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Nutrition for Healing After Surgery

Advice about food, supplements and calorie requirement after having surgery

A person taking notes with food on a table.

  1. How many calories should I be consuming since I will be inactive?
  2. How much water should I be drinking?
  3. What types of food should I be eating?
  4. Are there special recommendations for patients having surgery?
  5. Now that I have limited mobility, what can I do to make life a little easier?

You’ve been injured or will be having surgery. Now you must prepare your body for the healing process ahead. Your body needs nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water) to support the repair process. Here are a few tips to speed your recovery and make things a little easier to handle.

How many calories should I be consuming since I will be inactive?

Now is NOT the time for weight loss! When people are immobilized, they worry about gaining weight. However, you should NOT decrease your calorie intake because you will be inactive. In fact, your calorie needs are now greater than usual because your body requires energy from nutritious foods to fuel the healing process. You will need to consume about 15-20 calories per pound (using your current body weight). If your overall energy and protein needs are not met, body tissues such as muscles and ligaments will begin to break down. This will compromise healing and may prolong your recovery period.

How much water should I be drinking?

Normally, it is important to drink at least 8 cups of water or non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages every day. If you do not drink this much fluid each day, now is the time to get into the habit. Drinking enough fluid is essential for maintaining adequate hydration and allowing your body to heal. You may need more fluid depending on the type of medication you are taking or the extent of your injury. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty. By then, you’re already dehydrated! Have a water bottle handy and plan for plenty of refreshing beverages throughout the day to keep your body in fluid balance.

What types of food should I be eating?

Eat well-balanced meals and a wide variety of foods to obtain all the nutrients your body needs for tissue repair. Your body requires more protein and calcium during this time, so take careful note of the daily recommendations and food sources listed below. Compare your diet with the Food Pyramid to see if you’re meeting your daily nutrient requirements (see additional handout). Consider taking a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement if you do not get the recommended balance of foods each day. Cut back on junk food. You want most calories to be packed with nutrition value.

Here are a few essential nutrients that your body will need before and after surgery or injury:

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Nutrients Helps with: Found in: Per day
Protein healing, tissue repair and regrowth meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, legumes, soy products, nuts, seeds  
Carbohydrates energy for healing and preventing protein/muscle breakdown fruits, vegetables, legumes, breads, cereals, rice, pasta, grains  
Lipids (Fats) absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, immune response, energy oils (e.g., olive, canola, sunflower), nuts, seeds, avocado, salad dressings, margarine, butter  
Calcium building/maintaining bones and muscle contraction milk, cheese, yogurt, soy products, turnip and mustard greens, collards, kale, broccoli, almonds 1500mg
Iron forming hemoglobin and carrying oxygen
**best when eaten with vitamin C rich foods
liver, lean red meat, poultry, fish, iron-fortified cereals, legumes, dark leafy greens, dried fruit 18mg men
15mg women
Zinc helps in wound healing, component of enzymes meat, liver, eggs, oysters and other seafood 15mg
Vitamin A helps in wound healing and growth, maintenance of skin carrots, sweet potatoes, dark yellow or green leafy vegetables, milk, cheese, liver, egg yolk 5000 IU
Vitamin D helps in bone healing and calcium absorption fortified milk, butter, margarine, fortified cereals, liver, fatty fish, egg yolk 400-800 IU
Vitamin E antioxidant/disease-fighting properties
(do NOT take supplements 7-10 before surgery)
vegetable oils (e.g., corn or sunflower), beef liver, milk, eggs, butter, green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals 30 IU
Vitamin K helps wound healing response and blood clotting green leafy vegetables, fatty fish, liver, vegetable oils 80µ men
65µ women
Vitamin C building connective tissue, essential nutrient for healing citris fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, greens, raw cabbage, melon 60mg

Are there special recommendations for patients having surgery?

  • Increase your calcium intake to 1500 mg/day, especially if your surgery or injury involves bone.
  • Do NOT take vitamin E supplements 7-10 days before your surgery.
  • Be sure to meet your daily protein needs (about 6-12 ounces per day). Several factors (ie, weight, activity level and type of injury) affect individual protein requirements, so you may want to consult a nutritionist for more information.
  • Avoid weight loss/crash dieting before and after surgery to ensure adequate nutrients and energy for recovery.
  • Eat well-balanced meals to lower the risk of infection after your surgery. Vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin A are especially important in preventing infections.
  • If you lose your appetite for a day or two after surgery, nutrient-rich drinks/shakes can help you get enough nutrients and calories (Carnation Instant Breakfast, Ensure, Boost and Sustacal are good choices).

Now that I have limited mobility, what can I do to make life a little easier?

If you're having surgery, plan ahead. If you’ve been injured, ask for help with these suggestions:

  • Make sure you have plenty of water, juice, milk, or other drinks available.
  • Prepare food ahead of time and place in the freezer to be reheated later.
  • Consider stocking up on healthy low preparation foods, such as fruit, pudding, yogurt, low-fat frozen dinners, canned or instant soups, instant cereals, shredded cheese, pull-top tuna or other canned foods.
  • Make sure you have a variety of takeout menus if you plan to have food delivered to your home.
  • If you’re on crutches, realize that carrying food will be hard for you. Small milk cartons, juice boxes, or water bottles may be helpful instead of having to carry a glass.
  • If your arm is or will be in a sling, consider buying precut food or individual servings of food. You may also want to practice daily tasks with your opposite hand before surgery.


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