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To Eat Or Not To Eat Before Surgery? 

Learn how nutrition can be the key to a better recovery.

Getting ready for surgery
Apr 25 2017

If you are about to undergo a surgery, such as a knee replacement or a cardiac procedure, running a marathon is likely the last thing on your mind. But having a major operation has much in common with running a marathon.

During both, your body requires a lot of energy due to the significant amount of stress it is put under. The stress that happens during surgery can lead to weight and muscle loss, inflammation, poor wound healing and complications like infections. Yet the latest research shows that having certain nutrition in the weeks and days before and after surgery can help reduce these risks for a speedier, swifter recovery.  

"Just like you wouldn’t fast before a big race, you want to prepare your body to have the strength and energy needed for a major procedure," says  Jacqueline Boff, Ph.D., M.B.A., research scientist at Abbott. 

For this reason, many hospitals are beginning to adopt surgical guidelines from the ERAS (Enhanced Recovery After Surgery) Society and the American College of Surgeons that help patients achieve a faster recovery. These guidelines include consuming certain nutrition before and after surgery.

The Role of Nutrition in Recovery

For anyone going in for a major operation, Boff shares 5 tips on how nutrition can help fuel your body for a better recovery:

1. Ramp Up Your Nutrient Intake

To support your recovery, eat more high-quality proteins and complex carbohydrates before and after surgery. Even as you rest after surgery, your body is burning calories to help you recover.

For many, nausea after surgery can prevent them from eating for up to three to four days. Work with your hospital staff to make sure you are getting enough calories and nutrients.

2. “Carb-Load” Before Surgery

Runners aren’t the only ones to benefit from “carb-loading,” with research showing that you lose more glycogen – a form of carbohydrates stored in your muscles for energy – during surgery than while training 2½ hours for a bike race or run[1].

Research shows carbohydrate-loading before surgery can help reduce:

Plus, it can help prevent the short-term insulin resistance that is experienced by surgical patients who fast prior to surgery, which can lead to complications, Boff says.

Abbott, the maker of Ensure, recently announced a new nutrition drink, Ensure Pre-Surgery Clear, a carbohydrate-loading drink that can be drank up to two hours before surgery, which meets guideline recommendations.  


3. Boost Your Immune Function with Arginine and Omega-3s

The stress from surgery can trigger inflammation, which can lead to complications. This stress can continue for several weeks and weaken the immune system, making you more prone to infections.

Nutrition containing immune-enhancing ingredients, such as arginine and omega-3 fatty acids, can help. To support immune health and recovery, try to get:

  • 4-12 grams of arginine which is an amino acid naturally found in red meat, poultry, fish and dairy products

  • 1-3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids naturally found in a variety of fish and fish oils

These nutrients also are found in immunonutrition drinks, such as the new Ensure Surgery Immunonutrition Shake, which is recommended for patients in the week leading up to and following surgery.  

4. Keep Up Your Strength and Energy with Protein

In older adults, three days of bed rest can cause up to 10 percent of total leg muscle loss.

That’s why getting up and moving as soon as possible following surgery can help patients preserve their lean muscle, and stay strong and make a faster transition back into their regular routine. In fact, many hospitals are encouraging patients to be up and moving as soon as possible after surgery to help with recovery. 

But you can’t do it alone – and nutrition can help. Increasing your protein intake before and after surgery can help protect your muscles. 

5. Be Your Body’s Biggest Advocate

The impact of nutrition before and after surgery is important. If you or a loved one is scheduling a surgery, make sure you ask about the hospital’s guidelines and advocate for nutrition.   

"Patients need to be their own advocates," says Sherry. "If you or a family member are going in for surgery, discuss with your doctor how nutrition can help jump start the healing process and get you back to your life and daily activities." 


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