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Six Post-Surgery Nutrition Tips

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Posted by Elizabeth George, Dietician

After you’ve had surgery, what you eat can make a difference in how quickly you heal. Specifically, a diet that includes plenty of calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals can give you the strength and nutrients you need to recover quickly. In addition, eating the right types of food may even help reduce your risk for complications.

infographic: 6 tips (text on page)

As a registered dietitian at Temple, I am often asked what people should or shouldn’t eat after surgery. One of the first things I tell people is that it’s important to follow your surgeon’s specific dietary advice and discharge instructions. This advice may vary depending on the type of surgery you’ve had.

Ask your surgery team when you can eat solid foods again. Depending on your surgery, you may only be permitted to consume clear liquids — such as water, broth, tea, popsicles and jello, and apple or white grape juice — until your digestive system is working properly again.

That said, all post-surgery diets generally have at least one thing in common: They involve eating enough nutritious foods to help your body recover. In addition, following a good post-surgery diet also means knowing which foods to avoid.  Be sure to check with your surgeon and dietician if you have had a gastrointestinal surgery, as you might need to restrict fiber. 

6 ways to give your body the right kinds of foods

With all this in mind, here are six strategies for healthy eating after surgery:

1. Choose foods that fight constipation.

Many people have constipation after surgery. Often it can be a side effect of anesthesia or pain medicine. Since constipation can put stress on an incision — besides being painful — I warn my patients about this risk and strongly encourage them to do everything they can to help prevent or manage constipation. I advise them to:

  • Eat high-fiber foods. Whole grains pack a lot of fiber, which helps keep food moving through your digestive tract. Examples of whole grains include whole-grain breads and pastas; cereals such as oatmeal and cream of wheat; and barley, bulgur, quinoa, and brown rice. A bonus of whole grains is that they contain vital nutrients — including zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins — that help the body heal and fight infection.
  • Vegetables and fruits are a good source of fiber as well.  Increase the available fiber by having whole fruits or vegetables, such as apple slices with the skin on. You can choose produce that is fresh, frozen, or canned.  If choosing canned vegetables, try to use low sodium options, or rinse them before cooking. Fruits that are packed in juice are a better option than fruits packed in syrup.
  • Avoid fatty foods that are more likely to cause constipation, such as cheeses and full-fat dairy products, French fries, and red meats. Limit your intake of fried food.  
  • Drink more liquids, such as water, herbal and decaffeinated teas, and other unsweetened beverages.  Try to avoid caffeinated drinks, or restrict yourself to an 8oz serving per day to ensure that you are meeting your fluid goals. Maintaining adequate fluid intake helps to maintain bowel regularity. Set a goal of at least 64oz per day, unless otherwise advised by your surgeon.  

2. Pump up the protein.

Protein plays a vital role in healing since it helps the body rebuild tissue after surgery. Red meats have protein, but they tend to be high in saturated fat, which is not good for our heart health.  If having red meats, try to choose a lean cut such as flank steak or strip steak, or cutting off the fat marbling to reduce the saturated fat.  

Lean sources of protein are better options.  Try choosing seafood and fish; lean meats like chicken or turkey and pork; and non-meat proteins like eggs, tofu, beans and other legumes.  When preparing meats, remember to remove the skin off of the poultry.

Including reduced fat and no fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cottage cheese can help you get enough protein after surgery. If you experience constipation when consuming dairy products before surgery we do not recommend including dairy products after surgery. For some patients, any dairy after surgery can cause constipation, so pay attention to how your body responds.

3. Limit processed foods.

After surgery, you might not feel up to cooking full meals. While it is tempting to choose processed foods, they are going to contain less fiber, more fat, and generally less protein, which can lead to constipation and decreased healing. If you plan on including processed foods after surgery, try to choose items that are low in salt, low in sugar, and high in protein. Foods that are not providing high quantities of fiber and protein should be avoided, such as chips, sweets, and fried foods. 

4. Get your vitamin C. 

This vitamin promotes healing. You can find it in foods such as citrus fruits, red peppers, berries, and broccoli.

5. Avoid alcohol. 

You may feel like celebrating getting out of the hospital, but you shouldn’t toast to your good health with alcohol! One reason? Alcohol can dehydrate your body, which may hamper healing. In addition, you should never drink alcohol if you’re taking pain medication. Try enjoying a mocktail instead, which has the added bonus of helping you reach your hydration goals!

6. Try these foods when you don’t feel like eating.

Some people don’t feel like eating after surgery. They may not be hungry, or they may feel nauseous. Until you have a good appetite again — usually after a few days — it’s important to eat as much as you can to help keep your healing on track.

I tell my patients that if they’re feeling nauseous:

  • Try bland, dry, or liquid foods that are easy on the stomach, such as bananas, crackers, chicken broth, or plain toast.
  • Avoid fried and fatty foods.
  • Try eating several small meals instead of larger ones.

Another strategy you can use when you’ve lost your appetite: add calories to the foods you normally eat. For example, instead of eating plain apple slices, try spreading some peanut butter on them.  This helps to increase the calories and the protein.

Some patients find that it is easier to tolerate liquid calories rather than eating solid meals. Try making smoothies at home with yogurt or non-dairy milk, peanut butter, and fruit! Remember to use whole fresh or frozen fruit to increase the fiber available in the smoothie. Or try a premade option like Ensure, Boost, or Orgain.

Stay in touch with your surgery team

Let your doctor, nurse, or other member of your post-surgery team know about any problems you’re having with eating. They’re also a great resource whenever you have questions about your diet after surgery.

Helpful Resources

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