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What foods/nutrients help speed the healing process (such as after surgery)?

We believe that there's every reason to take steps with your diet both pre- and post-surgery to try and optimize the healing process. At the same time, we recognize that most of the research on nutrition and wound healing has been done on animals, and most of it involves nutrients rather than foods. Despite a lack of strong human research in this area, however, we believe that special attention to certain foods and certain nutrients can make a difference when it comes to healing from an event like surgery. The period of time before surgery (approximately two weeks) seems as important to the healing process as the period of time after the surgery (usually two weeks at a minimum and probably longer, until full healing has occurred).

Virtually all vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and macronutrients like protein, fiber, and essential fatty acids are going to help with the healing process. A low quality diet that has few whole, natural foods is going to work against healing, and a nutrient-dense diet filled with whole, natural foods is going to be supportive. While that's a very simple and general statement, it's also a way of remembering that the Healthiest Way of Eating can go a long way in advancing the goal of healing.

Some nutrients have taken center stage in the animal research on healing, and these nutrients include vitamin C, flavonoids, vitamin A, protein, and zinc. Rich sources of vitamin C and flavonoids include fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower, and berries. When it comes to vitamin A, some of these same foods will also be very helpful since they will provide you with rich amounts of beta-carotene, a "pro-vitamin A" nutrient that can be partially converted into fully active vitamin A. Other foods that can provide you with preformed, fully active vitamin A include dairy products and eggs, and calf's liver, which will also provide you with the protein important for healing. Zinc is especially concentrated in red meats as well as nuts and seeds. (If you're increasing red meat to support the healing process, however, make sure that you stick with the very leanest cuts of red meat such as top round, bottom round, eye of round, or ground beef made from them as high intake of total fat and saturated fat are not going to help your healing process, and you'll be at risk in these areas unless you stick with very lean meats.)

While less directly connected to the specifics of healing, fiber is one additional nutrient that deserves special attention in healing. When healing from a surgery or wound, it's especially important to have food flow healthily through the digestive tract, allowing for optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients. A healthy digestive tract can be one of the secrets for optimal healing. Dietary fiber plays a key role here, and should not be overlooked. In addition to the fruits and vegetables already discussed, legumes and beans and whole grains will often be essential in getting your fiber intake up to a level that can promote optimal healing.

Connective Tissue Healing

Healing after surgery may often require special support for connective tissue, which will have to be regenerated for complete healing. While many nutrients that serve as key players in general healing also serve as key players in the healing of connective tissue, there is more to this story and you'll want to pay special attention to diet steps in this area. Connective tissue has a very unique structure that is different than most tissues in the body because it is not composed of cells. Instead, you'll find a special matrix of proteins (primarily collagen), fibers, and cross-purpose molecules (part carbohydrate and part protein in many cases) all embedded in a fluid environment that is unique to tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, and muscle coverings (called fasciae). Along with this uniqueness of connective tissue comes some unique nutrient needs whenever surgery has damaged the tissue, requiring connective tissue regeneration and remodeling. There's research evidence to support a focus on four vitamins when connective tissue healing is required, and those four vitamins are: vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, and the B-complex vitamins. You'll be covering the bases well in this situation if you emphasize green leafy vegetables in your diet (kale, for example, scores "excellent" in our rating system for vitamins A and C, "good" for vitamin E and also for a variety of B-complex vitamins including B1, B2, B3, B6, and folate).

In post-surgery healing, collagen proteins can become an especially important part of connective tissue repair, and for this reason, we've created a separate Q & A on our website entitled, "Can you tell me which foods promote collagen?" For a complete list of food tips that can help support collagen protein formation - including special tips involving garlic, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peanuts, green tea, and special food sources of protein - please see our Q+A Can you tell me which foods promote collagen?.

WHFoods Recommendation

Don't assume that you are stuck, either pre- or post-surgery, with an unalterable situation in which you have no say-so in the health outcome! Research studies make it clear that you can take diet steps to improve the healing process. For key healing nutrients, dark green leafy vegetables and richly-colored red and blue berries can go a long way, as can high-quality protein-rich foods like legumes, nuts and seeds, and if they're an otherwise good fit in your diet, lean meats.


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