What to Eat After Surgery and What to Avoid

If you've had surgery, the foods you eat in the days, weeks, and months after your procedure can significantly impact your healing and recovery. Eating the right foods can also help prevent post-surgical complications, such as constipation and high blood glucose.

The type of surgery you have had, as well as any underlying health conditions, can also affect which foods you can have—and which foods are more likely to cause complications.

This article explains which foods to eat and which ones to avoid after surgery. It also offers tips for eating when you don't have an appetite.

Reassess Your Typical Diet

carrot and beet salad

Sarah Remington / Stocksy United

One of the best things to improve your nutritional status when you are recovering from surgery is to focus on whole foods. That means choosing foods that are not processed.

And make sure you drink enough water. Dehydration is common after surgery and staying hydrated can help you avoid excess fatigue, as well as serious medical issues.

Whole Food Examples
  • Orange

  • Baked potato

  • Chicken breast

  • Onions

Processed Food Examples
  • Orange juice

  • French fries

  • Chicken nuggets

  • Onion rings

Aim to obtain most of your nutrition from these whole foods. That's because processed foods tend to have higher amounts of trans fat, sugar, salt, and chemical additives, but far less fiber and vitamins than their whole food counterparts.

As you are stocking up before your surgery or getting back to shopping after your surgery—an easy way to stick to more nutritious, less-processed foods is to focus on the outside aisles of the grocery store. Most grocery stores keep unprocessed foods on the outermost areas of the store in the produce and meat sections. By doing most of your shopping in those areas, these healthier foods will catch your eye.

Eating this way is good for your health every day, not just during the weeks following surgery. Your surgical procedure might serve as a motivation to make a lasting improvement in your eating habits.

Avoid Foods That Cause Constipation

Slice of pizza being pulled from a pie

simonkr / istock

Constipation is common after gastrointestinal procedures, but it can also develop after any type of surgery. One reason is that prescription pain medications—opioids, in particular—are often used in the days following a surgical procedure. These medications can lead to decreased bowel movements.

Constipation is more than just annoying after surgery. Constipation often reduces a person's appetite—which can prevent you from eating the foods you need to stay nourished and hydrated after your surgery.

Constipation can also increase your pain level and can place additional stress on your incision, stretching out the sutures. Furthermore, having regular bowels movements can help you more efficiently absorb the nutrients from the foods you eat.

While some foods can help prevent or treat constipation, other foods can make constipation more likely. Drinking enough water is a key component of avoiding constipation.

Make sure you avoid reaching for constipation-inducing foods at least until you begin to have regular, soft, bowel movements after your surgery.

Foods Likely to Cause Constipation

These foods may contribute to constipation for some people:

  • Red meat
  • Processed foods
  • Cheese
  • Sweets

Why Plenty of Fiber Is a Must

Kale salad in a bowl topped with roasted sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and avocado

anakopa / istock

It is important to include fiber in your diet as you recover from surgery. Fiber plays a significant role in preventing constipation.

Consider adding high-fiber foods to your diet rather than adding a fiber supplement, such as psyllium husks. While supplementing is not a bad idea, fiber from food tends to work better to prevent constipation, especially when combined with water.

High-Fiber Foods

Enjoy these high-fiber foods:

  • Whole grain bread: Look for bread that uses whole grains and is darker in color. White bread is typically too refined to be a good source of fiber.
  • Whole grains: This would include heart-healthy corn, oatmeal, and other grains. 
  • Fruits and vegetables: Fresh fruit and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and fiber.
  • Cereal: Not all cereals have a high-fiber content. Check the label to avoid sugary or low-fiber cereal. Oatmeal and cream of wheat are also good options.

Focus on Lean Protein

sliced chicken breasts on a slate cutting board with a bowl of whole grain mustard

vkuslandia / istock

Protein has vital nutrients that provide building blocks for your body's healing and recovery process. Fat can upset your stomach after surgery, often causing nausea, diarrhea, or constipation. Lean proteins are protein foods that are low in fat.

These types of foods include:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork
  • Seafood
  • Nuts
  • Tofu
  • Legumes
  • Vegetarian foods, such as tempeh and texturized vegetable protein (TVP)

Keep in mind that sometimes you might need to avoid nuts, such as after surgery for diverticulitis. And sometimes people who have severe liver disease need to avoid excess protein consumption.

Red meat contains high levels of saturated fat, which can trigger constipation. Therefore, it's best to avoid it while you recover from surgery.

If you have difficulty eating, consider supplementing your diet with protein powder, which you can add to drinks, such as smoothies.

Whole Grains Instead of Refined Grains

bowl of oatmeal topped with bananas, blueberries, chia seeds, and sliced almonds

wmaster 890 / istock

Whole grains are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber. So be sure to choose whole-grain bread and cereals whenever possible, rather than the refined white versions.

For example, rice is a great way to add whole grains to your diet. However, many types of rice are so processed that the nutritional value is minimal. For both nutrients and fiber content, choose brown rice over white rice.

Breakfast is an ideal time to add whole grains and fiber to your diet. Consider oatmeal or another whole-grain cereal, whole wheat bread, and fresh fruit for your morning meal.

If you have had surgery on your intestines, make sure to discuss eating whole grains during your recovery with your doctor before adding them to your diet. Pay particular attention to your discharge instructions regarding what is appropriate to eat during your recovery.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Fresh fruit including strawberries, lemonds, blackberries, apples, and grapefruit

leonori / istock

Fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients and fiber. These components are essential to healing during your recovery from surgery and for keeping your immune system at its best. While fresh is considered healthier, frozen or canned items are also good.

One side effect of eating more fruits and vegetables than usual is gas. While this can be an annoying or embarrassing problem, it should pass within a day or two.

If the gas is so severe that you feel stomach pressure or abdominal cramping, you can decrease your intake of fresh produce or use a gas reliever. For example, Beano is a product that prevents gas, and Gas-X (simethicone) relieves existing gas.

Substitute Low-Fat Dairy Products

Bowl of cottage cheese with a side of strawberries

Stitchik / istock

Dairy products are an excellent source of protein, which is essential to healing after surgery. Some people, though, find that consuming dairy products after surgery can cause stomach upset.

There is also evidence that dairy products can increase secretions in the lungs for some people. So, if you have a chronic cough, it may be worthwhile to avoid dairy products in the short term.

Focus on low-fat items, including:

  • Skim milk
  • Cottage cheese
  • Yogurt

Take it slow with cheese, low-fat or not, so you won't develop an upset stomach.

Trouble Eating Enough After Surgery?

Blueberry smoothie topped with chia seeds

Anna_Shepulova / istock

Sometimes it is difficult to eat after surgery because of a lack of appetite. Reduced appetite typically passes a few days after surgery, but it is important to continue eating nutritious foods during this part of your recovery.

If you struggle with your appetite after surgery, consider making the most of your meals by eating calorie-dense foods. That means eating foods that contain more calories per bite than others.

Any you might find it easier to drink rather than eat, especially if your neck or throat is sore after intubation or after having surgery on your neck.

For example:

  • Smoothies: This type of food is a great option, as it can contain dairy, fruit, and even protein powder as necessary.
  • Higher-fat options: For example, a cup of green salad would be a food low in calories per cup, while avocado would be very high in calories per cup.
  • Eliminate low-calorie foods: If consuming enough calories is an issue, you may want to eliminate low-calorie and calorie-free items from your diet until you can eat adequately. For example, use regular salad dressing, replace diet soda with juice or full-calorie soda, and (in general) avoid foods that say "lite," "sugar-free," "calorie-free," "diet," "low-fat," or "low-calorie" on the label.

Even if you have weight-loss goals, skipping meals after surgery is not the way to do it. Not eating and drinking enough after surgery can slow your healing. Your body needs protein and other nutrients to build healthy new tissue.

Easy Ways to Add Calories to Your Diet

Woman holding almonds

Daisy-Daisy / istock

If you are having difficulty getting enough calories in your diet after surgery, you may need to pay special attention to eating foods that are high in calories.

Follow these tips to sneak extra calories into your diet after surgery:

  • Eat the highest calorie items on your plate first.
  • Choose full-calorie options if possible when eating prepared foods, such as frozen meals. For example, choose a full-calorie meal rather than Weight Watchers.
  • Keep a full-calorie beverage (juice, lemonade, soda) nearby, and drink from it whenever possible.
  • Add a dietary supplement, such as Ensure or protein bars, to your diet.
  • Snack between meals.
  • Eat high-calorie snacks, such as nuts and seeds.
  • Think of eating as your job, and do it frequently. Consider commercial breaks on television to be a reminder to have a nibble.
  • Choose vegetables with more calories, such as avocados and potatoes over lettuce.
  • Add a bedtime snack to your schedule.

Summary

Eating nourishing foods after surgery can help your body recover, your wound heal, and prevent constipation. Stick to whole foods with plenty of fiber, lean protein, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Be aware of foods that can cause constipation and avoid them.

If you lack an appetite after surgery, work on incorporating calorie-dense foods into your diet until your appetite returns.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can you eat if you're feeling nauseous after surgery?

    To keep up your strength, try eating small amounts of bland foods throughout the day. Flat ginger ale, chicken broth, crackers, plain toast, and bananas can be good options. Hard ginger candies or peppermints may also help to soothe your stomach.

  • What should you eat after oral surgery?

    Your healthcare provider or dentist will give you directions for what you can eat after oral surgery. They will probably instruct you to drink liquids and eat soft foods for the first few days. Suggestions may include smoothies, milkshakes, apple sauce, pudding, ice cream, soup, and protein shakes.

  • What should you eat after gallbladder surgery?

    You may notice changes in your digestive system after you have your gallbladder removed. Fatty foods, in particular, may be more difficult for your body to process. Therefore, avoid high-fat or fried foods for several weeks to limit gastrointestinal pain or discomfort. Also, try to keep your calories from fat at 30% or less of your daily calorie intake.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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