Nutrition After Spinal Cord Injury

Curated by
Whitney Bailey
Content via Shepherd Center
Shepherd Center
Curated by
Whitney Bailey

Proper nutrition can help maintain many aspects of your health, especially for those with spinal cord injuries. Those aspects include bowel regularity, skin integrity, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease. It is important to consume nutrition from all of the different food groups (grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and oils/fats) as well as monitoring your fluid intake.

Balanced Diet --- Food Groups

illustration from of plate with the food groups, vegetables, dairy, fruit, protein and grains

The Shepherd Center states, “ A healthy diet includes a combination of foods from the different food groups so you consume the nutrients needed to stay healthy.  It is best to choose a variety of foods from each of the food groups in the appropriate portion sizes.”


Some examples of protein are meats, beans, nuts, and soy products. These foods contain iron B-vitamins, calories, and fat. “Protein is very important to help heal wounds and maintain muscle mass,” says the Shepherd Center.

The Shepherd Center gives the following advice for consuming protein:

  • Choose lean/ low-fat meats instead of fatty meats to avoid unhealthy fats.
  • Choose grilled, broiled, or roasted meats instead of those that are breaded or fried.
  • Take the skin off poultry or buy it skinless.
  • Limit to one egg yolk per day and add extra egg whites if desired


Fruits can be fresh, frozen, canned, and dried. Fresh fruits are the healthiest option. The Shepherd Center gives these tips for consuming fruits:

  • Eat a piece of fruit for dessert instead of unhealthy sweets.
  • Eat a piece of fruit with peanut butter or a low-fat cheese as a healthy snack.  
  • Limit fruit juice to less than 8 oz per day and choose a piece of fresh fruit instead.
  • Avoid canned fruit in syrup and choose fresh fruit or canned fruit in juice instead.


“Vegetables are a good source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fiber, and are naturally low in calories so they can help you feel full without causing weight gain,” says the Shepherd Center. There are starchy and non-starchy vegetables because starchy vegetables have a similar caloric and carbohydrate content to the grain group. Some examples of non-starchy vegetables are lettuce, green beans, onions, and carrots. Some examples of starchy vegetables are corn, green peas, and potatoes.

The Shepherd Center gives the following advice for consuming vegetables:

  • Try to consume two and a half cups of vegetables per day with at least one non-starchy vegetable at lunch and dinner.
  • Aim for a variety of different colored vegetables in your daily diet.
  • Avoid adding fatty sauces, butter, gravy, full-fat salad dressing or salt to your vegetables.
  • Choose vegetables that are raw, steamed, or roasted instead of fried.
  • Fresh or frozen vegetables tend to have less salt than canned vegetables so choose those more often if you are limiting your sodium intake.


Foods high in grain give the body fiber, carbohydrates, protein, iron, and B-vitamins. Foods in the grain group are bread, hot and cold cereal, noodles, rice, pasta, cornmeal, flour, and crackers.The Shepherd Center gives the following tips when choosing foods from the grain group:

  • Make at least half your grains “whole grains”: look for “whole” before grain in the list of ingredients.
  • Choose foods with greater than or equal to 3 grams of fiber on the nutrition facts label.
  • It is especially important to monitor your portion sizes of this group to control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.


Foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese give the body protein, fat, calcium, B-vitamins, vitamin A and vitamin D. The Shepherd Center gives the following advice related to dairy foods:

  • Choose low fat or fat-free dairy products to get the good nutrients without the unhealthy fat. For example, switch from whole/2% milk to skim/1% milk.
  • For bone health, choose 2-4 servings per day.
  • If you are lactose intolerant or don’t tolerate cow’s milk, try lactose-free products or soy milk for other good sources of calcium.

Oils and Fats

A small amount of oil and fats are required or energy, metabolism, and hormones. Fat is found in oils, animal fats, margarines, avocados, and nuts. There are healthy and unhealthy fats. Healthy (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) fats are liquid at room temperature. Unhealthy (saturated or trans) fats are solid at room temperature. Here are a few tips related to the oil/fats food group:

  • Choose more healthy fats like oils, fat in fish, nuts, and avocado.
  • Limit solid fats like butter, stick margarine, shortening, and lard.
  • Choose lean/ low-fat meats and dairy products and remove the skin and fat from meats.
  • Read the Nutrition Facts Label and choose most of your foods with less than 3 grams of saturated fat, no trans fat, and less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol.
  • Avoid products with hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list.


“Adequate hydration is necessary for preventing dehydration, skin breakdown, kidney stones/urinary tract infections, and constipation,” says the Shepherd Center. Remember to drink at least 8 cups of non-caffeinated fluids a day unless instructed otherwise by your doctor.

For more details on achieving a healthy balanced diet visit the original post by clicking here.

Maintaining Healthy Body Weight

Muscle mass may decrease after sustaining a spinal cord injury depending on the level of injury. However, the muscle loss will stabilize after a few months. “Because of a decrease in muscle mass and a decrease in activity after spinal cord injury, your body may burn fewer calories and it may be necessary to adjust your caloric intake in order to maintain a healthy body weight,” says the Shepherd Center.

Maintaining a healthy body weight can help with ongoing therapy, transfers, weight shifts, etc. Living a healthy lifestyle can also help prevent some health concerns such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease.

“Monitor your weight and make adjustments to your food intake and physical activity to maintain/achieve a healthy weight.”

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