Food Before and After Surgery

By Haily Cramer – RN

As a surgery nurse and nurse navigator (a new role recently created for nurses in healthcare to “navigate” a patient through the surgery process), one of the biggest parts of my job is educating patients on what they should/shouldn’t eat before surgery, proper nutrition, and what is allowed to be eaten after their procedure. Depending on the hospital or surgery center where surgery will take place, each hospital has their own protocol for what they allow the patient to eat before and after their procedure.

As a patient preparing for a surgery, what should you know about how you should eat and drink before and after your procedure?



1) The Weeks Before Surgery

What You Should Eat:

  • Eat Healthy

Eat balanced meals in fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein.

  • Hydrate with Water

An adult is recommended by the Institute of Medicine to drink 9-13 glasses of water a day (74-101 ounces). * [1]

*Exception: Due to some medical conditions, your doctor/surgeon may ask you to avoid certain food groups or limit the amount of water you can drink. Make sure to clarify with your doctor if there are any special dietary restrictions for your surgery or condition.

What You SHOULD NOT Eat:

  • Excessive Sugar, Candy, and Baked Goods

While eating something sweet once-in-awhile is okay, excessive amounts of sugars can impede on the body’s healing process.[2] Food items such as desserts and some baked goods contain more sugar than patients are aware. It is best to enjoy them sparingly.

  • Avoid Herbal and Dietary Supplements

Talk to your doctor about the supplements you take. According to ASA (The American Society of Anesthesiologists) herbal and dietary supplements can cause complications with anesthesia, bleeding, poor wound healing, blood pressure, heart issues, etc.[3] Examples of herbal and dietary supplements that should be avoided: Ginger, Ephedra (Ma-Huang), Garlic, Ginkgo, Ginseng, Kava, St. John’s Wort, Valerian Root, Vitamin E.

You can find more information on supplements to avoid here: Herbal and Dietary Supplements and Anesthesia 

  • Smoking, Alcohol, and Recreational Drugs

While these items are not “food”, they still enter and affect the body. Quit smoking, drinking alcohol, and drug use as soon as you can before your surgery. This will increase your body’s chances of an easy recovery. Alcohol effects the blood’s ability to clot. Smoking, especially, has been shown to increase the chance of respiratory complications after surgery, lessen the body’s healing process, and reduce blood flow to tissues and organs.[4]

Quitting smoking even the day before your surgery can lower your risk of complications”

 – American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA)

2) The Day Before Surgery

What You Should Eat:

  • Eat Normally

You may eat something light, low in sugar, or a normal diet (as recommended above) before your surgery. *

  • Hydrate Adequately

(As recommended above). *

*Exception: Certain surgeries may require you not to eat anything the day before, or eat only broths or “nectars” the day before. The most common procedures that ask you to do this are colon or bowel surgeries that require a bowel preparation medication to clear your body of fecal material. Make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions for your condition or surgery.

What You SHOULD NOT Eat:

  • Nothing after Midnight

Don’t eat anything after Midnight the day before your surgery. Your stomach needs to be empty at least 8 hours before your surgery to be considered safe for general anesthesia. *

*Exception: Follow your doctor’s instructions for when to stop eating and drinking. Some facilities tell patients not to eat after 10PM if they are the first surgery of the day.

3) The Morning of my Surgery

What You Should Eat:

  • Sips of Water with Medications

You will be advised ahead of time which medications you can still take the morning of your surgery. Take these with a small sip of water at the times and doses recommended by your doctors and surgery team.

  • A Carbohydrate-Rich Beverage *

Some studies on ERAS (Enhanced Recovery After Surgery) are showing drinking a pre-op drink (carbohydrate-rich beverage) 2 hours before surgery aids in recovery. [6] Some hospitals may even give you or recommend a brand-name pre-op drink. Gatorades (that don’t have bright dyes) are considered by some hospitals to be a carbohydrate-rich beverage.

*Exception – Not all hospitals and doctors have adopted ERAS as a method to prepare their patients for surgery. Follow your doctor’s guidelines for eating and drinking the morning of your surgery.

What You SHOULD NOT Eat:

  • No Gum, Chewing, or Smoking

Absolutely do not smoke, chew tobacco, or chew gum the morning of your surgery. * Smoking and tobacco can increase gastric secretions, which puts patients at risk for aspiration pneumonia (inhalation of vomit) if they were to throw up while under anesthesia.

*Exception: Studies are now showing gum doesn’t really increase gastric secretions like doctors used to think [5] – however, for your safety, don’t even risk it. Your anesthesiologist decides if this will cancel your surgery based on their expertise. Longer practicing anesthesiologists may still cancel your surgery for chewing gum. If you accidentally swallow your gum, it is considered “a meal”. This will delay your surgery for 8 hours or cancel it entirely.



What to Eat and Drink Once You are Discharged*

  • Make sure you are consuming nutrient-rich foods to achieve the average daily calories you need for your weight and height. [8] Your body will need these calories or a little more to heal from the trauma of the surgery.

You can find more information on recommended calories, here: Calorie Guidelines

  • Some recommended food items that promote healing can include: berries, vegetables, healthy fats (nuts, oils, fish), dark and leafy greens, meats, eggs, probiotics, bright fruits, whole grains, and water. [9]

You can find more information on a food items in each category, here: Foods to Eat for Recovery After Surgery

  • If you had a urology procedure, most patients should be making about 2 liters of urine or more a day. Drink plenty of fluids to achieve this goal.
  • If you had an orthopedic or general procedure, your doctor may recommend meals higher in protein or calcium to aid with healing of the muscles and bones. [7]

*Exceptions: This is going to depend entirely on your surgery. In general, patients are encouraged to eat balanced meals and start eating again slowly after surgery. Your body may not want food like it did before the procedure. It may take a day or two to get your appetite back. However, having absolutely no appetite or severe nausea or vomiting is not normal. You need to call your surgeon/doctor to discuss these symptoms.



  • It is best to prepare before your procedure. Meal-prepping (preparing frozen meals ahead of time) can lessen the hassle of cooking after your surgery. These meals are already prepared and just need to be put in the oven to be finished.

Here are some links I approve of when it comes to healthy, nutritious freezer meals to make before you have surgery: Freezer Meals to Make before Surgery and 40 Make-Ahead Meals

  • Ask Family and Friends for Help

Ask family members and friends before your surgery if they can help with grocery shopping, watering your plants, take care of your pets and home the first few weeks after your surgery. Depending on the surgery you have, you may be too exhausted or in pain to do these activities. It is also important to have support and socialization during your recovery period. Family and friends are a great way to fill this need.


[1] Recommended Daily Water Intake

[2] Healing After Surgery

[3] Smoking before Surgery

[4] Herbal and Dietary Supplements from ASA

[5] Chewing Gum before Surgery

[6] Ensure Preop Drink

[7] Nutrition for Healing

[8] Daily Calories by Category

[9] 10 Healthy Foods to Eat for Recovery

Contributed By: Haily Cramer for Haily is a Registered Nurse and also working on his Doctorate of Nursing Practice.

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