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What are the best foods to eat after surgery? Can eating well speed up healing? What are the top healing foods?

We get nutrients from the food we eat. Before and after surgery, it's especially important to be eating well. What does science say about nutrition around surgery? We've done the research so you don't have to. Here are the top 7 healing foods to eat and 8 things to avoid before and after surgery.

Eat this, not that after surgery

  • Eating well after surgery
  • Choose these 7 healing foods
  • Avoid these 8 things

How should I eat after surgery?

We get nutrients from the food we eat. After surgery, it’s especially important to eat for nutrition, instead of for any other reason.

Eat for nutrition. Now is a good time to avoid nutrient-less nutrition. Focus on eating whole foods, mainly plants (beans, grains, vegetables and fruits).

Get enough calories. It’s important to get enough calories while healing. Even if you might be trying to lose weight, wait until after healing to cut calories. 

Outsmart constipation. Opioids can make you constipated. Eating fiber helps keep you regular and so much more.

Choose these 7 healing foods

Click to the right to see why protein is important. 

1. Protein

Did you know that nurses give protein to patients who are bedridden to make sure their muscles stay strong?

It’s well-known among doctors that protein plays a role in maintaining muscle and repairing tissue. 

While most people do already get enough protein (in fact, 97% of Americans get enough), you certainly don’t want to be getting too little while recovering.

How much protein?

How much? Doctors recommend getting 10% of your daily calories from protein. That’s around 46-56 grams of protein each day. 

What does 46-56g of protein look like? 1 cup of oatmeal (12g); 1 cup of lentils (18g); 1 container or greek yogurt (17g) = 47g 

Key sources: Beans, whole grains, meat and alternatives

2. Vitamin D

Having enough Vitamin D is key to wound healing and pain. Studies show that people with vitamin D deficiency have worse surgery results. 

In contrast, people with good levels of vitamin D had better tendon-bone healing in shoulder injuries. Vitamin D also helped reduce muscle degeneration in the shoulder.  Vitamin D also appears to play a role in pain. People who were low in vitamin D reported more lower back and wrist pain.

How much vitamin D?

How much vitamin D do I need? 600 IU vitamin D 

Key sources: Sunlight, mushrooms, fish and fortified foods (milks, oatmeal, orange juice). Most people can get enough vitamin D in the summer, but it can be harder in the winter. Spend time outside with your sleeves rolled up and pay attention to food. Consider a supplement if you’re low. 

3. Calcium

Calcium and vitamin D work together. If you want the full benefits from calcium or vitamin D, get enough of both.  Calcium and vitamin D are key to building bones and maintaining their strength as well. But did you know that calcium and vitamin D are also important for wound healing too?

Studies show that they are the first step in helping repair damage in our body’s tissues. Calcium and vitamin D also have the potential to help decrease pain and inflammation caused by issues with our muscles, bones and joints.

How much calcium?

How much calcium do I need? 700-1200mg calcium. There’s debate about how much calcium we need. In the U.S. recommendations are 1000-1200 mg a day, whereas in the U.K. recommendations are about half. 

Key foods: Calcium-fortified milks, tofu, dark leafy greens, beans and nuts. Surprisingly, cheese and milk don’t have as much calcium as other foods. Kale has about 250 mg of calcium per 100g, compared to 110g for 100g of whole milk. Think about that! 

 

4. Antioxidants

If you’ve ever cut open an apple and seen it turn brown, you’ve watched oxidation at work. In our body, we have a balance of free radicals (oxidants) and antioxidants.

Free radicals can cause oxidative stress, which damages cells, increases inflammation and pain and slows healing. Our basic day to day creates free radicals in the body – exercising, breathing, eating and moving around all create free radicals. This is normal and healthy, but it’s also why it’s important to do things to combat oxidative stress with nutrition. 

Stress (including the physical stress of surgery) and eating inflammatory foods (fat, meat, alcohol and sugar) increase oxidative stress even more. 

 

How many antioxidants?

There are many different types of antioxidants. Common antioxidants you may have heard of are: vitamin C and E, polyphenols, beta-carotene, and flavonoids, among others. 

How much? There’s no daily recommendation yet for antioxidants. Eating bright fruits and vegetables is a good way to make sure you’re getting enough.

Key sources: Berries, cherries, dark leafy greens, carrots, most fruit and vegetables. 

 

5. Vitamin C

An antioxidant itself, it’s long been established that vitamin C is key for wound healing.  In fact, we’ve known since 1942.

Getting enough is key, but there may also be benefit to getting higher than normal levels of vitamin C.  In one study participants post-surgery took 1000mg/day of vitamin C (the equivalent to eating several servings of herbs, fruit and leafy greens each day) and had better functional outcomes, less pain and used less painkillers than a placebo group. 

 

 

How much vitamin C?

How much vitamin C do I need? 95mg/day. This is the daily minimum recommendation. Vitamin C is water soluable, meaning your body will flush excess vitamin C if it can’t use it. The upper recommended limit is 2000mg/day.

Key sources: Herbs (thyme, parsley), peppers, greens (kale, mustard greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts) and fruit (strawberries, orange, lemon, kiwi). For more sources

 

6. Fiber

Only found in plants, fiber is useful in many ways. Unfortunately, 97% of Americans are fiber deficient. 

You likely haven’t heard much about the benefits of fiber. Beyond helping you avoid constipation after surgery, fiber does so much in our body. From keeping our mood up, to helping populate our microbiome with healthy bacteria, to keeping our immunity up, fiber plays a key role in staying healthy and healing after surgery. 

 

How much fiber?

How much? 20-38g+ of fiber each day. On average, Americans only get 16g a day.  There’s no upper limit to how much fiber you can eat each day. Eating more fiber has many health benefits.

Key sources: Whole grains, beans, fruit and vegetables. For more high-fiber foods.

7. Water

It’s important to stay hydrated after surgery.

Choose water. It has all the benefits with none of the negative things found in soda or calorie drinks.

Drinking water can alleviate side effects after surgery, such as pain and nausea. Water also plays a role in avoiding opiod constipation. 

How much water?

How much? How many water-rich foods you eat (fruit and vegetables), how much you move, and where you live all affect how much water you need. The amount required to avoid dehydration, according to The Institute of Medicine, is 12.5 cups of water for men and 9 cups of water for women.

Key sources: Water, tea, sparkling water, vegetables and fruits.

8 things to avoid

1. Alcohol: Alcohol slows wound healing times. Drinking alcohol also zaps calcium and vitamin D, both of which help wound healing. Having more 3-4 drinks a day increases your risk of complications by 50%.

2. Soda: Soda has phosphoric acids that zap calcium and vitamin D, both important for wound healing.

3. Caffeine: Drinking too much caffeine zaps calcium and vitamin D, which can slow sound healing.

4. Salt: Eating salt makes it harder for your body to absorb calcium, a key healing nutrient.

 

 

Avoid

5. Smoking: Smokers heal more slowly. Smoking impairs wound and tissue healing and increases the chance of infection.

6. Sugar: Good blood sugar control is key after surgery. This is true for everyone. If you’re diabetic, make a plan with a nutritionist to make sure your blood sugar stays constant.

7. Cheese: Cheese can cause constipation, which is already likely to happen post-surgery.

8. Red meat: High in saturated fat which can trigger constipation, red meat is good to avoid post-surgery.

 

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Join the thousands taking care of their musculoskeletal pain with a holistic, patient-first approach. 

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