Eat this, Not that for Optimal Surgical Recovery

by: Ashley Lucas, PhD, RD

If you’ve undergone surgery you probably want to give your body the best fighting chance to fully recover. For most of us, the end goal of surgery is to allow our body to be stronger than it was before. If this is you, it’s important to understand that surgery puts a lot of stress on your systems, therefore you want to be aware of all the lifestyle factors that significantly impact your body’s ability to restore, repair, and heal well. A big one? YOUR DIET.

While research clearly shows that quitting smoking is one of the primary things you can do to support your body in its surgical recovery (smoking increases the risk of surgical wound complication by 700%? Yikes), another addiction to quit is SUGAR.

Sugar is becoming ubiquitous in the American diet and is linked to serious diseases including, but not limited to obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Evidence shows that high sugar intake is actually toxic to the human body. The average American consumes 17+ teaspoons of sugar daily. On average, we each consume 156 pounds of refined sugar every year; in the 19th century, that total was 19 to 20 pounds per year. The recommended daily allowance for added sugars for women is less than 6 teaspoons per day and for men less than 9 teaspoons per day. That equates to less than one full can of soda!

Fun Fact: To determine the number of teaspoons of sugar in an item, divide grams of total carbohydrates by 4.

The correlation of sugar consumption to poor bone health is not highly publicized, yet is becoming evident in current literature. Research shows that sugar intake, fructose specifically, disrupts your body’s mineral balance. In individuals with higher sugar intake, calcium stores are significantly reduced due to increased urinary calcium excretion. Greater phosphorus losses have also been seen in those with higher fructose intake. Sugar consumption is linked to increased cortisol production (a stress hormone that promotes abdominal fat and muscle breakdown) and increased risk for osteoporosis despite adequate calcium intake. Lastly, sugar reduces the capacity of our immune system, something that we need heightened during periods of recovery.

Added sugar is found in a lot of foods, especially those made to be low fat, light or fat-free, so be cautious during your grocery shopping. Here are some additional tips:

  1. Watch out for hidden sugars in sweetened dairy products (think flavored yogurts), spaghetti sauces, salad dressings, condiments, granola bars, cereals, and highly processed foods in general.
  2. Be aware of marketing claims. Just because the words all natural, organic, or whole grain stamp the front of the package, doesn’t mean that the product is healthy. These products often contain MORE sugar than other brands.
  3. Read the nutrition label and try your best to purchase products low in sugar. Look for items that have less than 15 grams of total carbohydrates per serving and contain more than 5 grams of fiber. For example, go for the chocolate sea salt KIND bar over a Lara bar.

Foods that should also be avoided due to high sugar content are sodas, fruit juices, candy, cakes, ice cream, and cookies. If you’re craving a sweet, curb that desire with lower sugar fruits like berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc). Look up recipes for low-carb fat bombs; they are delicious, nutritious, and will stop your cravings in a heartbeat.

Foods to focus on during your recovery include vegetables of all different colors, animal protein of all types including fattier cuts is okay for most people, eggs (including the nutrient dense yolk), healthy fats (don’t skimp or you’ll get hungry) like avocado oil, first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and even butter, full fat plain Greek yogurt (if tolerated) topped with berries, nuts, seeds, and fruits focusing on antioxidant rich berries over tropical fruits. Drop the soda completely and opt for bubbly water, plain water, almond milk, or unsweetened green tea (iced or hot).

Change is hard, but it is possible as long as your desire to change significantly outweighs your desire to stay the same. Take small steps, baby steps even, toward overhauling your diet and you will find a huge pay off, not only in a strong surgical recovery but in every aspect of your life. Everything starts with your health; you deserve to FEEL good and you are worth it!!!

“It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop” – Confucius

Dr. Ashley Lucas, PhD, RD has 15+ years of education in nutrition and metabolism. She holds a PhD in Sports Nutrition and Chronic Disease and is a Licensed Registered Dietitian (RD). Dr. Lucas, a consulting nutritionist for OFAC is also founder and CEO of PhD Weight Loss.