Diet and food for spinal cord recovery

Diet and food for spinal cord recovery

Paralysis can affect the overall health and normal functioning of spinal cord injury patients, including their bladder and bowel movements, skin changes, weak and brittle bones, and loss of muscles due to inactivity.

And when this happens, working out becomes challenging. So how can your body handle spinal cord injury recovery?

What Changes after Spinal cord injury?

Your body’s fuel and building block requirements may alter after a spinal cord injury.

Paralysis of some of the largest energy-burning muscles reduces daily energy requirements after a spinal cord injury. This reduced activity also weakens muscles and bones. In these cases, the average weight loss for men and women ranges from 4 to 9 kg.

Your circulatory and respiratory systems, which supply blood and oxygen to your heart, lungs, and body, may need to be more efficient. The immune system also weakens as a result.

How Much Food Should You Eat After a Spinal Cord Injury?

Exited handicapped guy eating cereal in the morning

After a spinal cord injury, you require fewer calories per day than before. And this depends on your activity level, the degree and location of the damage, and any secondary complications.

In 2010, the USDA published the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines indicate adjustments in three ways: balancing calories, increasing the intake of some foods, and limiting others.

The Spinal Cord Injury, Nutrition Practice Guideline, suggests that people with paraplegia get 28 calories per kilogram and people with quadriplegia get 22.

How can it help?

Eating a healthy, balanced diet promotes health in numerous ways. It can help in the following ways: 

Maintaining a healthy weight for spinal health

Optimal nutrition is one of the finest techniques for weight loss, especially for a healthy spine.

It has been proven that maintaining a healthy weight helps the body stay as healthy as possible. It also enhances mobility, allowing you to perform more activities alone.

Preventing Complications & bone health

Pressure injuries, or sores on the skin, are more likely to develop after a spinal cord injury.

Eating well (particularly protein-rich foods) can help keep skin healthy by boosting collagen formation and reducing the risk of pressure injuries. Constipation, diarrhea, and bone fractures are some additional health problems that can be avoided with a healthy diet.

Keeping a healthy and balanced diet can reduce your risk of developing specific medical issues and help you stay healthy.

Best foods for spine health

Handsome disabled man cooking with pleasure

After a spinal cord injury, the body’s needs change completely. This includes how the body uses the food you consume and provides health benefits.

You are not required to follow a specific diet to reap the benefits. However, you must choose the correct food intake for spinal health.

Basic goals for spinal cord injury recovery include these,

Green leafy vegetables.

Darker leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens can supply the nutrients a recovering spine needs. It protects the body from magnesium deficiency (required for the transfer of oxygen to tissues), folate (maintaining bone health), and vitamins C, A, E, and K (for the provision of antioxidants).


Proteins are undervalued for their contribution to strong bones. However, they are necessary to keep healthy bones and soft tissues and repair damaged ones.

Increased protein intake has been linked to faster healing of pressure ulcers, with daily consumption of 1.25 to 1.5 g/kg of body weight being advised.

Sources of animal-based proteins include meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt, and plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy drinks.

Citrus fruits and orange veggies

The beta-carotene found in orange vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins, can aid recovery after a spinal cord injury.

It is turned into vitamin A by the body, which helps keep the skin healthy while healing. Another 2022 study has found that beta-carotene may help reduce inflammation in the nervous system.

Adequate vitamin C intake has also been found beneficial. This vitamin, found in citrus fruits, not only helps the skin, but it also helps the damaged areas of the spine, ligaments, and tendons and aids in the improvement of bone health.


You should consume at least 1.5 liters of fluid daily, though this may vary based on your bladder habits. The best way to hydrate is through water, as it not only keeps you hydrated but also aids in maintaining regular bowel movements and prevents urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Avoid sugary or alcoholic drinks, as they have been found to reduce recovery in spinal cord injury patients as they have no nutrients or additional calories.

Dairy Products

Milk, yogurt, and cheese are wonderful dairy foods containing calcium and vitamin D required for adequate spine health. In addition to increasing bone density, this nutrient is needed for nerve function and muscle contraction.

Also, Vitamin B12 in dairy products helps form myelin, which protects signal-transmitting nerve fibers.


Eating foods with an abundance of fiber is beneficial. Fiber also adds bulk to stools, making bowel movements easier.

Guidelines recommend starting with 15 grams per day and gradually increasing to 20 to 30 grams daily until bowel movements are regular.

Whole grains, wheat bread, chia seeds, fruits, and vegetables are all excellent fiber sources.

Oily Fish

According to studies, consuming fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help protect nerve and tissue health and promote nerve regeneration.

Oily fish, including salmon, tuna, and mackerel, are rich in the minerals selenium and vitamin D, which aid in developing healthy bones and connective tissues in the damaged area of the spine.

A specialist on your healthcare team will work with you to develop a schedule of healthy meals and snacks. You can also consult a registered dietician or nutritionist.

Other foods and tips that can help:

  • Reduce Sodium

Make healthy choices such as, instead of salt, season food with spices or herbs.

Sodium, a component of salt, raises blood pressure, leading to complications like autonomic dysreflexia, thus restricting daily sodium intake to 1500–2300 mg. Also, compare soup, bread, and frozen foods’ sodium content and choose the lowest.

  • Use Healthy fats

When cooking food, substitute solid fats with olive oil and canola oil. Also, avoiding foods high in fat is a good idea. Using a cooking spray is a healthy, fat-free alternative.

  • Green tea can help

Consume various herbal teas, such as green, white, and chamomile.

Chinese researchers found that green tea protects the brain after a spinal cord injury and helps reduce inflammation. It also helps to lower blood pressure. Polyphenols, powerful antioxidants, support this surprising statement.

Remember to exercise

No matter how bad your injuries are, you still need to exercise daily to maintain a healthy weight.

Small bouts of suitable and appropriate exercises, possibly supervised by a physiotherapist or rehabilitation specialist, will assist in developing muscle, burning calories, and helping maintain bone density.

Real-life Examples

Mason Ellis, a quadriplegic, shares his diet tips in this video. He says to eat three meals daily with enough plant-based protein and fiber and not too much, especially fried and processed foods. He also suggested getting enough vitamins and calcium for better bone health and staying hydrated.

Dominic, a quadriplegic, speaks about diet and spinal health management after injury in this video. He says he understood that he needed to make a healthy diet his top priority by eating more complex carbohydrates and fibrous foods.

In this other video, Richard, a YouTuber and paraplegic, shares the recipes that have helped him in his post-recovery period after a spinal cord injury. He shared recipes for breakfast, snacks, and salads.

Before you go

When your spinal cord is injured, it can have multiple effects on your body while you recover.

A person with an SCI who does not follow healthy nutrition practices risks gaining weight, developing diabetes, and having high cholesterol levels, which can lead to many other health issues.

However, reading my article may help you reduce weight and belly fat while in a wheelchair.