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What You Eat Could Help You Heal Faster After Surgery

What you eat before and after surgery could have a significant impact on how fast you heal.

Think of it this way: Surgery is essentially a form of trauma or stress that’s happening to your body. That puts a lot pressure on your internal defense systems designed to keep you alive and well.

Your metabolism will increase. Muscle tissue will break down at a higher rate. And your immune system will be forced to work overtime, making you more vulnerable to infection or sickness.

Feeding your body the right mix of nutrients can help it deal more effectively with these stresses. It will help prevent infections and help you heal faster, while getting you back to a normal life more quickly.

Let’s look at how you should approach nutrition both before and after surgery.

Nutrition Before Surgery

As your surgery day approaches, you may not be all that excited about eating. You may even find yourself opting for comfort foods to keep your mind off the procedure. But keeping your mind and appetite focused on what’s good for you is one key to a successful recovery.

Malnourishment ahead of your procedure increases your risk for a range of problems, including infections, a higher risk of hospitalization, a greater chance of being readmitted and the potential for other complications. If your muscle tissue is already depleted before you hit the operating table, you’re forcing your body to start at a disadvantage. To avoid this, follow these strategies:

  • While you should always eat nutritiously, pay particular attention to your diet seven to 10 days before your surgery.
  • Eat at least three meals a day.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking at least six 8-ounce cups of water each day.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that is high in protein to minimize any muscle loss ahead of the procedure. Consume high-quality protein through lean meats or plant sources such as lentils, quinoa, black beans, soy and peas.
  • If you are having difficulty eating enough food, try a protein drink.
  • Don’t ignore carbohydrates, which will help you store energy for when it’s needed later. Three to four days before the procedure, focus on carb loading. Eat complex carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits and whole grains) to maximize your body’s ability to feed its stress response. Those extra carbs will keep your body from breaking down muscle tissue for energy.
  • Certain micronutrients can help as well. Arginine (an amino acid) and omega-3s (a healthy type of fat) both are linked to improved surgical outcomes. You can find both in food sources (arginine is found in meat, poultry and fish, while omega-3s is found in fish). But you may benefit from taking nutritional supplements.

Nutrition After Surgery

One of the first challenges after surgery is dealing with your body’s immediate nutritional needs. By the time the procedure is over, you will probably have been fasting for 16 to 18 hours. Your body’s stores of glycogen (a form of glucose stored in your muscles and liver) will be very low.

It’s important to eat carbohydrates as soon as you are able to replenish your glycogen stores. Other strategies:

  • You may not be able to eat solid foods immediately after surgery, but the goal is to get there within 24 hours.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in needed micronutrients. The vitamins and minerals they contain will play a key role in preventing infections and other illnesses as you recover.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol, particularly during the early phases of your recovery. Alcohol exacerbates muscle tissue breakdown.
  • If you are diabetic, avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and sugary foods. Your body’s stress response can create additional complications related to insulin and insulin resistance that can slow wound healing.
  • Avoid highly processed foods, including chips, cookies, fries and deli meats, which tend to be high in salt, sugar and fat.

Every person’s surgical recovery is different. But by paying careful attention to what you put into your body before and after your procedure, you will give yourself the best chance for a quick return to normal life.

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