequate protein intake in the first 3 days after surgery was associated with a shorter hospital stay; up to 4.4 days.
A systematic review of the role of nutrition supplements after surgery concluded that:
Increasing protein intake in older adults can help to reduce lean body mass/function that may otherwise be lost due to extended sedentary time post-surgery
Essential amino acids increase the body’s capacity to repair muscle tissue
- Protein supplements combined with exercise may help to enhance recovery after a procedure
Keep in mind that a plant-based diet and wound healing don’t always go hand-in-hand. You will need to be smart about your wound healing diet if you are a vegetarian or vegan.
If you find that the wound healing process is taking longer than it should, you may need to speak with your doctor about adjusting your diet until you can recover from your surgery or injury.
Try to include a source of protein in each of your daily meals. Avoid too many empty fillers in your meals that do not deliver high-quality nutrition.
The best sources of protein include:
- Bone broth (very high in collagen)
- Greek Yogurt
2. Foods high in vitamin C
Some wounds may require an uptake in certain vitamins and minerals to support collagen wound healing. Vitamin C is particularly useful in the careful maintenance of wound healing and scarring because it works as a biochemical partner to collagen protein.
As we’ve discussed, collagen fiber is the protagonist in the wound healing process. Any effective wound healing diet will include ample vitamin C.
The best sources of vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts)
- White potatoes
3. Foods high in zinc
Zinc is a mineral that should have a clear presence in your wound healing diet. And, zinc is an important mineral for your health in general! That’s because zinc plays a strong role in the upkeep of your immune system.
Given the immune system's importance in the wound healing process, zinc should be a part of any wound healing diet.
The best sources of zinc include:
- Pumpkin seeds
4. Foods high in fiber
Almost everyone experiences slower digestion in the first few days following surgery. This is due to the anesthesia and other meds administered during the procedure. Slow digestion is further aggravated by prolonged lying in bed or sitting during the recovery.
Your physician may prescribe a stool softener to help move things along. The best thing you can do is to consume lots of dietary fiber, which naturally helps to move things along and promote healthy digestion. This is why you should add high-fiber foods to your wound healing diet.
The recommended daily amount of fiber for the average person is 28 grams per day. This may be slightly higher or lower depending on how many calories you normally consume. After surgery, you should aim to get at least 25 grams.
The best sources of fiber include:
- Beans and peas
- Chia seeds
5. Foods high in vitamin A
Vitamin A is vital to proper wound healing. It is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system (preventing infection), replacement of lost skin cells, and maintaining the integrity of bodily tissues.
The best sources of vitamin A include:
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
6. Foods high in iron
Some form of blood loss is common during surgery or injury, and a resulting complication can cause anemia. Anemia is when you don’t have enough functional red blood cells to carry oxygen to all the cells in your body.
To improve your red blood cell production, iron is essential. Boost your natural supply of iron by adding foods rich in this mineral to your wound healing diet.
The best sources of iron include:
- Dark chocolate
- Pumpkin seeds
- Navy beans
- Liver/organ meats
- Red meat
7. Foods high in vitamin E
Foods high in vitamin E are an essential addition to your wound healing diet. Vitamin E helps wound healing in multiple ways – from boosting your immune system, to aiding collagen synthesis, to helping reduce scarring.
The best sources of vitamin E include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Wheat germ oil
- Red bell peppers
8. Foods high in antioxidants
Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals overwhelm the body and is a common side effect of surgery. Research has found that oxidative stress can have a negative impact in all forms of major surgery, and may slow down or halt the wound healing process.
Antioxidants are important for preventing/recovering from oxidative stress because they neutralize free radicals. This means foods high in antioxidants should be added to your wound healing diet.
The best sources of antioxidants include:
- Goji berries
- Dark chocolate
- Dark leafy greens
9. Hydrating foods
Hydration is of utmost importance to your wound healing diet. Why? Because hydration is connected to nearly every biological process your body takes part in.
Being well hydrated equals the efficient delivery of nutrients to cells that need them, which is vital for the wound healing process. Hydration also helps prevent infections, regulates your body temperature, and keeps your organs working as they should.
Staying hydrated with water rather than sweetened drinks or soda should be the focus of any diet, and a wound healing diet is no exception. You can start your day off with a glass of water, and also add some hydrating foods to your wound healing diet.
The best sources of water include:
- And of course, water!
10. A daily collagen supplement
It can be difficult for some individuals to get a truly beneficial amount of protein from food alone. That’s where a collagen supplement comes in.
A collagen supplement is a convenient way to ensure you’re meeting the protein quota. After all, it’s collagen that your body needs for wound healing, and providing extra collagen in supplement form is a sure way to provide your body with what it needs.
When it comes to wound healing supplements, nano-hydrolyzed collagen should be the number one choice. This is collagen that has been broken down into easy-to-digest pieces so you can get the most healing potential out of your supplement.
Better yet, you can look for a medical-grade collagen that is tried and trusted for wound healing in thousands of medical facilities across the country. This fortified protein contains all the essential amino acids to support post-surgery recovery and is safe for diabetics.
Ask your doctor how a regular collagen supplement can reduce your healing time and get you back on your feet.
FAQs about nutrition for wound healing
Here are answers to some common questions about forming a wound healing diet:
Does diabetes affect wound healing?
Yes, diabetes can absolutely slow wound healing, so extra consideration should be given to your wound healing diet if you have diabetes. Diabetes wound healing can be trickier than recovering from the average surgery or injury.
Paying close attention to keeping your blood sugar levels under control can help your body to focus on the wound healing task at hand. Look for complex carbohydrates (like peas, beans, and whole grains) and high-quality proteins to last you through the day.
Does fasting speed up wound healing?
This question is gaining traction in nutrition circles. While there have been some positive findings on fasting and wound healing, fasting comes with some risks that other health professionals label as detrimental to certain individuals.
If you are interested in trying fasting for wound healing, speak with a medical professional to make sure it is right for you. Otherwise, it’s best to focus on fueling your body with a wound healing diet for proper nutrition.
Do I need to eat a special diet after surgery?
Depending on the type of surgery you had, you may need a special post-surgery diet afterward. This is certainly the case for your diet after gastric bypass surgery.
It is important to follow your physician’s instructions carefully. They may prescribe a liquid or clear liquid diet for the first several hours following surgery, or give you a specific plan for slowly introducing food back into your system.
Once you are eating regularly again, you can use a wound healing diet to optimize healing and recovery.
Are there any foods I should not eat during wound healing?
Yes. Just as some foods can positively affect wound healing, foods can negatively affect it too. Some foods to avoid in your wound healing diet include:
- Refined carbohydrates (like white bread or pastries)
- Fried foods
- Processed meats
- Sunflower, corn, and soybean oils
- Food or drinks with high sugar content
- Caffeine (try to reduce your caffeine intake if caffeine is important to you)