Skip to content

How to Optimize Your Nutrition when Preparing for Surgery

Mae Reilly, MS, RD, LDN

Surgery may be used as part of the treatment plan for many different types of cancer. Surgery can put stress on your body, and your nutritional status can play a role in the outcome of the procedure. If you are preparing for an upcoming surgery, there are several ways you can optimize your nutrition to help support your healing and recovery

Prioritize protein at meals and snacks. Protein is necessary for the growth and repair of all cells in your body, including red blood cells, white blood cells, muscles and hormones. Protein also helps your body heal. Protein is made up of amino acids, some of which cannot be made by your body. It is therefore important to try to incorporate protein-rich foods at meals and snacks. Protein can be found in both animal and plant-based foods. Some animal sources include poultry, fish, eggs, yogurt, cheese and milk. Plant-based sources include soy foods like tofu or edamame, nuts and seeds, nut butters, beans, lentils and whole grains. Some people may include protein drinks or powders to help meet their needs if they are unable to consume enough protein through whole foods. Daily protein requirements are individualized and differ person to person. Work with a Registered Dietitian to understand how much protein you need leading up to your surgery and afterwards.

Establish a consistent eating pattern. Eating throughout the day will help you get the calories and protein your body needs going into surgery. It will also help support your energy levels and help minimize fatigue. Some people find it helpful to eat three meals per day with one or two snacks while others prefer to eat smaller, more frequent meals every two to three hours throughout the day. Find an eating routine that feels best to you.

Stay well hydrated. Most people do not understand how much fluid their bodies need to function optimally. Most adults need at least 64 ounces per day, but some people require more. Anything that is liquid at room temperature counts toward your daily fluid goal including things like herbal tea, smoothies, milk, ice cream, ice cubes and popsicles. It is important to prevent dehydration because that can contribute to nausea, fatigue and constipation.

Include foods that support your immune system and decrease inflammation. Plant-based foods contain hundreds of different phytonutrients, or immune supporting properties. Phytonutrients often give plants their pigmentation, so an easy way to identify phytonutrient-rich foods is to choose colorful fruits and vegetables. Aim to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables with a goal of five to ten servings each day. In addition to supporting your immune system, vegetables and fruit can also help decrease inflammation along with nuts, whole grains and fish.

Consider meal planning, prepping and grocery shopping in advance. Having a plan in place and groceries on hand can make the postoperative stage go more smoothly when it comes to meals and snacks. Think about dishes you can make in advance and freeze, such as soups, stews and casseroles.

Discuss with your care team any vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements you may be taking. You may need to stop taking some before surgery.

Follow the pre-surgery instructions given by your doctor. These are meant to minimize complications before and after surgery and may include some restrictions on food and beverage intake leading up to your surgery date.

Meet with a registered dietitian who can come up with an individualized plan. They can help optimize your nutrition to support you going into surgery and promote healing and recovery afterwards.