After Your Surgery: What to Eat and What to Avoid
After surgery, your first priority is to heal. You want to feel better and get back to your usual activities as quickly as possible. Though you may not feel like eating soon after your procedure, it’s smart to pay attention to your diet after surgery. Proper nutrition can aid healing and recovery, and eating the wrong foods at the wrong time can trigger uncomfortable complications. Your healthcare providers will give you specific instructions regarding what to eat after surgery, as your post-surgery diet will depend, in part, on your preexisting health conditions and the type of surgery you had.
1Eat: Clear liquids
After most surgeries, it’s a good idea to wait before resuming your regular diet. Your healthcare team wants to be sure that your digestive system is functioning well before you start eating solid food. So, your immediate post-surgery diet may be restricted to clear liquids: water; ice chips; apple, grape, or cranberry juice; tea; broth; gelatin; electrolyte drinks; and popsicles.
Don’t guzzle liquid; go slowly at first. You can pick up the pace when you’re able to drink liquids without triggering nausea or vomiting.
Adequate fluid intake will also prevent dehydration.
Constipation is incredibly common after surgery. Bowel surgery, of course, will affect the functioning of your bowels, but even non-abdominal surgeries can cause constipation because anesthesia, pain medication, and the general lack of movement following surgery temporarily alters the functioning of your gastrointestinal system.
Cheese is also constipating, so it’s best to steer clear for at least a few days after surgery. (High-fat foods like cheese can also trigger nausea.)
Most people receive antibiotics during or after surgery. These medications can help prevent and treat infection, but they can also disturb the balance of bacteria in the gut. Yogurt contains healthy bacteria that can help restore gut health after antibiotics and surgery.
Yogurt is also easy to tolerate; it is unlikely to cause nausea or vomiting after surgery. And it contains zinc and protein, two nutrients that promote healing.
4Avoid: Fried or fatty food
You already know that fried and fatty foods aren’t a great nutritional choice. After surgery—when you don’t feel like eating much anyway—it’s a good idea to focus on foods that contain the nutrients you need to heal, such as protein, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E and zinc, instead of filling your body with less nutritional foods. Additionally, fried, and fatty food can cause nausea and vomiting.
When you’re fully recovered from surgery, it’s okay to enjoy fried and fatty foods in moderation.
5Eat: Lean meats and seafood
Protein is essential for healing. Lean meats and seafood are both high in protein, so they're an excellent post-surgical choice, after your medical team has cleared you to eat solid food. (Not a meat eater? Be sure to include nuts, legumes, or tofu in your diet, so your body gets the protein it needs to heal.)
Fatty fish, such as wild-caught salmon and tuna, also contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which can decrease inflammation in the body and may help prevent infection.
You might be eager for a drink, but it’s in your best interest to say no to cocktails, beer, wine, or other alcoholic drinks for a few days. Alcohol should not be combined with prescription pain medications, so if you’re taking pain pills, skip the alcohol, as alcohol plus pain pills can affect thinking and slow breathing to potentially dangerous levels.
Alcohol is also dehydrating, and your body needs plenty of healthy fluids to heal.
If you’re able to tolerate solid foods, consider adding some berries to your diet. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are all high in vitamin C, a nutrient that aids wound healing. The antioxidants in berries also help support the functioning of your immune system, which may help you avoid infection after surgery.
Berries are a great choice if your appetite hasn’t yet fully returned. A handful of berries and a few nuts pack a nutritional punch.
8Avoid: Highly processed food
Remember: nutrition is key after surgery. If you want to recover as quickly as possible, focus on high-quality, nutritional food. Cookies, cake, ice cream, chips and other highly processed snack foods taste good, but they contain very few of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your body needs to heal.
Eat simple foods instead, such as berries, nuts, lean meats, seafood, yogurt, eggs, fruits, and vegetables.
9Eat: Whole grains
Whole grains contain a lot of fiber, which can help you avoid (or treat) post-surgical constipation. Consider choosing oatmeal over boxed breakfast cereal, for instance, and brown rice rather than white rice. If you eat bread, look for whole grain versions rather than prepackaged white bread, which is typically low in dietary fiber.
Whole grains, including barley, bulgur, quinoa, and millet, also contain protein, zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins—nutrients that promote healing and help the body fight infection.
10Eat: Dark leafy greens
A salad may not be the best choice for your first meal after surgery, but dark, leafy greens, such as spinach and kale deserve a spot on your plate after you’ve been cleared to eat a regular diet. These foods are high in fiber and antioxidants, so they aid digestion and support the immune system. Try cooking your greens in chicken or vegetable broth if you can’t tolerate the raw form.
However, check with your doctor if you take blood thinning medication. Spinach and other dark greens contain high levels of vitamin K, which can interfere with the proper functioning of your medicine and increase your risk of bleeding or developing a blood clot.