What to Eat After Surgery and What to Avoid

If you have had surgery, the food you eat can make a great impact on your recovery and on how quickly your wound heals. 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.


Reassess Your Typical Diet

carrot and beet salad

Sarah Remington / Stocksy United

One of the best things you can do to improve your nutritional status when you are recovering from surgery is to focus on whole foods. That means to choose foods that are “whole” or unprocessed.

For example, an orange would be a whole food. Orange juice, though, would be a more processed version of that food. A baked potato is a whole food, while a french fry is more processed and less healthy, having been fried. The list goes on and on—chicken breast is better than chicken nuggets, onions are better than onion rings.

So, aim to obtain most of your nutrition from these whole foods, which is actually a healthy way to eat every day, not just the weeks following surgery. Processed foods tend to have higher amounts of fat, sugar, salt, and chemical additives, but far less fiber and vitamins than their whole food counterparts.

One easy way to stick to more nutritious, less-processed foods is to focus on the outside aisles of the grocery store. Most grocery stores are set up with unprocessed foods on the outermost areas of the store in the produce, butcher/fish, dairy, and bread areas.

By doing most of your shopping in those areas, you will naturally choose healthier foods that are high in fiber—a vital nutrient to include in your diet after surgery.


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 are recovering from surgery. Not only are high-fiber foods healthier than their low-fiber counterparts, but fiber also plays a major role in preventing constipation, a common complication after surgery.

Constipation is more than just annoying after surgery, it can actually increase pain and the chances of returning to the hospital during the recovery period.

Rather than adding a fiber supplement to your day, such as psyllium husks, consider adding high fiber foods to your diet and obtaining fiber in a more natural way. Supplementing is not a bad idea, but fiber from food tends to work better to prevent constipation when taken with ample water.

High-Fiber Foods

Enjoy these high-fiber foods:

  • Whole grain bread: Look for breads that use whole grains and are darker in color. White bread is typically too refined to be a good source of fiber.
  • Whole grains: This would include corn, oatmeal, and other grains. 
  • Fruits: Fresh fruit is an excellent source of vitamins and fiber.
  • Vegetables: Vegetables are an excellent source of fiber and can be purchased fresh or frozen.
  • Cereal: Not all cereal has a high-fiber content. Check the label to avoid sugary or low-fiber cereal. Look for cereal with fiber in the name, or stick with old-fashioned breakfast foods, such as oatmeal or cream of wheat.

Avoid Foods That Cause Constipation

Slice of pizza being pulled from a pie

simonkr / istock

Constipation is common after surgery because prescription pain medications—opioids, in particular—are often used in the days following a surgical procedure and have a known side effect of decreasing the movement of the intestines.

While some foods can help prevent or treat constipation, there are other foods that can make constipation more likely. Constipation can increase your pain level and can place additional stress on your incision, so it is important to avoid whenever possible.

Foods Likely to Cause Constipation

These foods may contribute to constipation:

  • Dried or dehydrated foods: These include dried fruits (prunes are an exception, they can help to ease constipation), beef jerky, and some types of potato chips.
  • Processed foods: These foods have little fiber and may be high in sugar and fat.
  • Cheese: Cheese is high in fat.
  • Milk and dairy products: Especially avoid full-fat dairy products, including ice cream and sour cream.
  • Red meat: Beef and other kinds of red meat are often high in saturated fat.
  • Sweets: These include pastries, candies, cakes, and other sugary foods.

Focus on Lean Protein

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

vkuslandia / istock

Lean protein can be found in lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, and pork. Seafood, including fish, is also an excellent source of lean protein. Red meat is not recommended because of the high level of saturated fat and because it can trigger constipation.

If you don’t eat meat or don’t enjoy meat, remember that protein comes from many sources other than meat. Consider nuts, tofu, beans and “vegetarian” foods, such as tempeh and texturized vegetable protein (TVP) to supplement your protein needs.

Dairy products are also a source of protein, but they can cause constipation, so they should be used in moderation. If you are having difficulty eating, consider supplementing your diet with protein powder, which can be added 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. Be sure to choose whole grain breads and cereals whenever possible, rather than the refined "white" versions.

Rice is a great way to add whole grains to your diet, but many types of rice are so processed that the nutritional value is minimal. For both nutrients and fiber content, choose brown rice or other varieties that are not processed, and avoid white rice.

Breakfast is an ideal time to add whole grains and fiber to your diet. Skip the bacon and eggs and choose 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 you are permitted to eat whole grains during your recovery 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 fruit and vegetables contain both nutrients and fiber, which are essential to healing during your recovery from surgery. While fresh is best, frozen or canned items are also good. Try to emphasize items that are not processed, such as fresh broccoli, and avoid processed foods, such as canned broccoli soup.

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, such as Beano to prevent gas or Gas-X (simethicone) to relieve gas that is present.


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. Many people, though, find that consuming dairy products can lead to constipation after surgery. There is also evidence that dairy products can increase secretions in the lungs, so if you have a chronic cough, it may be worthwhile to avoid dairy products in the short term.

If you can eat dairy products without becoming constipated, focus on low-fat items, such as skim milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Cheese, low-fat or not, should be eaten in moderation until you can determine if eating it will cause you to become constipated.


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. This typically passes a few days after surgery, but it is important to continue eating nutritious foods during this part of your recovery. Constipation can cause a lack of appetite. If this is the case, speak to your surgeon about ways to relieve constipation before taking over-the-counter remedies.

While most people in America could stand to lose a few pounds, skipping meals after surgery is not the way to do it. Failing to eat enough after surgery can slow healing and delay the closure of your incision. Your body needs protein and other nutrients to build healthy new tissue and heal tissue injured by surgery.

If you are not constipated and are still having difficulty with your appetite, consider calorie-dense foods, such as a smoothie, which can contain dairy, fruit and even protein powder as necessary.

If you are unable to consume enough calories after your surgery, try to eat calorie-dense foods whenever possible. That means eating foods that contain more calories per bite than others. 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.

If consuming enough calories is an issue, you may want to eliminate low-calorie and calorie-free items from your diet until you are able to 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.


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, your recovery could be adversely affected. These tips can help you add calories to your diet without having to eat noticeably more; however, these changes are not necessarily heart-healthy and are not going to aid weight loss.

This way of eating is reserved for people who are unable to consume enough calories, as this is not an ideal nutritional plan for the long term. Some individuals truly struggle to consume enough food in the early part of the recovery phase, and these tips are intended for those people.

When you are able to return to a healthier diet, eliminating saturated fats and sugar while emphasizing fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, it is important to do so.

12 Ways to Sneak Calories Into Your Diet

Follow these tips:

  • Use heavy cream instead of non-fat dairy creamer.
  • Use real sugar, not a sugar substitute.
  • Use real butter or margarine, not low-calorie butter spreads or sprays.
  • Cook with oil, not with cooking spray.
  • Choose full-calorie options if possible when eating prepared foods, such as frozen meals. For example, don't select Weight Watchers frozen meals, as they are calorie-controlled, choose a full-calorie version.
  • Suck on mints or candy.
  • Eat the highest calorie items on your plate first.
  • 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.
  • Use 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 rather than lettuce.
  • Add a bedtime snack to your schedule.

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. You'll probably be instructed to drink liquids and eat soft foods for the first few days. Some good examples might be 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 your gallbladder is removed. Fatty foods in particular may be more difficult for your body to process. Avoid high-fat or fried foods for several weeks to limit gastrointestinal pain or discomfort. Try to keep your calories from fat at 30% or less of your daily calorie intake.

A Word From Verywell

What you eat in the days and weeks following surgery can help determine how quickly you heal and how well you feel while recovering. Take the time to eat well, choosing foods you know to be healthful and nutritious, and be sure to eat enough calories to sustain your body through the healing process.

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7 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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  4. Samal JRK, Samal IR. Protein Supplements: Pros and Cons. J Diet Suppl. 2018;15(3):365-371. doi:10.1080/19390211.2017.1353567

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  6. Ganiats TG, Norcross WA, Halverson AL, Burford PA, Palinkas LA. Does Beano prevent gas? A double-blind crossover study of oral alpha-galactosidase to treat dietary oligosaccharide intolerance. J Fam Pract. 1994;39(5):441-5.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. What to eat after you have your gallbladder removed. Published September 18, 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Constipation Cure-How to Get Rid of Constipation. Dr. John Anne.

  • Nelson AD, Camilleri M. Opioid-induced constipation: advances and clinical guidance. Ther Adv Chronic Dis. 2016.