Nutrition for SCI Individuals

Nutrition is a difficult area to excel in for the general population, let alone those who are living with paralysis. The transition that takes place after a spinal cord injury (SCI) is life changing but can be simplified by minimizing variables and implementing healthy nutritional practices. Knowing what foods, one should eat to maintain muscle mass, bone mineral density and help keep a healthy body weight is essential to this new lifestyle. The general rules of nutrition still apply for able-bodied individuals as to individuals living with SCI. Each share the same concepts of caloric surplus/deficit, macronutrient intake, variety of healthy fats and types of proteins, still coming into play, but at a reduced capacity.

Studies that have monitored the first year after SCI demonstrated that the average Body Mass Index (BMI – a simple value that incorporates height, weight and gives an idea of where an individual falls in a population) for the 1000+ participants had a reduction of just under 2% of their BMI. “These findings confirm that individuals with SCI will initially lose weight. However, some individuals may continue to lose weight and consequently become underweight, while others may gain extreme amounts of weight following rehab” (Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine, 2017). With most individuals tending to lose a relatively small amount of weight after the first year, the whole spectrum of individuals is still affected and can be diverse in their weight changes.

General guidelines for calorie intake specific to individuals with SCI vary from men to women and are roughly 14-27% lower than able-bodied individuals. Men’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) ranges from 1392-1855 kcal/day and women varies from 1042-1290 kcal/day (Nutritional health considerations for persons with SCI, 2017) in comparison with an average of 1800 and 1400 kcal/day for able-bodied Men and Women, respectfully. These dramatic reductions can be explained by the marked reduction in muscle mass, increases in adipose (fat) tissue and altered sympathetic nervous system activity. “Additionally, the differences in resting metabolic rate is associated with a higher level of lesion. A complete injury is also associated with lower BMR compared to an incomplete SCI” (Energy and Nutrient issues in Athletes with SCI, 2018).

Body Type Average kcal/day
Able-Bodied Men 1800
Able-Bodied Women 1400
SCI – Men 1392-1855
SCI – Women 1042-1290


When it comes down to a diet or nutritional trend that can provide the greatest sustainability and benefits, most recommendations push individuals toward the Mediterranean style diet. The main premise behind the Mediterranean diet is to increase your intake of calorie dense foods, specifically healthy mono-unsaturated fats. These have a beneficial role in your cardiovascular system and pack the most amount of energy per gram than any other type of macronutrient. In addition, eating healthy fats will also help keep you full and satiated until the next meal. This means consuming mono-unsaturated fat sources (nuts, avocado, olive oil and peanut oil), increasing whole grain, fruit and veggie intake, and reduce saturated fats, cholesterol and simple sugars.

Compiled by Dane Stair

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