Learn which foods and nutrients help you to recover faster from surgery

Best Foods and Nutrients To Recover Faster From Surgery

By Bryan Carroll CFMP, NTP, FAFS

July 18, 2019

In the US, there are around 60 million surgeries performed each year. And for the majority of surgeries, you are looking at a 12+ week recovery phase.

If you are having an orthopedic surgery, then the recovery time can vary quite a bit. For a knee replacement, it can take around 4 months to be back to your normal activities. Where as an ACL surgery can take up to a year to get back to full strength.

Most surgeons only tell you the next physical steps to take after surgery to recover, but none of them tell you what to eat after surgery. Foods can greatly improve the way you recover. Specific nutrients help for the tissues to heal, while avoiding certain foods can help to reduce the overall inflammation.


How Foods Support the Healing Process After Surgery

For the healing process to occur, nutrients are needed to repair the tissues and the bones. The body does the best it can to piece together the proper nutrients for this, but the Standard American Diet does a poor job of providing these nutrients.

Even if you don’t change the way you eat after surgery, it would still be better for your body to get some of these nutrients either from food or supplemental form.

Surgeries repair either bone or tissue, and sometimes both. Therefore, we will take a look at how to optimally repair from both types of surgeries.

Foods and Nutrients That Support Bone Growth

Bones are the support structure of the body. When they break down, then the tissues surrounding them have to try and take over, which can lead to pain and inflammation.

Bones also contain the majority of the calcium in the body. Which means to help with the regrowth process, it requires a lot of minerals and cofactors.

Calcium- 1200mg RDA

Calcium is added to a lot of different processed foods to help us “build strong bones”, which you have probably seen in the tv commercials for milk. Yet the majority of the time, the calcium found in these foods are in forms we don’t absorb well, or doesn’t have the other nutrients necessary for absorption.

Too much unabsorbable calcium can also lead to deficiencies in other minerals, like magnesium.

It is best to get calcium naturally from foods instead of in a fortified form.

Foods rich in calcium tend to be green leafy vegetables, or raw dairy products. Since most people aren’t used to having raw milk, it may be a better option to use a raw fermented dairy product such as yogurt or kefir.

Here are some foods rich in calcium:

  • Raw Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Sardines
  • Almonds
  • Broccoli

However, if you are loading up on calcium, you want to make sure you are also getting magnesium into your diet. These two minerals work hand in hand, and you don’t want to focus on one without the other.

It takes a lot of nutrients to heal bones, learn what foods contain these nutrients

Magnesium- 310-420mg RDA (Most People Probably Need 500-700mg)

Magnesium is one of the most depleted nutrients in our food supply. It is pretty common to see magnesium deficiencies in people if you run a hair mineral analysis.

This happens because of the depletion of nutrients from the soil. When crops are constantly planted in the same spots, then the nutrients are used up, except for the few main nutrients that are used to fertilize the soil for the next crop (hint, this doesn’t include magnesium).

While you may get some magnesium naturally from the foods listed below, it would be more beneficial to get it in a supplement form. Jigsaw makes a slow-release magnesium tablet that allows your body to better absorb the magnesium throughout the day.

Foods that are known to contain magnesium are:

  • Cooked Spinach
  • Avocados
  • Swiss Chard
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Almonds
  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Black Beans

Luckily, quite a few foods that contain calcium also contains magnesium! This helps with the absorption and also shows that nature understands the delicate balance between calcium and magnesium.

Vitamin D- 1000-4000 IU

Vitamin D is part of the trio of nutrients needed for proper absorption of calcium.

Vitamin D helps to absorb calcium in the gut. It also helps to regulate the serum concentration of both calcium and phosphorus to support remineralization of bones.

While the best way to get Vitamin D is via sunlight, most of us don’t have the luxury to sit in the sun for 8 hours every single day. Therefore, it is important to get adequate amounts from food, and via supplementation.

Foods rich is Vitamin D are:

  • Wild Caught Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Mackerel
  • Beef Liver
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms

The Vitamin D levels in beef liver and eggs are drastically higher if the animals are actually outside grazing like they should be. So make sure to get grassfed beef or truly free-ranged eggs.


While calcium is the main mineral in bone formation, it needs its partner phosphorus to be successful.

Phosphorus combining with calcium is what makes up the maximum strength of bones. It is the second most abundant mineral in the body, with 80% of it found in our bones and teeth.

We actually can get quite a bit of phosphorous from our diet. Meat is a main source for phosphorus, but so is soda and processed foods. In fact, most people get too much phosphorus compared to calcium, which can again throw the ratios out of balance. A good range is to get an even ratio of calcium to phosphorus.

Vitamin C- 1000mg-2000mg

Another key cofactor for laying down new bone formation is Vitamin C. Vitamin C helps to build up the collagen matrix that new bone lays down on. This helps to create the strong layers of bone to assist in the recovery process.

Vitamin C also stimulates the cells to build new bone. Once stimulated, it assists calcium in the absorption process.

Foods rich in Vitamin C are:

  • Oranges
  • Strawberries
  • Papaya
  • Grapefruit
  • Black Currant
  • Red Pepper
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Cauliflower

Foods and Nutrients That Support New Tissue Growth

In every single case of surgery, there will be some soft tissue damage. Right when the scalpel makes an incision, that starts to damage the connective tissue matrix.

The connective tissue matrix are vast layers of tissues that are all connected. While we may think of the body as segments (knee, hip, shoulder, etc), the entire body is connected.

For instance, if an incision is made at your knee, then the connective tissue matrix around your shoulder may change.

Since this matrix is always influenced during surgery, supporting new tissue growth will always be a factor we need to think about.

As you’ll see, there is a lot of crossover between bone growth and tissue growth. We will talk about the key nutrients needed for healing the tissues.

And if you want to learn more about how to keep your soft tissue healthy after you are recovered, this podcast episode was our top episode from 2017.


Protein is what makes up the majority of our tissues. Therefore, the better the quality of protein we eat, the better the process for rebuilding tissues.

Protein itself is a very generalized term. Protein is made up of amino acids, and 9 of the amino acids are essential (meaning we cannot make it). This means we have to get those 9 amino acids from our diet.

The essential amino acids are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

If you are a meat eater, it is much easier to get your essential amino acids since most animal products contain all 9 essential amino acids. For plant-based diets, you typically have to have a variety of high-protein plant sources to ingest enough of the essential amino acids.

The below infographic shows some of the common foods for each essential amino acid:

These are the 9 essential Amino Acids that we must get from the foods we eat

 Vitamin C

The most abundant protein source in the body is collagen. It makes up bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, blood vessels, teeth, and even hair.

So how can you support collagen production in the body? Vitamin C helps the body to form new collagen, which helps the wound to heal up faster.

Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, which means it helps the body to get rid of free radicals that can accumulate from your surgery.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is extremely important for the immune system and to support it during the healing phases.

When your body undergoes surgery, the immune system has to move in quick to prevent infections and clean up the debris left behind from the incisions. This causes inflammation in the body.

Sources rich in Vitamin A are:

  • Kale
  • Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Sweet Potato
  • Beef Liver
  • Butter
  • Egg Yolks


Zinc not only supports the immune system to fight off infection and reduce inflammation, it also is a key mineral for wound healing.

In this study from 2018, Zinc plays a role in every step of the wound healing process. The study mentions that it supports the immune system, repairs cell membranes, and even improves scar formation.

Sources rich in Zinc are:

  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Hemp Seeds
  • Cashews
  • Oysters
  • Grass-Fed Beef
  • Lamb
  • Chicken
  • Yogurt or Kefir
These nutrients are important for healing wounds, and will help wounds to heal faster

What Foods Should You Avoid When Recovering From Surgery

After you have surgery, it is best to avoid foods that cause the most inflammation in the body.

When the body is damaged, the immune system will increase inflammation in the damaged area to increase blood flow, and to fight off any possible infections.

The inflammatory response to the damaged area is normal, and we should allow the body to naturally heal as best we can. But the problem is if you are eating foods that you have sensitivities to, this can cause systemic inflammation (meaning inflammation throughout the entire body).

If there is systemic inflammation, then the nutrients, blood supply, and immune system that should be focused on the injured area has to then spread its resources across the entire body.

When this occurs, the recovery process can take much longer, and can make it so you don’t recover to the same point it was at before surgery.

Most Common Inflammatory Foods

It is always best to get a food sensitivity test done before you have surgery so you can see the foods that are causing the most inflammation in you.

There are 2 types of testing for this:

IgE testing is used to find food allergies. These allergies have an immediate response, and are what you think about if someone has a peanut allergy,

IgG testing is used to discover delayed food sensitivities. This is when your body can have a reaction to a food 24-72 hours after you have eaten that food. Instead of having an anaphylactic reaction, this would be more subtle, like bloating, gas, mucus in the throat, foggy brain, and sinus congestion. 

If you don’t get tested for food sensitivities, then it would be best to avoid the most common foods that cause inflammation. These foods include:

  • Dairy
  • Gluten
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Shellfish
  • Caffeine

Other foods to limit or avoid are:

  • Alcohol (especially if you are on pain medications)
  • Sugar
  • Refined Grains
  • Processed Foods
  • Hydrogenated Oils

Luckily it is much easier now to find food options that don’t have any of these inflammatory foods! We love to use Real Plans as a meal planner and recipe finder to filter out the foods you can’t eat.

What Are the Best Supplements For Healing After Surgery

This is a very common question we receive, “Can’t I just take supplements to help with healing?”

Yes, supplementation is always a way to support your body, especially during a time such as surgery where your body and digestive system have been compromised from the anesthesia and other drugs during surgery.

However, supplements are to “supplement” a healthy diet. So make sure to make the food dietary changes to go along with the supplements so you aren’t flushing expensive urine down the toilet.

Recovering From Surgery Final Thoughts

You are most likely already stressed about the surgery process, and that is totally understandable. If you are new to making dietary changes, it would be best to pick 1 or 2 options to change or add in to your current regime, and that will help you in the recovery process.

If you have been working on improving the foods you eat for awhile, then add and change whatever you can comfortably stay consistent with. Remember, changes don’t matter if you aren’t consistent with it!

Do you have a surgery coming up? If so, let us know what the surgery is on and what your concerns are in the comments below!

Learn how to build stronger bones and tissues after surgery
About the author

Bryan Carroll CFMP, NTP, FAFS

Bryan Carroll is a certified Functional Medicine Practitioner and Movement Therapist who helps the outdoors community to reduce injuries and improve their health so they can get back to exploring nature. His big health crisis from mold exposure taught him the importance of finding the root causes to illnesses so you can take back control of your life. He is also the host of the Summit For Wellness Podcast.

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