by Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RDN
The food and drink you consume on the days following surgery and even the days leading up to an operation can make or break the body’s ability to heal. Many carefully plan an elective surgery, evaluating the best surgeons and most effective procedures to meet their personal cosmetic or medical goals; but, few prospective patients think about how changes in diet will impact the healing process. Downtime often leads to easy, but not healthy, pizza delivery, take-out or whatever comfort food snacks are on hand in the home pantry.
“Unfortunately, after surgery, many patients can’t drive and rely on fast food or food a friend brings by to eat, which might not be very healthy,” says Mimi Bean, chef and founder of Meals That Heal You, a catering company specializing in prepared meals for post-surgical patients in Atlanta. “The wrong food can slow down healing and increase swelling, which is not good.” Foods too high in salt can cause swelling and that greasy pizza might trigger indigestion, disturbing the sleep needed for recovery.
Snack with Caution
Bean started her home meal delivery service at the request of Atlanta plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Codner. She says, “I decided to prepare healthy meals for my best friend, who works for Dr. Codner. He was so impressed with her rapid recovery that he asked me to offer post-surgery catering to all of his patients.”
A win-win for health and beauty was born! Meals That Heal You provides foods and beverages for three to five days, depending on type of surgery and doctor’s recommendations. Sample meals include salmon and avocado, rich in healthy fats, whole grains and legumes for dietary fiber and hydrating fresh fruits that are naturally high in vitamins and minerals.
Healing from the Inside Out
Skin, bone, muscle and all body tissues need nutrients to build and repair on a daily basis. When wounds are healing, the body requires even greater focus on good nutrition to fight off infection and regain strength. All nutrients—from vitamin A to the mineral zinc—play key roles in supporting cellular recovery. It’s protein, healthy fats and antioxidant-rich foods that star as a dream team after surgery.
“We know that surgery and anesthesia cause stress, which puts the body in a negative protein balance,” says Stuart Phillips, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and fellow of the American College of Nutrition. “So ideally patients should make sure to consume adequate protein before surgery, too.” Chicken, beef, eggs and fish contain the high-quality protein that the body craves to repair cells. Phillips suggests consuming at least 25 grams of protein per meal. One egg, for example, contains six grams of high-quality protein. Three ounces of beef contains 22 grams of protein.
After surgery, the periods of inactivity and pain medications can lead to constipation and dehydration. Make sure to drink lots of water and snack on high-fluid foods, such as watermelon, cantaloupe and even cucumbers. Rather than using a juicer (which removes the fiber in fruits and vegetables), enjoy blender smoothies of fresh or frozen fruit combined with Greek yogurt (higher in protein than regular yogurt) that deliver fiber, protein and antioxidant vitamins, like vitamin C. Legumes such as lentils, beans and peas are a good source of fiber. So are whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain breads, cereals and pasta.
Shake the Salt Habit
Cut down on sodium by discovering the natural flavors in fresh foods seasoned with herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, paprika and cumin. “Letting someone taste eggs scrambled with the natural tang of fresh dill is a good starter to introduce something with no salt that they normally salt heavily,” says Bean. “I use tons of fresh herbs and peppers in all my food to maximize flavor.” Even if it’s just for a few days post-surgery, Bean says one of the happiest side effects is discovering the delicious taste of creatively prepared healthy meals, “They tell me, ’Wow, I can’t believe how good that made me feel’ and they want to continue eating these foods. You know, it’s the way we are meant to eat.”