Unfortunately, young athletes may find themselves on the sidelines for days, weeks, or even full seasons after concussions. These injuries can be frustrating since there’s no simple rehabilitation timeline, and as the brain heals, the body might feel ready for sport when the brain is not. As a parent or coach, you can help your athlete by ensuring that they focus on the things that they can control in the healing process, like their nutrition.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and the owner of Elite Nutrition and Performance, along with Michele LaBotz, TrueSport Expert and sports medicine physician, provide some basic guidelines to follow as your athlete recovers from a concussion. But make no mistake: While helpful, nutrition is not a replacement for rest and following a doctor’s return to play guidance.
There’s no way to supplement away a concussion
While you may have seen advertisements or spotted a tweet or Instagram post touting a certain powder, pill, or other supplement as ‘brain food’ or a way to speed up healing from a concussion, the truth of the matter is that we simply don’t have enough information about concussions to safely recommend any one supplement. As Ziesmer points out, the bulk of the studies being referenced by supplement companies are being done on rats and mice. And when a supplement has been studied in humans, it’s almost always prior to the concussion, not after. So adding a supplement following a concussion is not recommended, and in general, it’s good to be cautious of supplements.
Eating enough is important
Many young athletes struggle post-concussion to eat enough. The brain is an energy-hungry organ, requiring plenty of calories. But when your athlete is suddenly on the bench, their appetite may drop significantly to match their now-sedentary state. In addition to that, some athletes who are in sports that value low body weight—cross-country, running, or gymnastics, for example—might be tempted to start restricting calories in order to maintain weight while they’re unable to train. If your athlete has a history of disordered eating or body image issues, LaBotz notes, this is extremely important to watch for. While a bit of fluctuation in appetite is normal, your athlete does need regular meals and snacks to help their brain to heal.
Concussion symptoms don’t just impact the brain
An athlete might experience stomach issues. Nausea is a common symptom in the days to weeks following a concussion, and in addition to watching hydration status, following a bland yet healthy diet immediately after may be helpful as well. “There can be a lot of nausea, or even some vomiting, and the appetite is often going to be reduced,” says LaBotz. In these cases, athletes often tolerate small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day rather than the more traditional and larger meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Hydration is also critical
Especially in the first few days post-concussion, if symptoms like nausea are present, your athlete may not be feeling thirsty or hungry, but drinking enough is vitally important to the recovery process. “Plain water can be nauseating, because the water sits in the stomach for longer than something that has a little bit of carbohydrate in it,” says LaBotz. “I typically recommend using a rehydration solution or sports drink—not an energy drink—for hydration.” She recommends urging athletes to take small sips, and you can play with the ratio of water to sports drink to improve stomach comfort. Alternatively, athletes can dilute apple or other fruit juices with water by half, which will produce the same concentration of carbohydrates as can be found in commercial sports drinks.
Add antioxidants and anti-inflammatories… on your plate
You likely have heard the nutritional advice to ‘eat the rainbow,’ meaning to fill up a plate with as many different colors of fruits and vegetables as possible, since those whole foods tend to be packed with anti-inflammatories and antioxidants. “A low inflammation, high antioxidant diet might help speed up recovery time, though we still don’t have enough research to confirm that,” says LaBotz. “But a diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables is always a good idea, and may help decrease inflammation throughout the body as it recovers.”
Boost protein intake
“During periods of reduced activity, there’s the potential for some muscle loss,” says LaBotz. “But if your athlete gets some form of protein every two to three hours, that can help to mitigate the muscle loss.” Good sources of protein include chicken, fish, dairy, nuts and seeds, and tofu. Aim for roughly 15 to 20 grams per serving, and spread intake throughout the day for the best results. Eating 100 grams of protein in one sitting does less for muscle repair and function than eating five 20-gram servings over the course of 12 hours.
Get omega-3s from food sources
While some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in concussion recovery, the research is still very limited. But adding omega-3s from whole food sources is a good nutritional practice anytime! Ziesmer and LaBotz recommend food-based sources of omega-3s, including most nuts and seeds, high-quality olive oil, fatty fish, and even some eggs and dairy that are fortified with omega-3s.
Be mindful of ‘junk food’
For very young athletes, you may be tempted to soothe bad moods and grumpiness with fast food favorites and desserts for dinner. Older athletes who are feeling upset about missing out on play time might also turn to chips, candy, and cookies as a way to make up for what they’re missing. Fried and ultra-processed foods can unfortunately increase inflammation and fill your athlete up so that the fruits, vegetables, and proteins get skipped. While some ‘fun food’ is fine—even encouraged!—make sure that your athlete is still eating primarily nutritionally balanced meals. There’s room for indulgences, of course, but every night doesn’t need to be pizza and ice cream.
While nutrition alone can’t heal a concussion, it can be a helpful tool. Make sure that your athlete is eating enough, first and foremost, to give the brain energy to heal, and to fuel the body through the recovery process. Hydration is also key. Finally, ensure that your athlete is eating a nutritionally dense diet that includes plenty of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables, along with plenty of protein and omega-3s from whole food sources.
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