Meals That Heal: Optimizing Nutrition after Surgery

You’ve probably heard the expression “You are what you eat,” but did you know that it’s also true that what you eat has a big impact on your recovery? I will never forget hearing one of my colleagues instruct a patient the day after surgery: “Your body needs protein and vitamins to heal.  I’ve done my part. Now, you need to eat.”

After surgery, your body goes through a lot to rebuild and recover. In addition to the healing from the actual procedure, it needs to repair tissue and replace fluids.  The extra activity that occurs raises your metabolism and may require additional essential calories and nutrients such as proteins and certain vitamins. Here’s what you can do to make your recovery as effectively as possible:

Eat Enough Protein  As muscle tissue is damaged or moved aside during surgery, your body instantly tries to repair and make new muscle.  This requires protein. Add poultry, meat, fish, eggs, yogurt, cheese, beans and nuts to your meals and snacks. High protein snacks such as peanut butter crackers, granola bars, nuts, yogurt, pudding, and cheese can be helpful. Mixing dried milk powder in gravies, soups and sauces can also add extra protein. Try nutritional supplements or liquid meal replacements if recommended by your physician and healthcare team. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may need to revisit your diet after surgery.  Protein sources such as nuts and grains may be restricted after certain surgeries, so ask your doctor. If your options are limited, look into boosting your protein intake with tofu, peanut or other high-protein nut butters.

Get the Right Vitamins  In addition, there are specific vitamins that are involved in healing such as vitamin C, which aids in soft tissue (collagen) repair and vitamin E, which plays an important role in antioxidant defense.  Some people may require vitamin and mineral supplementation as prescribed by their medical team.  Food sources, however, are always the best place to start.  Citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, brussels sprouts, and broccoli are all loaded with Vitamin C. Check with your doctor or dietician to see if you need to avoid gassy foods like apples and broccoli, however.

Food sources of vitamin E:  Almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, wheat germ and plant oils are rich in vitamin E.

Add On The Calories  Many people lose weight at the time of diagnosis because of stress, chemical imbalance caused by the disease, or dysfunction of digestive organs or simply nausea. For many who will subsequently undergo chemotherapy or radiation, the weight loss can persist.  It is important for those who go into treatment underweight to be conscious of the need to stop this continued loss.  For those who began overweight, however, additional calories may not be necessary.

How to get extra calories in your diet If your physicians suggest that you try to gain weight, you might look for extra calories by adding butter, oil, mayonnaise, sauces, dressing, gravy, honey, jam, cheese, and nuts to your meals.  Drink high calorie liquids such as juice, milkshakes, smoothies and protein drinks.  Include nutrient-dense snacks such as yogurt, cheese and crackers, peanut butter and crackers, or trail mix.   Try nutritional supplements, like Ensure or liquid meal replacements if approved by your physician and healthcare team to add calories between meals. Carry a nutritious snack bar like KIND in your pocket or handbag at all times. Waiting rooms often fail to provide healthy choices and the last thing a patient needs is empty calories.

Drink Plenty of Fluids  Keeping well hydrated with water, juice or sports drinks like Gatorade or PowerAid  prevents dehydration, makes you look and feel better, and helps metabolize vitamins and other nutrients.

How To Combat Poor Appetite  Sometimes your appetite will be affected by cancer treatment.  Pain, discomfort, anesthesia, and medication can also remove your desire to eat.  Having regular balanced meals, including snacks, can help to ensure proper nutrition. If appetite is a concern, the following suggestions can help optimize nutritional intake, despite a decreased appetite:

  • Eating small, more frequent, meals (5-6 times a day) instead of 3 large meals.
  • Aiming to eat something at least every 2-3 hours.
  • Keeping nutritious snacks (like a KIND bar) nearby or with you if you travel.
  • Drinking fluids one half-hour before or after meals (as some people find consuming beverages with meals can make them feel fuller).
  • Being active, as medically appropriate.  If approved by your physician, physical activity and exercise can help stimulate your appetite.
  • Trying to make mealtime enjoyable.  Invite friends or family over or play relaxing music.

Putting in All Together

Here is a sample meal plan for optimal recovery:

(Note: Non-fat dairy products may be substituted for patients on cholesterol or fat-restricted diets.  Full fat or whole milk dairy products may be substituted for those seeking to add extra calories.) Reference: Kudsk KA, Sacks GS. “Nutrition in the Care of the Patient with Surgery, Trauma, and Sepsis.” Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. Ed. Maurice Shils. New York: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010. 1414-1435.

Many thanks to our friends at Meals To Heal for their help and input.


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5 Responses to Meals That Heal: Optimizing Nutrition after Surgery

  1. Sandra Alpert says:

    Wonderful useful info thx xoxo Sandy

  2. Ben Davidson says:

    Great advice, thank you.

    It can be difficult to manage for people who live alone and its such a crucial time.—Example-Menu/#.Uwm97vl_uSo

  3. cristian says:

    Really helpful thanks

  4. Brenda says:

    Excellent info. Now cancer free after undergoing two major surgeries. Surgeon doesn’t believe I need anymore treatments, but he won’t contradict the advice of my oncologist. I won’t know until 8/29/16 what oncologist advises, but thanks to your words “For many who will subsequently undergo chemotherapy or radiation, the weight loss can persist. It is important for those who go into treatment underweight to be conscious of the need to stop this continued loss.” I will be letting him know I’ve lost more than 50 lbs. and I’m still struggling to gain the last 15 lbs needed for optimum health. Thank you MUCH!!

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