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10+ Foods that Promote Healing After Surgery

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
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite loss
  • Inflammation around the site of surgery
  • Numbness 
  • Bleeding

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.

1. BERRIES

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:

  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries

 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:

  • Watercress
  • Collard Greens
  • Kale
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Bok Choy

Again, the darker the greens, the higher the nutritional content.  For example iceberg lettuce has very little nutritional content.

3. BEANS

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.

We like:

  • 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:

  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • 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:

  • Barley
  • Millet
  • Pilaf
  • Quinoa
  • Risotto
  • 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:

  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut
  • Chicory Root
  • Dandelion Greens
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • 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

  • Walnuts 
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Trout
  • Mackerel
  • Herring

8. GARLIC 

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.

10. WATER

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
  • Alcohol
  • 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.

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Our Favorite Recipes for Chemotherapy Patients

Nutrition is essential to healing, but cancer treatment can make eating difficult. Challenging side effects like nausea, loss of taste, loss of smell, mouth sores, or aversion to certain foods directly impact how you enjoy food, which can make meeting your nutritional needs a challenge. It can also make maintaining weight or meeting your caloric needs a struggle. Here, we share some ideas on which recipes for chemotherapy patients will help keep you nourished during treatment.

What foods are good for chemotherapy patients?

Nourishment is the name of the game. As you plan your meals, think of how the food or drink in question is going to contribute to healing your body. Cancer patients should choose whole foods with robust nutrition profiles rich in healthy fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients anchor this approach—ensuring you make healthy selections each time you sit down to eat. 

Vegetables— particularly leafy greens— fruits, nuts, and seeds are an excellent cornerstone to build upon. The more nutrient-dense, the better in the fight against cancer. Remember to “eat the rainbow” by incorporating plenty of colorful vegetables.

You may also pursue specific diet and lifestyle changes to help you get higher doses of nutrient-dense foods, including vegetarian or vegan meals. Consult with a registered dietician or a Mend Together wellness coach for specific guidance.   

If you are experiencing constipation or diarrhea related to chemotherapy, you may want to alter that day’s meals to support your digestive system. Constipation generally calls for more liquid and a mix of soluble fiber foods like flax seeds and insoluble fiber like nuts and black beans. Black beans are also an excellent source of vegan protein. If you are experiencing diarrhea, switch to foods that contain soluble fiber.

Similarly, if you are experiencing nausea and vomiting, stick to small meals throughout the day, drink plenty of liquid, and try ginger or mint products such as teas or chews, as these are good natural remedies for nausea.

Food challenges during cancer treatment

“I wish I had been more prepared with how to nourish myself during my cancer treatments. So, I wound up malnourished because I hadn’t streamlined my food prep. I didn’t know how to ask my loved ones for help. One day my cousin made me a wonderful meal of vegetable stir-fried rice. That helped me realize how important it was to keep up with eating simple, nutrient-dense meals while in treatment. I recommend making simple and nutritious meals in batches and freezing them in portions, so that you have easy access when you aren’t feeling up for cooking. Think easy whole grains and vegetable-forward meals to get you on the path towards healing.” – Lisa Lefebvre, Mend Together Founder/2x cancer “endure-er”

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What foods should be avoided during chemotherapy?

While each person’s experience with chemotherapy differs, you should consider this baseline while evaluating which foods to avoid. Make sure to ask your medical care team about any foods you should be avoiding that do not appear on this list.

  • Undercooked and raw foods, as chemotherapy can cause neutropenia, or low white blood cell count, which makes it harder to ward off possible bacterial infections
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables for the same reason
  • Foods with nitrates such as hot dogs and deli meat, as these common preservatives are carcinogenic, which means they could cause cancer
  • Grapefruit, which can interfere with the efficacy of chemotherapy medication
  • Spicy foods: proceed with caution when adding hot sauce or hot peppers to meals
  • Inflammatory food groups such as sugar or gluten can further stimulate cancer cells
  • Acidic foods when you have a sore mouth, such as orange juice and fresh tomato.

Healthy food will help support your fight against cancer. Packing healthy snacks for chemo and focusing on meals with simple ingredients will go a long way to help your immunity and energy levels.

The best recipes for chemotherapy patients

Stuck for ideas? Below are the best recipes for chemo patients, covering every meal of the day.

Breakfast recipes for chemotherapy patients

  • Greek Yogurt Breakfast Bowl – This easy-to-prepare breakfast contains sugar-free, probiotic-filled greek yogurt, andantioxidant-rich berries. It provides texture in the form of granola, nuts, or pumpkin seeds.
  • Overnight OatsThis healthy morning meal is filling, easy, and vegan. Steel-cut oats contain soluble fiber that supports digestion. This easy recipe is perfect for meal prep. It can be made the night before and left in the fridge overnight, ready to be eaten in the morning. Top with cinnamon, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Tomato and Basil FrittataThere’s nothing like a juicy, fresh tomato. Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, an antioxidant that also gives tomatoes their beautiful red color. Frittatas also freeze well, making them a great make-ahead option for days you do not feel up to cooking.

Lunch recipes for chemotherapy patients

  • Immune-Boosting Soup – Soup is an excellent meal if your chemotherapy symptoms are particularly difficult on a given day; you can get more nutrition out of smaller, easier-to-digest bites. This soup features hearty, antioxidant-rich, and nutrient-dense vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and carrots. You can make a large pot of this soup and freeze it so you have healthy meals on days when you are too tired to cook. The American Institute for Cancer also has a delicious vegetable stone soup recipe
  • Orange Pistachio QuinoaThe base of this salad, quinoa, features high levels of essential amino acids. Complementary spices like cumin and mint bring bold flavors alongside antioxidants and digestion-aiding properties. This colorful quinoa salad makes a healthy side dish or a main.
  • Middle Eastern Chickpea Burgers – Protein-packed chickpeas offer a meatless way to consume this essential nutrient. Mimicking falafel, these burgers feature anti-inflammatory spices like cinnamon, cumin, and turmeric. If you have a passion for cooking and feel up to it, you can also try homemade hummus recipes to go with this delicious dish.
  • Bean and Sorghum Salad – This simple salad is filled with nutrient-rich cruciferous vegetable cauliflower, nuts, and a healthy grain called sorghum. This versatile dish is an excellent way to get plenty of vegetables. You can even swap out ingredients to customize the flavor. Try black beans, cancer fighting broccoli, or chickpeas to make this classic dish your own version of bean and sorghum salad.
  • Baby Spinach Salad – For a combination of leafy greens, creamy avocado, and crunchy pumpkin seeds, you can’t go wrong with this simple salad. This colorful, nutrient-rich salad is easy to throw together on difficult or busy days.

Dinner recipes for chemotherapy patients

  • Chili – Filled with protein-rich beans and aromatic spices, a few bites of chili can be nutritious and filling on days when you do not have a strong appetite. The spices and condiments added to this dish boost its flavor profile overall. If you are adhering to a vegetarian or vegan diet, simply leave out the meat or add black beans to fill the gap. Top your chili with some creamy avocado for an extra dose of healthy fats.
  • Healthy Jambalaya – This Creole classic dish is packed with flavor in every bite. It boasts immune system supporting garlic, onions full of antioxidants, and fibrous celery. Just like the chili above, you can remove the chicken if you are adhering to a vegetarian diet during your chemotherapy treatment. Protein-rich beans or chickpeas are a great alternative for a plant-based recipe.
  • Imam Bayildi – This Turkish eggplant dish gets its name from its taste. As the legend goes, the dish is so delicious that an imam fainted. The ultimate vegetarian dinner, the cooked polyphenol-rich eggplant is filled with garlic, onions, lycopene-rich tomatoes, herbs, and goat cheese or feta cheese. Vegans can simply remove the feta. If you’re feeling hungry, add a variety of aromatic herbs to brighten this gorgeous, nutrient-packed meal.

Healthy snacks to help you eat throughout the day

  • Crispy Shiitakes – If you have the urge to crunch, steer away from potato chips and instead give shiitake mushrooms a try. These earthy veggies have been widely studied for their anticancer properties and their role in supporting the immune system. Crispy shiitakes also make healthy snacks to munch on during chemo treatment.
  • Healthy Trail Mix – Nutrient-dense nuts and seeds form the base of this trail mix, with dried fruit incorporated throughout for an antioxidant boost. Nuts bring healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats essential for brain function, while the pumpkin seeds offer anti-inflammatory benefits of their own. Once you make this trail mix, separate it into serving sizes for an easy-to-reach healthy snack.

Delicious drinks

Cooking tips for chemotherapy patients

  • Aim for simple steps in the kitchen – Chemotherapy patients are exhausted, and cooking is not always an easy task. Look for recipes that do not require lots of time in the kitchen or multiple elaborate steps.
  • Embrace shortcuts – You can buy pre-cut vegetables and fruit if that helps you eat healthier without the prep work.
  • Use fresh whenever possible – The nutrition profile of canned and frozen foods is often diminished and not as robust as their fresh counterparts. Aim for fresh (and organic) ingredients whenever you can, or freeze fresh produce on your own.
  • Make ahead and freeze – There will be days where you are too tired or in too much pain to cook. When you do have the energy to cook, double the recipe and stash the extras in pre-portioned containers in the freezer. Soups are great for this!
  • Try out new spices – Your shifting taste buds may find that you no longer enjoy the flavor profiles you once loved. Experimenting with flavorful herbs and spices can elevate your go-to dishes in new ways. Plus, many spices boost significant benefits of their own, with many boasting high levels of antioxidants, nausea-reducing capabilities, anti-inflammatory properties, and more.

Healing starts in the gut

As you navigate life while undergoing chemotherapy, food is likely one of the last things you want to think about. However, one of the keys to healing can be found right on your plate. Although you may face significant challenges as your palate shifts or medication wreaks havoc on your digestive system, new and exciting recipes can help you discover foods that not only meet your nutritional needs, but encourage you to eat.

Head to the Mend Together shop to learn more about some of our cooking favorites, including The Cancer Fighting Kitchen, which is the source of several recipes in this guide. Several other favorites include exciting twists to vegetarian cooking, such as in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty.

Mend Together’s free resources can help guide you and your loved ones during and after a cancer diagnosis. Whether you find comfort in sharing updates through the Community Journal, want to build a Cash & Donation Registry with helpful items after surgery, or you want to organize practical support through the Volunteer Calendar, our offerings help you and your loved ones navigate the challenges that lie ahead. Get started today.


Stella Morrison is an award-winning journalist who partners with mission-driven companies to share their stories. She is based in New York City.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.