Eating to heal after surgery
What should you eat after you’ve been “sliced and diced” by a friendly surgeon? All types of surgery, even elective and planned surgeries, cause trauma to your body and may cause weight loss or gain, loss of motivation and energy, light depression, infection or decreased mobility. Consequently, it’s imperative to focus on nutrition. With my second full-knee replacement surgery behind me now, it’s time to revise and perhaps modify my everyday diet. How quickly we recover and how effectively we heal after surgery depends to a great extent on what we eat. While most of us could stand to lose some weight (myself included), don’t skip meals after surgery. If you don’t eat enough after surgery, it can slow down the healing process and closure of your incision. This isn’t the time to fast.
Calories, calories and more calories
We need more calories to recover, of course, but we sometimes forget that surgery speeds up our metabolism, which means we need more calories. Fueling our bodies with the right foods will help prevent complications. Following surgery, you should focus on protein (meat, nuts, fish, legumes, dairy products and poultry) to boost your immune system and combat infection. It’s also essential to get adequate amounts of vitamin C, vitamin D and Calcium. You can get vitamin C, which helps make collagen and connective tissue, from berries, citrus fruits and vegetables. Minerals, such as Calcium, are important because our bodies don’t produce this mineral and we need this to keep our bones strong. Dairy products, spinach and Kale, are essential sources of this mineral. Vitamin D helps us absorb Calcium from our food and is found in fatty fish, eggs, meat, fortified dairy products and mushrooms, among other foods. Choose foods that are “whole” or unprocessed.
Things to avoid
If you’re an athlete or a healthy eater (preferably both), you’ll need to adapt your diet while recovering. You should avoid several things while your body is healing, as they can negate the positive effects of the healthy foods previously mentioned. Alcohol (there goes my glass of wine) and caffeine (I’m a coffee freak), as well as excessive amounts of salt and sugar, should also be avoided. These are known to slow down bone healing (lot’s of bone-sawing and chiseling in knee-replacement surgery) because they deplete your body of nutrients. Last but not least is supplements (I usually take many). It’s preferable to obtain nutrients from food because your body absorbs them better. So, if you normally fuel your body with protein drinks and nutrition bars, start eating more nutrient-dense foods and get rid of the extra sugar and calories – at least until you’re fully healed and recovered. And yes, that means eating carbohydrates, too. “Eating the right foods can prevent complications, such as constipation and high blood glucose, and provide the necessary building blocks of protein your skin needs to heal quickly,” says Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN.
What to eat
Eggs are the real deal, despite the “beating” they took in earlier years. A single egg provides all vitamins – except C – iron, zinc, folic acid and calcium. Maybe that’s why eggs are among the first foods hospitals serve recovering patients – at least in the US. This might come as a surprise to some people, but not all fat is bad. Healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil, coconut oil and seeds, can help your body absorb vitamins, boost your immune system and decrease your chance of infection. They can also provide vitamin E, energy and reduce scarring. Fruits and berries (apples, grapefruit, apricots, melons, mangos, peaches and tomatoes) are excellent sources of antioxidants, fiber and carbohydrates. Eat them as they are or make delicious smoothies. And yes, tomatoes are fruit. As they say, “What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge is knowing that the tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” Your post-surgery diet should include plenty of leafy greens (Kale, bok choy, spinach, collard greens, etc.), which provide additional vitamin A, E, C and K. Vitamin K plays a vital role in blood clotting, which aids in healing. Leafy greens are kind of like nature’s multivitamins.
What else do you need?
You’re going to need the protein, iron and amino acids provided by meats (beef, poultry and seafood) to help repair muscles, regenerate tissue and produce collagen. If eating meat doesn’t float your boat, you can get protein from tofu, oatmeal, rice, buckwheat, beans and hummus, among other foods. And let’s not forget probiotics, which are the living bacteria and yeasts that help your body digest food, combat infections and germs and achieve mental balance. Probiotics are found in kimchi, pickles, kefir, yogurt and sauerkraut. Anytime you have surgery, you disturb the balance of good and bad bacteria in your body, which can lead to nausea and constipation. We also need to feed the good gut bacteria with prebiotics, which are fibers the good bacteria eat. Most of us have heard that we should eat our fruits and vegetables – remember your mom telling you that? – so that comes as no surprise. But you might not have heard about how whole grains can help us after surgery.
Water, water everywhere
Whole wheat or rye sourdough bread, millet, barley, quinoa, pilaf and wild rice also provide vitamins and nutrients, as well as iron (delivers oxygen to the wound), magnesium (increases your defense mechanisms) and zinc (repairs tissues). And remember, drink plenty of water! One of the things most people overlook after surgery is water. We’re made up of 55-65% water. It’s easy to become dehydrated, so drink plenty of water to recover more quickly. Depending on the type of surgery you have and the medications prescribed to you, you may need more fluids than usual. If drinking plain water isn’t your cup of tea, try putting cucumbers, lime or lemon in your water. You can also drink coconut water, hot or cold herbal teas or eat foods with high water content, such as soups.
I’ve tried to cover many of the challenges that your body is facing after surgery. Still, the needs of each person are different. Make sure you talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to set up an eating plan that meets your specific needs. It takes time to recover from surgery, so don’t rush right back into your regular routine. It’s essential to follow the post-surgery plans your doctor and physiotherapist recommend. And remember, “everything in moderation, including moderation.” Reward yourself every now and then for being good. Now, where’s my bag of potato chips?