The body needs extra calories and protein from foods that promote healing after surgery. Recovering from surgery can take time, and can involve complications that can inhibit healing. Recovering from cancer surgery is no different and can involve cancer-specific complications like:
- Bruising around the site of surgery
- Nausea and vomiting from general anesthesia
- Appetite loss
- Inflammation around the site of surgery
Depending on other types of cancer treatment and the location of the surgery performed, you might experience:
- Reduction in the body’s ability to absorb ingredients
- Digestion problems after eating such as gas, cramping or constipation
- Lower ability to absorb certain vitamins, particularly after stomach surgery
- Nausea from treatment side effects
- Additional lack of appetite
In addition to general recommendations for people before and after cancer treatment, like maintaining a healthy weight, getting plenty of water, fiber and supplements provided by your doctor, the right foods can help with pain, inflammation, recovery time and healing after surgery.
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10 Powerful Foods to Help You Heal Faster After Surgery
The top three foods groups we recommend are Berries Greens and Beans. These three super food groups are delicious and packed with nutrients.
Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries contain anthocyanins which act as anti-inflammatories, they’re also high in antioxidants and Vitamin C which can ward off illness. Fresh or frozen, these can be eaten throughout the day, or if you are not a big fruit eater, get out the blender and make delicious smoothies using:
Remember, the darker the berry, the higher the nutritional content.
2. LEAFY GREENS
Greens pack the one-two punch of healthy carbohydrates, and high levels of vitamins and minerals. They are rich in vitamins A and C E and K as well as iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium—all essential to tissue repair and healing. They also add fiber to your diet, which can reduce constipation, a common side effect of pain medication and lowered mobility. You want to keep yourself from becoming constipated as putting strain on your body can compromise your wound. Try:
- Collard Greens
- Romaine Lettuce
- Bok Choy
Again, the darker the greens, the higher the nutritional content. For example iceberg lettuce has very little nutritional content.
Beans are a nutritional triple win because they are full of protein, nutrients, and fiber. They contain 17-25% protein, roughly double the amount in grains and often higher in density than meat and eggs. In addition, they are instrumental in muscle repair.
Beans are also rich in iron which make them a good meat substitute and contain a high concentration of potassium and magnesium. Together, these two elements remove sodium and water from your cardiovascular system while regulating blood pressure. They add fiber which is important in blood sugar regulation and staving off constipation from your meds, or reduced mobility.
- Black beans
- Pinto Beans
- Cranberry beans
- Alubia beans
If you can get your hands on a few varieties of beans like the ones found in the Mend Together Heirloom Bean Sampler, you can add a lot of variety to your diet with one of nature’s most powerful superfoods. The Cancer Fighting Kitchen has many delicious recipes incorporating beans into meals, savory snacks and appetizers.
4. OTHER FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
When your parents told you to eat your fruits and vegetables, they weren’t wrong. Study after study has shown that fruit and vegetables, fresh or frozen, have nutrients and fiber essential to healing during your recovery from surgery.
“Cruciferous vegetables,” are a family of food like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, which are packed with phytonutrients that lower inflammation and can even reduce the risk of cancer. If you’re caring for someone post-surgery and want to find delicious ways to increase leafy greens in their diet, there are some incredible vegetarian cookbooks out there from award-winning chefs to bring deliciousness to the table. We enjoy:
- Brussel Sprouts
5. WHOLE GRAINS
In addition to fruits and vegetables, whole grains contain vitamins and nutrients that promote wound healing: protein and zinc to help repair tissue, iron to deliver oxygen to the wound bed, and magnesium to up the body’s defense mechanisms. Some whole grains we love:
- Whole wheat or rye sourdough breads
- Wild Rice
6. PROBIOTICS and PREBIOTICS
Probiotics are living bacteria and yeasts that are beneficial to your body. And prebiotics are types of dietary fiber that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut. When you have surgery, you can upset the equilibrium of good and bad bacteria in your body; ultimately, you could wind up with more bad bacteria that can lead to infection, constipation, and nausea. Check out these non-dairy sources of probiotics and prebiotics:
- Chicory Root
- Dandelion Greens
- Flax Seeds
7. FISH AND OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish fight off inflammation which slows down recovery from surgery. For vegans and vegetarians, sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flax seed, chia seed, and organic soybeans. For fish eaters we love
Garlic’s medicinal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. Garlic (along with onions and leeks) contains a compound called diallyl disulfide which in addition to its infection fighting properties has been shown to help people with colon cancer and heart disease. Use liberally, pop in a breath mint and enjoy!
9. GREEN TEA
Green tea is full of powerful antioxidants and nutrients, and has been known to improve overall health and reduce the risk of some types of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. It also reduces inflammation which is key to a speedy recovery from surgery. There are many varieties of green tea to try, each with different flavor profiles, and sipping it throughout your recovery serves the dual purpose of hydrating your body while arming it with healthy nutrients. Some people like to carry around a hot and cold tea tumbler which is a convenient, stylish way to infuse and refill the tea all day long.
No matter what you eat, you are going to have to stay hydrated. After surgery, your immune system is weak, and less able to fight off infection. Water helps keep these infections away while it rids your body of toxins from anesthesia, reduces the chances of suffering from muscle fatigue and reduces the impact of post-op constipation. Water after surgery is an essential part of healing that helps in all aspects of recovery.
Listen to your body. You need to drink more water if:
- You’re thirsty
- Your urine is dark yellow (but remember that your vitamins can also turn urine yellow)
If it’s clear, you are most likely on track consuming just the right amount.
If you’re not sure how much to drink or if your electrolytes are balanced, talk with your doctor. He or she can recommend the proper amount of water for your body.
No matter what foods you choose from this list, one of the best things you can do to improve your health outcomes is to focus on whole, unprocessed (and unfried) foods. An apple is a whole food, but apple juice is a more processed version of that food. A potato is a whole food, buta potato chip (or French fries) are processed.
FOODS TO AVOID AFTER SURGERY
Remember that in addition to adding food to your post-surgery diet, there are some foods which can actually slow down recovery, increase inflammation and promote infection. Some foods to avoid after surgery are:
- Added sugars
- Red meats
- Processed and fried foods
- Full fat dairy products
- Dried and dehydrated foods
- Cakes, cookies and other high sugar, processed carbohydrates
The bottom line is that while prescriptions and medical protocols can help heal the body, a nutritionally rich diet can amplify and extend the benefits of any medicines and reduce the negative side effects of surgery and treatments.
If you are not able to prepare all your post surgery meals yourself, a nice way to involve your friends and family is to create a Volunteer Calendar where they can schedule cooking some new delicious recipes using these healing foods.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food“Hippocrates, father of modern medicine
Reviewed and edited by Dr. Thomas A. Sult, MD of the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM).
Kate Rigg is a cancer advocate and graduate from the Juilliard School in New York with an honors degree in creative writing from the University of Melbourne.
Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.