“What to Eat After Surgery to Promote Healing and Recovery” was written by Cristina Cirone, Ayah Al-Anani, and Jackie Silver MHSc, RD
Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine.
Last updated: September 1, 2022
Surgery takes a significant toll on your body and postoperative recovery can be an extensive and grueling process. What you eat after surgery can have a substantial impact on your healing and recovery process!
Going through major surgery is kind of like running a marathon: you fuel your body before the race to ensure you have enough energy for it and then you re-fuel afterwards to promote muscle repair, prevent injury, and restore your glycogen stores.
Please note that this article won’t be relevant for all types of surgeries. There are surgeries where the patient is placed on enteral or parenteral nutrition afterwards or where the patient must be on a liquid diet following surgery.
Gastrointestinal surgery also has specific guidelines for what to eat after surgery, which you can read about here.
The information in this post is most applicable for moderate to major surgeries and not as relevant (but still important) for very minor surgical procedures.
More research on what to eat after surgery is needed but so far research has shown the importance of post-surgery nutrition for orthopedic surgeries (such as knee and hip replacements), bariatric, abdominal, pelvic, and gynecological surgeries.
Before we delve into the nutrition part, let’s discuss the impacts surgery has on our bodies.
The Stress Response from Surgery
Going through surgery promotes a stress response on our bodies, kind of like running a marathon or recovering from an injury. Surgery produces a number of inflammatory, immune, and metabolic responses that put you in a hypermetabolic-catabolic state. This means your body is working hard to burn extra energy and break down protein in response to the stress.
The stress response from surgery stimulates an increased production of hormones such as cortisol, glucagon (a hormone that releases glucose into your blood), and proinflammatory cytokines.
Your body is working extra hard to help you heal and repair your surgical wounds. In doing so, the body breaks down fat, protein, and glycogen (many glucose molecules stored together) into its smaller components (glucose, free fatty acids, and amino acids) to help with healing and the immune response.
This means that instead of protein working to maintain your muscle mass, it will be used to help with healing, which explains why muscle breakdown and loss is common with surgery. Keep reading to learn about what to eat after surgery to prevent muscle loss. The stress response from surgery also produces insulin resistance and higher-than-usual blood glucose levels, which can last for a few hours, several days, or 2-4 weeks (depending on how invasive your surgery was and whether you develop complications, such as sepsis).
Muscle Loss from Surgery
Many people are on bedrest after major surgery while they recover, which also contributes to muscle loss. Have you heard of the saying “use it or lose it?”. This applies here; when you’re not using your muscles, they will start to atrophy. Healthy people start losing muscle tissue after 48 hours of immobility and they lose even more within five days. Leg muscles will start to weaken and thigh muscle volume goes down.
Older adults, over age 65, lose muscle at faster rates than young people after surgery, so adequate nutrition is critical particularly during the 2-week post-surgery period to maintain their muscle mass. When one loses muscle mass, it impacts their strength and ability to perform daily functional tasks such as getting up from a chair, walking, and climbing stairs.
Malnutrition and Surgical Outcomes
Nutritional status is a powerful predictor of how well someone will recover from surgery. This is especially true for older adults. As an example, low protein intake following surgery can lead to significant muscle loss which in turn leads to reduced independence, function, and an increased mortality risk.
- Postoperative mortality
- Postoperative illness
- Longer length of stay in hospital
- Increased hospital costs
- Higher hospital readmission rates
What to eat after surgery is crucial for everyone but particularly for people who are malnourished. You can learn more about malnutrition here.
What to Eat After Surgery: Health Benefits
Adequate nutrition after surgery is associated with the following benefits:
- Maintenance of energy levels
- Muscle mass preservation
- Maintenance of body strength and function,
- Increased wound healing
- Prevention of further injury
- Faster recovery
Wound Healing After Surgery
No matter what kind of surgery you have, the surgeon will make incision(s) and stitch them up when the surgery is done. Your body then goes through the healing process of forming new skin to close up the incision and creates a scar.
The incision site tends to be inflamed after surgery and about a week later your body starts building new cells in the area and bringing in nutrients and collagen to form new skin. Wounds start to fill in with new tissue after about two weeks so that the incision can close and form a scar.
It typically takes about one month for surgical wounds to close up but can be longer (up to a year) depending on factors such as the size and type of incision, age, nutritional status, type of injury, burns, and other conditions such as diabetes.
What to eat after surgery plays a large role in helping your incisions heal up nicely. Nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, fluids, and extra calories help with wound healing which you will learn about below. We will soon have an entire blog post dedicated to wound healing.
What to Eat After Surgery
The goal of post-surgery nutrition is to reduce the loss of lean muscle mass and aid in quick healing and recovery. Research shows that eating somewhat soon after surgery is done is associated with improved healing, reduced length of stay in hospital, and decreased infection complications.
We’ll delve deeper into this subject further in the article, but in general this is what to eat after surgery to promote healing and recovery:
- Micronutrients & Antioxidants (from fruits and vegetables)
- Adequate calories
- Anti-inflammatory foods
What to Eat After Surgery: Protein, Protein, Protein!
Why is protein important after surgery?
One of the most important macronutrients for what to eat after surgery is protein. Proteins are involved in a variety of our bodies’ many important functions. Protein supports our immune system, aids in hormone production, transport nutrients, maintains and repairs muscle mass, and helps to regenerate tissues and aid in healing wounds.
As well, low protein intake can slow collagen development which can impair wound healing. These functions (specifically wound healing and maintaining muscle mass) are especially important for post-surgical patients!
As discussed earlier in this post, some muscle loss after surgery is inevitable. Protein needs are higher post-surgery than in everyday life to support wound healing and preventing muscle breakdown.
Food Sources of Protein
- Fish and seafood
- Beef and pork
- Tofu and tempeh
- Beans and lentils
- Yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, milk, soy or pea beverage
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butters
- Plant-based meat alternatives
- Protein powder, such as this, this, and this
- Protein bars, such as this, this, and this
How Much and What Kind of Protein Do I Need After surgery?
The answer to this question will differ depending on how soon after surgery it is.
Please note that the info below may not be relevant for folks on protein-restricted diets for medical reasons such as kidney disease. For more info on protein for CKD, click here. Always consult with your healthcare team before making dietary changes.
Early Hours After Surgery
In the early hours following surgery, you will likely be sleeping a lot from the effects of the anesthetic and your appetite may be suppressed, making it difficult to eat solid food. Research shows that consuming free form essential amino acids (EAAs) in the early hours after surgery can support recovery, healing, and the immune response. EAAs are also easy to consume in powder or liquid form when you have a low appetite. You can dissolve the powders in water and drink for your health!
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are nine essential amino acids which our bodies cannot make on their own, meaning we need to get them from food.
Please don’t stress if you’re unable to consume EAAs following your surgery. If you have zero appetite and want to wait until it returns to eat protein, then please do what’s best for you. This article is simply a guide.
As You Regain Your Appetite
As you get your appetite back after surgery, patients can move from consuming EAAs to protein drinks or shakes that have more calories until your doctor gives you the green light to consume solid food again.
The most common types of protein powders/supplements are whey protein isolate and concentrate, casein, soy, and other vegan protein blends. Whey protein isolate is one of the highest quality protein sources because over 50% of the amino acids in it are EAAs.
You can also consume protein in the form of store bought protein shakes or powders, such as this chocolate protein drink, Boost meal replacement beverage, Ensure, or for a more nutrient-dense, whole food product you can try this Orgain plant protein shake, or their vanilla dairy protein shake.
For more affordable options, you can mix this high-protein instant powder drink mix with milk or water. Another handy trick is to purchase skim milk powder and mix about 4 tbsp in a glass of milk or nondairy equivalent.
24 Hours After Surgery
You may be wondering what to eat after surgery when your surgical team has cleared you to eat solids again. Hopefully this will be 24-48 hours post-surgery, in which case you can begin consuming whole-food protein sources, such as meat, tofu, or eggs.
Your appetite may still be suppressed at this point, which is totally fine. Don’t stress yourself about making sure you eat a ton of protein. Another option could be to continue with your EAA supplements and/or protein shakes until you can tolerate solid food.
Days After Surgery Until Recovery
The general daily protein recommendations for individuals is to consume about 0.8g (grams) of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. Protein needs may increase or decrease depending on conditions or life stages such as surgery, kidney disease, pregnancy, older adults, and more.
Protein needs are higher after surgery and the general recommended intake increases to at least 1.6g protein per kg of body weight per day (1.6g/kg/day) or up to 2-3 g/kg/day. To calculate this, you would multiply your weight in kg by the amount of protein per kg you want to consume (such as 1.6).
It’s best to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day in your meals and snacks with about 15-40g of protein at each meal or snack.
Please don’t get hung up on calculating the exact number of grams of protein to consume per day and don’t worry about the number. If you are intentionally consuming protein at all your meals and snacks throughout the day then you will likely meet your postoperative protein needs.
If your appetite is still suppressed from your surgery then you can get your protein from protein shakes or powders.
For surgeries that require physical therapy and/or physical rehabilitation, such as joint replacements, consuming protein before and after your physical therapy sessions can help exercise performance, recovery, increase muscle mass and strength, although the specific details are beyond the scope of this article.
Tips for Increasing Protein Intake After Surgery
- Try Greek or Skyr yogurt instead of regular yogurt. Each serving has 17-20 grams of protein compared to roughly 6 grams of protein in traditional yogurt
- Eat more beans. Adding lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans or black beans to rice, soups, salads, or stir frys is a simple change to increase your protein intake and also help with satiety
- Quick fix: protein powder. Enjoy 1-2 protein smoothies each day as a snack to pack protein and nutrients in
- Eggs for breakfast. Eggs are a quick and simple meal that will help you start your day off right! You can eat them plain or hard boiled, or spice it up and make an omelet filled with the toppings of your choice! For extra protein, you can buy liquid egg whites from a carton and them to your scrambled eggs
- Get nutty: Top salads with nuts and seeds like almonds, pecans,walnuts, cashews, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds. Not only are they a great protein source but nuts are also packed with antioxidants. Not a fan of salads? Try adding nut butter or a handful of nuts or seeds to oatmeal, cereal, yogurt or fruit salad. Not only will this spice up your meal it will help keep you full until lunch!
- Aim to include a protein source at every meal and most snacks so that it is spread evenly throughout the day
- Yogurt with berries
- Cheese and crackers and veggies
- Eggs on toast
- Protein overnight oats
- Canned tuna or salmon in a tortilla
- Protein bar and a fruit
- High protein chia pudding
- Smoothie with yogurt or protein powder, fruit, nut butter, and milk, such as this recipe
- Hummus on pita
- Mini protein cheesecakes
- Choose higher-protein milk options like cow milk, soy beverage, or pea milk rather than cashew, almond, or oat
- Extra protein servings: Serve yourself slightly larger servings of protein sources at meals and snacks than you normally would have. For example, have 1 cup of yogurt or cottage cheese instead of ¾ cup, have an extra serving of chicken, add egg whites to your scrambled eggs
- Unless you’re vegan, consume more animal-based proteins such as dairy, eggs, poultry, and seafood (these protein sources contain more essential amino acids and are easier to absorb). Plant-based protein sources are not as digestible, but they are rich in many important nutrients, so if you’re vegan then you may need to consume a bit more protein
What to Eat After Surgery: Micronutrients & Antioxidants Galore!
Micronutrients and antioxidant-rich foods are great for what to eat after surgery. Our bodies generate inflammation and free radicals after being placed under stress from surgery. Free radicals can be harmful to the body, by damaging DNA and cells, especially when they exist in large amounts. Luckily, antioxidants exist to protect us against these free radicals!
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that the body needs in small amounts and are essential because the body can’t produce them on our own. We have to get them from food or supplements.
You want to avoid being deficient in any micronutrients after surgery when your body is under high amounts of stress.
Vitamins A, C, and E are especially important after surgery due to their role in wound healing and recovery.
These vitamins stimulate:
- Collagen production
- Reduce inflammation
- Help rebuild new skin cells and form scar tissue
- Strengthen immune function
- are also antioxidants
Do I Need to Take a Multivitamin?
If your diet is low in fruits and vegetables, then a multivitamin supplement is recommended to prevent any micronutrient deficiencies. It is ideal to get your nutrients from eating whole foods but if this is not possible then a multivitamin is a great option.
Here are some examples of multivitamins:
Foods with Antioxidants & Micronutrients
***Note: make sure these raw fruits and veggies are washed adequately to prevent any possible sources of infection post-surgery. Here is a quick guide on how to do so.
Also note that your doctor may advise you not to consume raw fruit or vegetables for a short period of time after your surgery to reduce your risk of infection as your immune system will be weakened. Please follow their instructions.
- Goji Berries
Berries are an excellent source of vitamins, and aid in digestion due to their high fiber content.
Other Foods Rich in Antioxidants & Micronutrients
- Nuts (walnuts, pecans, pistachios)
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or collard
- Dried fruit
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
- Seasonings such as turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, and rosemary
- All fruit and vegetables
Tips for Increasing Intake of Antioxidant-rich Foods
- Enjoy a handful of dried fruit as a snack or add them to oatmeal for a yummy breakfast twist
- Enjoy a handful of nuts with dark chocolate and berries as a healthy, yet filling snack
- Incorporate beets into your favorite salads for an antioxidant boost
- Use antioxidant-rich spices and herbs to add both health benefits and lots of flavour to your dishes
- Drink green tea
- Add spinach or kale to your smoothies
Increased Energy Needs
Another important consideration for what to eat after surgery is that your body may need more calories than you’re used to. As discussed earlier, surgery places a lot of stress on the body. Your body’s metabolic needs increase to keep up with the increased energy demands of surgical wound healing and recovery.
In other words, your body is working so hard to fight the stress and inflammatory response from surgery that it is burning more calories than usual.
Many people are less physically mobile when recovering from surgery and may be worrying about gaining weight. While I personally am not a fan of people going on diets ever, after surgery is 100% NOT the time to intentionally try to lose weight.
Reducing your caloric intake after surgery makes things worse by slowing wound healing and increasing muscle loss, which are two things you do not want happening. Even minor surgeries require extra energy / calorie intake.
This is not the place to go into detail about calculating energy needs after surgery, but you can read more about it in detail here if you’d like.
Basically, try to eat slightly larger portions of whole foods (protein, high fibre carbs, healthy fats) at your meals and snacks than you’d eat if you weren’t recovering from surgery and you should be golden.
Tips for Increasing Energy Intake
- Add an extra snack in your day
- Spread food intake evenly throughout the day (3 meals + 2-3 snacks) – eat every 2-3 hrs
- Add extra portion of protein, carbs or healthy fats with meals and snacks
- Add nut butter, avocado, protein powder, or cream to smoothies
- Add avocados and nuts to sandwiches or salads
- Dip fruit in nut butter
- Add 1 tbsp olive oil to meals
- Use full fat dairy products
What to Eat After Surgery: Anti-inflammatory Foods
Surgery initiates an inflammatory response and I just want to be clear that this is not a bad thing. This inflammatory response is crucial for your healing. What we don’t want is a prolonged inflammatory response as this can negatively impact our recovery.
When considering what to eat after surgery, consuming anti-inflammatory foods can help decrease the length of this inflammatory response.
One great example is foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids which have anti-inflammatory properties! Our bodies can’t naturally produce Omega-3 fatty acids on their own, so we must get them from our diet or supplements!
Foods that Contain Omega-3 Fats
Other Anti-inflammatory Foods
- Leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, collards)
- Strawberries, blueberries, cherries, oranges
- Nuts and seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Olive oil
- Beans and legumes
- Onion and garlic
For a complete list and more thorough article on anti-inflammatory foods, click here.
Tips for Increasing Intake of Anti-inflammatory Foods
- Add flax, chia seeds or hemp hearts to your oatmeal, smoothies or yogurt
- Incorporate leafy greens into your lunch or dinner as a side dish or even a salad. You can also add spinach or kale to your smoothies
- Cook with olive oil instead of sunflower seed oil
- Add hemp hearts or nuts and seeds to your salads or soups
What to Eat After Surgery: Drink Plenty of Fluids
Fluids for Wound Healing
Fluids help keep wound sites hydrated, transport nutrients to the wound, carry waste away from cells, and help maintain skin integrity. You want your incision site to heal up nicely after surgery so be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
Fluids can leak out of surgical wound sites so if your wound has a lot of leakage then you will need even more fluids than usual to replace those losses.
***Caution if on a fluid restricted diet for a heart of kidney condition. Ask your healthcare professional what’s right for you.
Fluids for Constipation
You may be constipated after your surgery from the anaesthesia, pain meds, and bedrest. Your doctor may recommend laxatives or stool softeners to help you have a bowel movement. Staying hydrated with adequate fluids can also help with constipation after surgery.
How Much Fluid Do I Need?
The general recommendation is 2-3 liters per day (8-12 cups) but it also depends on factors such as malnutrition, type of surgical wound, activity levels and climate. Depending on your wound leakage, you may need an additional 1/2 – 1L of fluid.
Spread your fluid intake evenly throughout the day. You also get fluids from certain foods such as soup, stews, fruits, or vegetables.
To learn more details about fluid intake for your needs, click here.
What Counts as Fluids?
- Flavored seltzer
- Milk or nondairy substitutes
We hope this comprehensive guide gives you practical suggestions for what to eat after surgery. It is an important topic with more information that was beyond the scope of this blog post. Please note that this blog post is for education purposes only – if you are undergoing surgery, please consult with your doctor and/or your dietitian to see what you need to eat post-op for optimal recovery. I wish you the best of luck with your surgery and healing process!
Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.