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What To Eat and Why For Optimal Recovery After ACLR Surgery

acl atlanta decatur dr. mike nutrition physical therapy recovery surgery Mar 07, 2024

Following a major reconstructive surgery, there are a few areas that we can’t miss if the goal is to maximize the rehab process. Several of these are fairly well known (physical measures), however, a few less commonly discussed topics are optimizing sleep, hydration, and nutrition. 


Here we will focus on the nutrition aspect. 

*For formal dietary counseling, please consult a Registered Dietician (RD).* 


The rehab process following ACLR is long and grueling. That’s a known fact. With that, a common coping strategy that many of us use when not feeling our best mentally/physically is to resort to poorer choices when it comes to our food intake. Let’s call it what it is - comfort eating. We have all done it at some point. I will speak from experience - this is not what you want to do for long-term success. The body is going through a major healing process at the knee joint and the addition of junk/processed foods, high-glycemic foods/drinks, etc. all are working against that healing process. I’m not here to say you should avoid these altogether but I would highly encourage against the frequent intake. Instead, this is a great time to shift focus toward foods with known anti-inflammatory benefits, aid in muscular growth, and overall recovery. 


What foods have anti-inflammatory benefits? 


Omega-3 Fatty Acids 

Foods containing Omega-3 are well known to be beneficial for numerous reasons. Regarding our case here, they are great at reducing overall inflammation. Sample foods include salmon or tuna. If you aren’t a fan of fish, plant-based options include nuts and seeds. 


Vitamin C 

Anti-inflammatory properties are one of many positives of foods packed with vitamin C. Some of the more commonly known benefits include support to the immune system, antioxidants that help deter cell damage, and an important player in collagen production which is of special interest in aiding the process of ACL graft maturation. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits and bell peppers. 


Vitamin D 

Best known for exposure to sunlight, vitamin D also has essential anti-inflammatory properties that can be an additive factor in the healing process and overall recovery from surgery. Aside from sunlight, find vitamin D in eggs and fish. 


What’s the deal with protein? 

Protein is a macronutrient extremely important in putting your best foot forward while recovering after surgery. Protein is essential for muscle growth and tissue repair, both of which are in your best interest during ACLR rehab! To rebuild the body after a major surgery, fueling the tank with proper macronutrients is a must. The most readily accessible forms of protein intake come from animal-based foods such as poultry, eggs, dairy, meat, and fish. Non-animal-based protein-rich foods include nuts, beans, and soy. 



While carbohydrates and fats also serve very important functions in fueling the body, I won’t dive too deep into these areas as these are commonly met in the standard American diet (a lot of times excessively). A few key points that I would like to make about these are the selection of foods that we are choosing to fill these macronutrient buckets. From an anti-inflammatory viewpoint, it’s best to choose foods lower on the glycemic index/glycemic load. Common foods of choice include fresh fruits, beans, whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, and rice. Aim to avoid high caloric intake from foods with added sugars. Fat intake should be the lowest macronutrient in terms of caloric intake. When incorporating fats into your diet, I would recommend healthy fats which would include avocado, nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils (olive, sunflower, soy, etc). High fiber intake is also beneficial, especially earlier in the postoperative period to counteract the gastrointestinal side effects of pain medication. 


General recommendations for daily intake (DRI) 

DRI recommendations vary depending on the type of athlete you are and what your goals are. To keep it simple, below are generalized guidelines 


  • Protein: 1.5-2.0 g/kg of body weight per day
  • Carbs: 5-8 g/kg of body weight per day 
  • Fats: <20% daily caloric intake 




  1. Haff G, Triplett T. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 4th ed. Human Kinetics; 2021

If you or someone you know is seeking guidance after ACLR, call us at 470-355-2106 or fill out the contact form in the link below. 


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Thanks for reading,

Dr. Mike, PT, DPT, CSCS, PES 

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