Fueling the Healing Process: Pre and Post-Surgery Nutrition for a Fast Recovery

Written for MOSH by Nicole Kerneen, RD, CD, CSSD, Certified Personal Trainer – Way of Life Nutrition and Fitness

Calories are often associated with weight gain. But calories are units of energy. Your body needs calories the way a car needs fuel. This is especially true after an injury or surgery.

Optimizing nutrition intake is your ticket for reducing inflammation, minimizing muscle loss, and reducing time away from sports activities. Nutrition also plays a key role in helping you heal after an injury or trauma.

Under-fueling is unfortunately all too common with injuries and surgery. Tissue trauma and surgery may require 20 percent more calories each day to heal. Just because you are not participating in your sport or your regular workout routine, doesn’t mean you should skimp on calories. Did you know that using a crutch can require two-to-three times more energy than regular walking? It’s no wonder that athletes struggle to keep mass and strength during times of injury. This is especially true for young athletes who are still growing. Insufficient calorie intake for as little as two weeks can reduce muscle mass by as much as 20 percent.

Six Things You Should Know About Nutritional Healing

Nutritional healing is the science of using food, herbs, and supplements to treat health conditions. Here are six strategies to foster nutritional healing after an injury or surgery.

  1. Keep in mind that the quality of calories you consume while you’re healing matters. It’s imperative to treat your body well during this time. Don’t bulk up on junk food.
  2. Protein maintenance and synthesis are very challenging when the body is immobile. Science tells us that we have a greater need for protein to help compensate for this. Recommendations are currently at 1.6-2.5g/kg per day for proper muscle healing. Of these amino acids, leucine is the star player that helps provide the power necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Leucine-rich foods include cheese, meat, fish, nuts and seeds, and tempeh. Depending on what you need daily, the goal is to take in 25-35 grams of leucine-rich proteins every three hours from the time you wake up until you go to bed.
  3. Choose anti-inflammatory foods. These help your body to heal faster and provide much-needed nutrients and antioxidants to nourish cells. Choose foods such as berries, tart cherries, cranberries, nuts, pineapple, papaya, and green tea. Add power spices such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom to smoothies, salads, yogurt, and main meals.
  4. Medication and surgery can create nausea and constipation. Manage the effects by consuming bland foods like rice, bananas, applesauce, and toast during times of nausea. Consider eating smaller more frequent meals. Not only does this help with nausea and constipation, but it also provides a more efficient way for your body to use nutrients and reuptake amino acids for muscle health.
  5. It’s not uncommon for patients to lose their appetite after trauma or surgery. To help maintain proper nutrient and calorie intake, consider alternating a full-food meal with a liquid meal like a smoothie with fruit or a protein source such as Greek yogurt. Milk or protein powder, greens, chia and flax meal in addition to anti-inflammatory spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger are healthy add-ins that can increase the nutrition in your liquid meal.
  6. Due to the frequent use of antibiotics post-surgery, the healthy bacteria in our guts known as flora can also be greatly affected. This is because antibiotics kill both supportive and unsupportive bacteria. To keep your gut in balance, Include pre- and probiotic-rich foods daily. Probiotics are found in yogurt, Kombucha, sauerkraut, miso soup and, kimchi. Prebiotics feed the good bacteria that keep your digestive system healthy. Prebiotics are plant fibers that are found in asparagus, oats, wheat, barley, mushrooms, onions and garlic. By adding one-to-two servings of these in each day, a healthy gut can be restored.

Knowing how to help your body heal efficiently will help you return to your normal, active life sooner. For a more personalized plan, please reach out to a board-certified sports dietitian.