What to eat after surgery


by Dr. Erin Boynton

When it comes to nutrition, people tend to treat surgery recovery like they do the flu—a couple bowls of soup, a few cans of ginger ale, and a lot of rest. The thinking is that, because you’re bed-ridden, your nutritional and caloric needs are low, and “normal” eating will just lead to weight gain. And while that certainly makes sense, it’s also wrong—dead wrong.

Think of surgery as a form of bodily trauma—your tissues are cut, inflammation ensues, and your body enters a kind of catabolic state, releasing stress hormones in response to the injury. It’s a highly energy-intensive set of processes. And for your body to heal, it needs the basic building blocks of repair: the molecules from proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Without them, the body can’t do its job, and the healing slows. It’s like trying to drive a car without gas. Food, like fuel, is the energy that drives the body, including healing.


Forty minutes after being wheeled out of the operating room probably isn’t the best time to enjoy a roast chicken and a side of seasonal vegetables. General anesthetic can make even the strongest stomach queasy, and it’ll take time for your appetite to return to normal. So, my advice is to start slowly. Begin with ice chips and sips of water, and work your way up to the flu staples: apple sauce, bananas, dry toast, etc. Unless you’ve had intra-abdominal surgery or a general anesthetic, your appetite should return the morning after surgery. However, even after your appetite returns to normal, it’s best to eat smaller, more frequent meals. In terms of what to eat, the same rules as always apply: go for unprocessed, whole foods and avoid processed crap loaded with excess sugar, salt, and fat. (For more detailed nutritional guidelines, take a look at my article on the subject here.)

However, if you still can’t stomach real food, try supplementing with vitamins, smoothies, and protein shakes. And while smoothies and shakes are great, they shouldn’t replace real meals. Liquids spend less time in the small bowel, and therefore some of the nutrients within may not be absorbed.