The Best Foods After Surgery

No doubt your nerves are a little on edge if you're about to have surgery, and the last thing you may be thinking about is your post-surgery diet. But what you eat after your surgery may help you heal faster so you can get back to doing the things you enjoy with little delay.

Make sure to eat protein after surgery. (Image: DragonFly/iStock/GettyImages)

The best foods to eat after surgery provide your body with the nutrition it needs to create new tissue, prevent constipation and reduce your risk of complications, such as an infection or poor wound healing.

Your Doctor Knows Best

While there are some nutrition basics when it comes to foods to eat after surgery, your doctor knows what's best for you. What you need to eat may depend on many factors, including the type of surgery you're having, your medical history and your overall health.

If you're having weight-loss surgery aimed at reducing the size of your stomach to help you get to a healthier weight, then you need to follow a very specialized diet plan after the procedure. This type of diet usually focuses on protein and liquids and may require the use of nutritional supplement drinks.

If you have diabetes, then you not only need to eat foods aimed at helping your body heal, but you also need to pay attention to how your diet affects your blood sugar. Surgery is stressful for your body, and you may notice an increase in your blood sugar numbers.

Unfortunately, high blood sugar may delay healing and increase your risk of infection, which means you may need to pay special attention to your diet and blood sugar to keep your numbers in check.

Whether you've having weight-loss surgery or have high blood sugar after surgery due to diabetes, you need to follow the diet instructions provided by your doctor or consult with a registered dietitian.

Post-Surgery Diet

Due to the effects of anesthesia, you may suffer from excessive sleepiness after surgery, especially after general anesthesia. It's also not uncommon to feel nauseous after surgery as your anesthesia wears off.

Due to these possible side effects, your post-surgery diet may initially consist of liquids. Usually while you're in the recovery room under observation, you're given ice chips or water. If all goes well, you may then be allowed to drink a clear juice, such as apple juice, and slowly advance to easy-to-digest foods, such as saltine crackers.

Not too long ago, surgeons used to wait to allow people to eat after surgery until the return of bowel activity, which was identified by the presence of bowel sounds or passing gas. In some cases, patients in the hospital would go days without eating.

But according to a March 2017 report published in JAMA, delaying food may impair a patient's recovery and lead to more complications. While no one expects you to eat a big steak dinner after surgery, good nutrition early is imperative for a faster recovery.

Power of Protein

Protein serves as your body's building blocks. When you eat foods that contain protein, your body breaks it down into its simplest form — amino acids. Your body then reconfigures these amino acids to make new blood vessels, nerve endings and tissue.

While your exact protein needs may vary depending on the extent of your surgery, you may need about 0.68 grams of protein per pound of body weight after your surgery, according to a February 2017 clinical guidelines report from the European Society of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism published in Clinical Nutrition.

This is nearly double the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), which is the amount of protein recommended for general health and well-being. For perspective, if you weigh 180 pounds, you need about 122 grams of protein a day to help support your healing needs (under normal circumstances your only need about 64 grams of protein a day).

Good sources of protein include:

  • One egg = 6 grams
  • 3 ounces of chicken = 21 grams
  • One cup of milk = 8 grams
  • Two tablespoons of peanut butter = 7 grams
  • 5 ounces of Greek yogurt = 12 to 18 grams
  • 1/2 cup of kidney beans = 8 grams
  • 1/2 cup of pasta or rice = 3 grams
  • 1/2 cup of quinoa = 9 grams
  • 1 cup of cooked vegetables = 4 grams

To help get the protein your body needs for healing, try to include protein at each meal. For instance, have eggs for breakfast, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunch and grilled chicken with veggies at dinner.

Foods to Fight Constipation

Constipation is common after surgery due to the effects of the anesthesia (which slows down your digestive tract) and the oral pain medication you may be taking. Nothing kills your appetite faster than feeling too full and bloated to eat due to constipation.

Adding more fiber-rich foods to your post-surgery diet may help prevent the after effects of your surgery. However, if you're not used to eating a high-fiber diet, go slow. Too much fiber too fast may exacerbate your constipation. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you should aim for a final goal of 25 to 38 grams of fiber a day.

High-fiber foods to eat after surgery include:

  • One cup of cooked oatmeal = 4 grams
  • One medium pear with skin = 6 grams
  • 1/2 cup of cooked barley = 4.5 grams
  • 1/2 cup of kidney beans = 6 grams
  • 1 cup of cooked broccoli = 6 grams

In addition to fiber, you also want to make sure you're drinking plenty of fluids following your surgery to prevent constipation. Water makes a good choice. Aim for 12 to 16 cups a day, recommends the Mayo Clinic.

Nutrients for Wound Healing

When it comes to your post-surgery diet, you should be eating a wide variety of foods from all the food groups so your body gets all the nutrients it needs for health and healing. However, certain nutrients are especially important for healing after surgery, including vitamin C and zinc.

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin best known for its antioxidant powers, protecting your cells from oxidative damage. But vitamin C is also essential for the formation of collagen, which is a structural protein needed to make ligaments, tendons, cartilage and skin.

To help your body heal, include plenty of vitamin C-rich foods in your post-surgery diet, such as oranges, broccoli, red peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and cantaloupe. These vitamin C foods are also good sources of fiber, so they play double duty.

Zinc also supports wound healing after surgery by assisting in the production of protein and keeping your immune system in tip-top shape. Many foods rich in zinc are also good sources of protein, including beef, poultry, fish, beans and nuts.

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