Plant-based diets are becoming an increasingly popular choice for people looking to improve their health, as well as the health of the planet and the animals that we share it with. Since a 100% plant-based eating pattern is a relatively new concept to many people, many concerns exist regarding its ability to provide us with all the nutrients we need for optimal health and functioning.
This is especially true for health conditions that require special attention to nutrition, such as the process of wound healing. Can plant-based diets and wound healing go hand-in-hand?
In this post, we’ll discuss what happens during wound healing, how nutrition plays a role, and special considerations when following a plant-based diet. Keep reading to learn more about the power of plants for recovery!
What is a plant-based diet?
There’s some nuance to the term “plant-based”, as it can be used to mean different things. It’s sometimes used interchangeably with a vegan diet, which is considered to be 100% plant-based – meaning it avoids animal products of any kind, including:
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, venison, etc.)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, ostrich, etc.)
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, butter)
100% plant-based diets include a wide variety of plant-based foods and are based on:
- Beans and legumes (including soy-based foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame)
- Nuts and seeds
If you hear the term “whole food plant-based”, this refers to a 100% plant-based diet. Within the past five to ten years or so, however, the term “plant-based” by itself has frequently been used to describe more of a “plant-forward” or “plant-heavy” style of eating. These meals are primarily based around plant-based foods, but may contain small amounts of animal products.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be discussing the role of 100% plant-based, vegan diets in wound healing.
How does the body heal wounds?
Wound healing is the body’s process for repairing damaged tissue. It comes into play in a variety of situations, including but not limited to:
- Minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises
- Cosmetic procedures
- Blunt force trauma
- Post-surgical wounds
- Pressure ulcers (also known as bed sores)
When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty incredible that the body is able to heal itself. We often take it for granted in minor cases like cuts and scrapes, but the healing process is amazing! It’s also fairly complicated.
Wound healing1 involves blood clotting to prevent excess bleeding, the creation of new tissue and blood vessels, increased production of collagen, recruitment of immune cells, and eventually the formation of scar tissue.
Unsurprisingly, these bodily processes require nutrients in order to take place most efficiently. Factors such as poor nutrition and uncontrolled blood sugar levels can impair the healing process.
Are plant-based diets effective for wound healing?
The effectiveness of plant-based diets for wound healing largely depends on their ability to provide key nutrients known to be essential for the healing process.
Key nutrients for wound healing
Protein is the most well-known nutrient required for wound healing. The body breaks protein from food down into amino acids, which it then uses to build collagen and other proteins required to heal wounds.
Generally, protein needs will increase with a more severe injury, such as a serious burn, recovery from surgery, or pressure ulcer. By prioritizing plant-based foods high in protein, vegans can typically get enough protein to support wound healing. The best plant-based sources of protein are:
- Protein powders made from soy, pea, hemp seeds, or chia
- Soy-based foods like tofu, tempeh, edamame, textured vegetable protein (TVP), and soy curls
- Soy milk, pea protein milk, or non-dairy milks fortified with pea protein
- Vegan meat alternatives made from soy, peas, or mycoprotein (sold under the brand name Quorn)
- Beans and lentils
- Nuts and nut butters
- Seeds and seed butters
What about complete proteins? You may know that complete proteins are proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids in optimal proportions for health. A pervasive myth that still exists today suggests that since some plant foods are considered “incomplete proteins”, they can’t provide enough quality protein in the diet.
However, this claim is misleading. Some plant-based foods like soy, quinoa, chia, and hemp seeds are complete proteins. Those that aren’t still contain all nine essential amino acids, but are usually slightly low in one or two. Beans are slightly low in methionine, for example, while grains tend to be slightly low in lysine.
Combining these foods at meal times is a common strategy, but isn’t necessary at every meal. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics2, vegans can get enough essential amino acids by including a variety of foods throughout the day.
Vitamin C is required for collagen production and optimal immune cell function, making it a key player in wound healing3. Fortunately, vitamin C is plentiful in plant-based diets, with the best sources being fruits and vegetables.
Iron is also important for collagen production, as well as transporting oxygen throughout the body. The most iron in plant-based diets is found in:
- Blackstrap molasses
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Plant-based protein powders
- White beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas
- Swiss chard
- Canned tomatoes
- Baked potatoes
To absorb the most plant-based iron, vegans should eat these foods along with a source of vitamin C. This is easily done by adding a side of fruit, a small glass of orange juice, potatoes, cruciferous vegetables, or bell peppers to a meal.
Zinc is a mineral that helps with wound healing through its role in blood clotting, immune function, and collagen formation. By including a variety of zinc-containing foods, plant-based eaters should be able to get enough in their diet.
Good plant-based sources of zinc include:
- Toasted wheat germ
- Hemp hearts
- Baked beans
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Pumpkin seeds, cashews, and almonds
- Chickpeas and kidney beans
- Whole grain bread
- Ground flax seeds
Vitamin B12 is an essential cofactor for collagen production, yet it’s largely absent from plant-based foods. That said, vegans aren’t the only ones at risk for deficiency – even meat eaters can become deficient4 due to health conditions like pernicious anemia, atrophic gastritis, and H. pylori infection which all impair vitamin B12 absorption.
According to the National Institutes of Health4, vegans can get enough vitamin B12 by taking a supplement and eating commonly fortified foods like nutritional yeast, non-dairy milks, and breakfast cereals.
Always be sure to check the nutrition label on these foods, however, as not all brands are fortified.
Arginine is an amino acid often added to pressure ulcer supplements and surgical recovery shakes. These products typically contain animal-based ingredients and aren’t appropriate for people following 100% plant-based diets, so arginine should be obtained from other sources. Fortunately, arginine can be found in higher-protein plant-based foods.
Excellent sources include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Plant-based protein powders
- Soybeans (edamame, tempeh)
- Peanuts and defatted peanut flour (a popular brand is PB2)
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids5 are known for supporting heart and brain health. They’ve also been shown to prevent wounds from becoming infected and help them heal earlier, especially when combined as a supplement with arginine in surgical patients.
Studies have mainly looked at the benefits of fish oil, which contains the DHA and EPA forms of omega-3s. Vegans can get these omega-3s by taking an algal DHA + EPA omega-3 supplement and by including foods rich in ALA, the plant-based version of omega-3, in their diet. The best vegan food sources of ALA include:
- Flaxseed oil and ground flax seeds
- English walnuts and walnut oil
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Canola oil
Potential limitations of plant-based diets for wound healing
Wound healing increases the need for calories and protein as the severity of the wound increases, but people with these conditions (post-surgical patients, for example) often experience poor appetites3.
This can make it challenging for anyone to eat enough calories, and it may be more challenging for vegans. Plant-based meals tend to be high in fiber and may be low in calories when based primarily on fruits, vegetables, and grains, so prioritizing protein and calorie-rich foods and including high protein, high calorie shakes and protein supplements can be helpful.
That said, severe conditions such as third-degree burns that are treated in the hospital may require tube feedings or IV feedings for individuals who are unable to meet their calorie needs through food, regardless of the type of diet they follow.
Unfortunately, research on the effectiveness of plant-based diets for wound healing is limited. There are a few studies, however, that have investigated plant-based diets and found that healing from minor surgery or cosmetic procedures was poorer than in omnivores.
Let’s discuss a 2020 observational study6 that compared surgical scars in 42 vegans and omnivores after having nonmelanoma skin cancer surgically removed. The researchers found that compared to omnivore patients, vegans had lower average serum iron and vitamin B12 levels and worse scarring.
Similarly, a 2021 study7 on skin laser resurfacing found poorer healing in vegan patients than in omnivores.
So does this mean vegan diets are bad for wound healing? It’s not quite that simple.
Exclusively plant-based, vegan diets are still a relatively new concept, so many people don’t know how to build nutritionally balanced meals with proper supplementation. I believe the results of these studies point to the need for increased nutrition education for vegans, rather than proving that vegan diets are inherently unable to adequately promote wound healing.
Example plant-based meal plan to support wound healing
- Tofu scramble made with nutritional yeast, 1 slice avocado toast, strawberries
- Smoothie with 1 scoop pea protein powder, 1 cup soy milk, 1.5 tbsp ground flax seed, and 1 cup frozen berries
- Chickpea flour omelet, vegetables sauteed in oil, sliced banana
- Whole wheat wrap with seitan deli “meat”, lettuce, tomato, and vegan mayo, side of apple slices
- Chickpea “tuna salad” sandwich, grapes, baby carrots
- Burrito bowl with black beans, tofu sofritas, or vegan chorizo, rice, fajita vegetables, and guacamole
- 1/2 cup non-dairy yogurt, 1 ounce roasted pumpkin seeds
- Peanut butter toast
- Overnight oats with soy milk, hemp seeds, and berries
- Chia seed pudding with mango
- Chickpea curry over rice, side of steamed broccoli
- Spaghetti with TVP bolognese, side salad with balsamic vinaigrette
- Soy curl veggie stir-fry over quinoa
- Crumbled tempeh tacos with avocado and pico de gallo
Our bodies have an amazing ability to heal themselves when injured, and nutrition can play a key role in making this process more efficient.
When determining the healthfulness of any eating pattern, we must take dietary quality and nutrient density into consideration. Plant based diets that prioritize foods high in essential wound healing nutrients can support proper healing; they may just take some extra planning!
Not sure how to plan plant-based meals for wound healing? Speaking with a vegan dietitian can help!
Do you heal faster on a plant-based diet?
Research on the effectiveness of a plant-based diet for wound healing is limited, so can’t say for sure whether a plant-based diet can help you heal faster.
To make the healing process more efficient, it’s important to consume a well-balanced, nutrient-dense plant-based diet that prioritizes key nutrients like protein, vitamin C, iron, zinc, omega-3 fats, and vitamin B12.
How do vegan diets negatively impact surgical wound healing? Do vegans heal slower after surgery?
Research on this topic is limited, so we can’t say for sure whether vegan diets negatively impact surgical wound healing. Vegan diets that are heavy in nutrient-poor, ultra processed foods may negatively impact healing by not providing required nutrients essential for healing. For this reason, it’s important to eat a vegan diet that prioritizes protein and other key nutrients during healing.
People who have a poor appetite after surgery may have trouble eating enough calories to support healing in general, regardless of diet. Shakes and oral nutrition supplements with extra calories and protein are valuable tools in these situations.
- Wilkinson HN, Hardman MJ. Wound healing: cellular mechanisms and pathological outcomes. Open Biol. 2020 Sep;10(9):200223. doi: 10.1098/rsob.200223. Epub 2020 Sep 30. PMID: 32993416; PMCID: PMC7536089.
- Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970-1980. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025. PMID: 27886704.
- Munoz N, Posthauer ME, Cereda E, Schols JMGA, Haesler E. The Role of Nutrition for Pressure Injury Prevention and Healing: The 2019 International Clinical Practice Guideline Recommendations. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2020 Mar;33(3):123-136. doi: 10.1097/01.ASW.0000653144.90739.ad. PMID: 32058438.
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/. Accessed 4/25/23.
- Alexander JW, Supp DM. Role of Arginine and Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Wound Healing and Infection. Adv Wound Care (New Rochelle). 2014 Nov 1;3(11):682-690. doi: 10.1089/wound.2013.0469. PMID: 25371851; PMCID: PMC4217020.
- Fusano M, Fusano I, Galimberti MG, Bencini M, Bencini PL. Comparison of Postsurgical Scars Between Vegan and Omnivore Patients. Dermatol Surg. 2020 Dec;46(12):1572-1576. doi: 10.1097/DSS.0000000000002553. PMID: 32769530.
- Fusano M, Bencini PL, Fusano I, Bencini M, Zane C, Zerbinati N, Galimberti MG. Ultrapulsed CO2 Resurfacing of Photodamaged Facial Skin in Vegan and Omnivore Patients: A Multicentric Study. Lasers Surg Med. 2021 Dec;53(10):1370-1375. doi: 10.1002/lsm.23424. Epub 2021 May 20. PMID: 34015157.