When you're about to have surgery, your diet may be the furthest thing from your mind. But what you eat before your procedure may help you recover faster. The best things to eat before surgery should be foods filled with all the nutrients that support healing and fight off infection.
Presurgery Nutrition Matters
It's estimated that as many as 50 percent of hospitalized patients are malnourished, according to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS). About one out of every three patients who enter a hospital are already at a nutritional disadvantage, according to NACNS.
Malnutrition may worsen throughout the course of patients' stay due to increased needs related to their disease, compounded by poor overall intake. Malnourished patients are more likely to develop infections, lose precious muscle mass and have longer hospital stays.
According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is defined as "deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances" in energy and nutrient intake. This means even if you think you're eating enough food, if your diet is filled with highly processed foods devoid of nutrition you may be malnourished, which isn't a good place to be if you're about to have surgery.
Optimizing your nutrition prior to your surgery improves immune health to decrease your risk of infection, provides your body with the nutrients needed to support tissue healing and may help you get home from the hospital a lot faster.
If you’re taking any nutrition supplements, including vitamin or herbal supplements, be sure to let your surgeon know. Some nutritional supplements interfere with blood clotting and may complicate your surgery. Your surgeon may suggest you abstain from using your nutritional supplements until after your surgery.
Nutrients That Support Healing
The preparing for surgery diet is aimed at filling your nutrient bank, so to speak. You want to make sure your body has an adequate supply of all the nutrients it needs to help manage the stress it's about to endure from your surgical procedure. This includes filling your bank with nutrients that support healing and boost your immune health.
Protein is one of the most important foods to eat before surgery. Protein is often referred to as the building block of life because it's found in every cell, tissue and organ in your body. The amino acids from the protein-rich foods in your diet are used to make new blood and tissue. They also support your immune health. Aim for at least the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, which is 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams a day for men.
However, when it comes to protein, you should talk to your doctor about your specific needs, as they may be higher than the RDA. The Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) recommends you consume 6-12 ounces of protein a day prior to your surgery, which roughly translates into 60 to 120 grams of protein depending on your source of protein.
As an antioxidant, vitamin E supports your body's efforts against free radicals and onset of disease. However, HSS suggests you get your vitamin E from food, not a supplement, as too much may affect blood clotting. To help rebuild any blood you lose during your procedure, your body needs adequate stores of iron.
Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is also needed for good overall health and wellness. Because these nutrients play such an essential role in bone building, getting enough of these bone-building nutrients in your diet before surgery is essential to build your bone mineral bank for healing.
Foods to Eat Before Surgery
You don't need to eat a complicated diet that requires you to track your nutrient intake before your surgery. Instead, focus on eating a healthy balanced diet filled with a variety of foods from all the food groups.
The best things to eat before surgery include:
- Healthy proteins: fish, chicken, lean red meat, eggs, beans, soy, tofu, nuts
- Grains: whole-wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa
- Vegetables: leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, bell peppers
- Fruits: citrus, strawberries, apples, berries, bananas, avocado
- Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified plant-milk alternatives
- Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society says the best way to fill your bank prior to surgery is to eat 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, eat mostly whole grain (brown rice, quinoa) and include a protein at every meal. They also recommend you make water your go-to beverage and aim to drink 64 to 80 ounces each day.
You should start to make changes to your diet as soon as your surgery is scheduled. The earlier you start, the more nutrients you can put in your bank.
Read more: How Much Protein is Right for You?
Diet Right Before Surgery
You may need to make a few modifications to your presurgery diet as you get closer to your procedure date. Your doctor provides specific instructions on the types of modifications you need to make based on your surgical procedure and presurgical needs.
In most cases, you may be able to continue to follow your regular healthy diet up until the day before your surgery. Then, after midnight you may be advised to limit your intake to only clear liquids. You may also be asked to drink a carbohydrate-rich supplement on the day of your surgery. Maintaining normal blood sugar prior to your procedure may help reduce inflammation and improve your recovery, according to a January 2015 article published in Today's Dietitian.
Your surgeon will ask that you stop eating and drinking at some point before your procedure. Anesthesia can cause nausea and vomiting, and keeping your stomach empty prior to surgery may prevent complications.
Not all that long ago, patients weren't allowed to eat too soon after surgery. The general rule was that patients were only allowed to resume eating and drinking when bowel sounds returned.
But according to the February 2017 report published in Clinical Nutrition from the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN), a clear liquid diet should be started soon after surgery and advanced to a regular diet as tolerated. Delaying nutrition and hydration may halt your body's healing efforts and affect your immune health.
Your postsurgical diet shouldn't be all that different from your presurgery diet. However, you may need to up your daily protein intake. ESPEN recommends you aim for 0.68 gram of protein per pound of body weight to support your healing needs and immune health. For a 150-pound person that equals 102 grams of protein a day.
You also need to continue to consume the foods rich in nutrients that help support healing, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists: "Malnutrition in Hospitalized Patients"
- World Health Organization: "What Is Malnutrition?"
- Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies: "Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): "Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Total Water and Macronutrients"
- Hospital for Special Surgery: "Nutrition for Healing"
- University of North Dakota: "Fact Sheet: Protein"
- Hospital for Special Surgery: "Nutrition Chart"
- Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: "Nutrition and Surgery Guidelines"
- Today's Dietitian: "Optimizing Nutrition Before Surgery"
- Clinical Nutrition: "ESPEN Guideline: Clinical Nutrition in Surgery"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Scheduled for Surgery? How to Go in Strong, Ready"