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How to Eat After Abdominal Surgery

Contributed by Nancy Burke, R.D., Danielle Karsies, M.S., R.D., and Melissa Shannon-Hagen, R.D., CSO, U-M Rogel Cancer Center Symptom Management and Supportive Care Program

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If you are having major abdominal surgery including gynecologic, urologic or colorectal surgery, you may have some issues with eating afterward.

Problems with digestion can arise due to the inflammatory response to intestinal manipulation and trauma during surgery. This may lead to more gas production when eating, which can be painful if you are unable to pass it or at the very least embarrassing if you can. In addition, some people can become nauseous or have diarrhea shortly after meals. This is just a sign that your stomach is feeling stressed with the burden of your meal and temporary adjustments will need to be made to ease that burden.

The top two tips that will help you best tolerate your diet after surgery sound simple but make a huge difference. These simple steps decrease the amount of work your stomach has to do to digest your food:

  • Take small bites, chew well, and take time to eat. The better you chew your food the more the enzymes in your saliva can help with digestion and the smaller pieces are easier for your gastric juices to break down. In addition, when you eat slowly you take in less air which should reduce gas production.
  • Eat small frequent meals. Try for five or six small meals per day such as yogurt and fruit or milk and peanut butter on toast.

If you continue to have gas, nausea or diarrhea, you may need to reduce the time it takes to digest your food. You can do this by decreasing the fiber and fat content of your food. Fiber-rich foods, while normally very beneficial to our digestive tract, can be irritating after abdominal surgery. These include any whole grain product such as whole wheat bread, pasta, beans, vegetables and fruit. During the six week recovery period after surgery, choose light brown or white breads, cook vegetables and keep servings sizes to ½ cup per meal, and peel raw fruit or used canned versions instead. Minimize your intake of fried, greasy foods and avoid having several high fat foods in one meal.

With these dietary adjustments you should be able to eat comfortably, which is important because the food we eat is the fuel that will help your body heal after surgery.

The most important nutrition goals after surgery are four-fold:

  • Drink lots of fluids. They are necessary for the transport of nutrients and oxygen to the wound area to promote healing. Try to drink at least 64 to 80 ounces of fluids throughout the day to stay well hydrated.
  • Eat enough calories to maintain your weight. If you are not eating enough calories, then you are not getting enough fuel to support the healing process.
  • Eat more protein. Protein aids in collagen formation, tissue remodeling, and skin structure that are all important for healing. Good protein sources include all animal meats, soy foods such as tofu and tempeh, eggs, dairy, nuts and nut butters, and beans.
  • Try not to eat the same things every day.
  • Avoid foods high in sugar, fat and/or sodium

If gas, nausea or diarrhea make it hard for you to follow these tips, try taking a general multivitamin with mineral supplement that includes 100% of the DRI for vitamin A, C and zinc which help the healing process. If you continue to have problems eating, your wound isn't healing well, and/or you are losing weight, contact your doctor and ask about talking to a dietitian.

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