Can food really help the healing process? Yes, says Dietitian Laura Tilt.
In the UK alone, 4.7 million surgical procedures, 130,000 burns admissions and 174,700 caesarean sections take place each year. After major traumas like these, the body begins the recovery process. During this time, damaged tissues are removed and new tissues, blood vessels and skin are rebuilt, often forming a visible scar. However, in a survey conducted by KELO-COTE®, nearly two-thirds of respondents were unaware that common surgical procedures, for example breast enhancements, actually require scar after-care1. Topical treatments, such as silicone gels, protect surgical scars once they have healed, helping to soften and flatten the appearance of abnormal scarring, such as hypertrophic and keloid scars, while reducing redness or discolouration.
However, it is also important to support our recovery from the inside by making smart food choices. As Dietitian Laura Tilt explains; wound healing is complex, taking place in three overlapping phases, known as the inflammatory phase, the proliferation phase and the remodelling phase2 Many nutrients are involved in wound healing and can impact how long each phase lasts. Not getting enough protein or other essential nutrients (like zinc or vitamin C) can delay the healing process and increase the chances of infection, which leads to a higher risk of scarring. So how can you get the right balance? Laura Tilt has offered her expert advice on how you can support your recovery with five nutrition tips.
|Stage of wound healing||What happens?||Nutrients involved|
|Stage 1 – Inflammation||Blood flow to the wound is increased, carrying immune cells which break down damaged tissue and battle infection||Protein, zinc, Vitamins A, E, and K|
|Stage 2 – Proliferation||Special cells known as fibroblasts move in to start the rebuilding process. New tissue is formed (known as granulation tissue) and blood vessels are built to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the new tissues.||Protein, zinc, iron, Vitamin C, essential fats, copper|
|Stage 3 – Remodelling||Skin cells move from the edge of the wound until it is covered – this is known as remodelling. Proteins like collagen and elastin form scar tissue During this stage, the strength of the wound increases.||Protein, zinc, vitamin E, Vitamin C, B vitamins, iron, essential fats|
Tip 1 – Don’t diet
During the wound healing process the body uses more energy (calories) than normal. Without sufficient calories and carbohydrate, the body will break down it’s protein stores for energy, affecting wound recovery3. It’s therefore important to avoid dieting during recovery. Eating three nutritious meals and one to two snacks daily will help deliver the energy your body needs to build new tissues. Try including high energy snacks like yoghurt smoothies, peanut butter on toast with sliced banana and milky drinks.
Tip 2 – Drink Up
Drinking plenty of fluid is important, as dehydrated skin is more fragile and prone to breakdown. Dehydration also results in less efficient blood flow to tissues, which reduces the delivery of oxygen and important nutrients to the wound.
The amount of fluid you need will depend on your body size and the size of your wound, but for most people, around 1.5-2 litres is required. You might need more if there is a lot of fluid seeping from your wound.
Stay hydrated by keeping a water bottle close by, and taking regular drink breaks. All fluids count – including tea and coffee, but try to avoid caffeinated drinks after lunch as they affect sleep. Choosing nutritious drinks like soups, milk or fruit and yoghurt smoothies will help provide extra protein and energy. Don’t like water? Try flavouring with cucumber and orange slices.
Step 3 – Power with Protein
Protein provides the raw materials to repair and make new tissues and cells. During wound healing, the body’s demand for protein increases. Not getting enough protein can delay healing by prolonging the inflammatory phase and reducing the formation of collagen4, a structural protein which increases the strength of the wound. The amount of protein you need depends on your body size. As a general guide, including a bigger than normal portion of protein rich foods (around a palm and a half size) with each meal will help provide the extra protein required. Foods high in protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts, and soya.
Ideas of high protein meals and snacks
A glass of milk or yoghurt smoothie
Scrambled eggs on toast
Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese with fruits
Chicken or tofu stir fry
Mackerel or baked beans on toast
Mixed bean chilli with yoghurt
Prawns in yoghurt sauce with a jacket potato
Lentil or chickpea curry
Yoghurt with nuts and seeds
Cheese on a toasted bagel
Salmon with pasta
Hummus and crackers
Step 4 – ACE a brightly coloured plate
Many vitamins and minerals are involved in the healing process, but a group of vitamins nicknamed ACE (vitamins A, C, and E) are particularly important. Vitamin A is involved in the inflammatory stage, helping immune cells migrate to the wound. Vitamin C is needed for the formation of collagen and new blood vessels and vitamin E helps to protect the recovering wound2.
Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, orange peppers, aubergines, broccoli, leafy greens, carrots, avocados, citrus fruits and berries are some of the best sources of the ACE vitamins. Aim for at least five servings of colourful fruit and vegetables a day – try having 1-2 servings with each meal. Frozen, canned and dried fruits and vegetables all count.
Step 5 – Max your minerals with nuts and seeds
Several minerals (essential nutrients needed in small amounts) also play a role in wound healing. Zinc helps with collagen formation and new tissue growth. Iron helps deliver oxygen to the recovering tissues and copper helps form new blood vessels. Nuts and seeds are a good source of these essential minerals and also anti-inflammatory fats. Include nuts as a snack with a piece of fruit, stir them into yoghurts or use them to top cereal, porridge or soups. They can also be blended into smoothies, or try nut butter on toast.
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- An online survey was conducted by Atomik Research among 2,000 UK adults. The research fieldwork took place in May 2018. Atomik Research is an independent creative market research agency that employs MRS-certified researchers and abides to MRS code
- Bishop, A., Witts, S., Martin T. The role of nutrition in successful wound healing. J. Community Nurs. 2018;32(4):44-50.
- Acton C. The Importance of Nutrition in wound healing. Wounds UK 2013;9(3):61-64. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199658435.003.0007.
- Russell L. The importance of patients’ nutritional status in wound healing. Br. J. Nurs. 2014;10(6). doi:10.12968/bjon.2001.10.sup1.5336.
JB-000913. Date of Prep: June 2021