Protein, in the form of shakes or other supplements is recommended after weight loss surgery. But is protein supplementation also helpful in case of other types of surgery?
Yes and no.
Yes, the body needs more protein after surgery. Protein is needed to repair tissue, decrease the inflammatory process and slow muscle breakdown among other things.
Protein, derived from the Greek word protos, meaning “first” or “primary,” refers to our body’s fundamental need for this nutrient.
Nutrition in general plays an important role in the wound healing process. Adequate protein intake is essential to successful post surgery healing. How much extra intake after surgery is not exactly clear. Estimates vary from about 50 to 100% more during the healing phase.
However, supplementation is not always needed or useful.
No, you don’t need protein supplements after surgery if your appetite is good and you are able to add some additional protein to your diet.
Adding this extra protein to your daily meals can be done by eating some more beans, dairy, eggs, cheese, fish, lean meat or other protein rich foods.
Generally, if you do this you will be fine. Don’t overdo your dairy intake because dairy may cause constipation.
Other foods rich in protein are nuts, tofu, and vegetarian foods, such as tempeh.
protein helps with the regeneration of healthy tissue.
The role of protein in surgical healing
Getting extra protein is especially important after surgery because the body needs it to make immune cells and antibodies, to heal the incision as well as regulate metabolic stress.
After surgery your body makes immune cells and antibodies to reduce inflammation and for wound healing. Just like athletes (e.g. body builders) need more protein to repair the damage they do to their body, can patients who underwent surgery also use extra protein to facilitate the processes going on in the body.
One of those processes is metabolic stress which is a natural process after surgery. It is an imbalance in the body, characterized by a decreased amount of glucose. The severity of the surgery influences the amount of this imbalance.
In reaction to metabolic stress, acute-phase protein production increases. As a result, in case of serious operations, more protein is needed than after less invasive procedures.
How much extra protein after surgery?
Supplementation is not always necessary because most of the patients will be able to increase their protein intake just by adjusting their diet.
As long as you maintain a well-balanced diet and eat about 0.5 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound body weight per day, you do not need protein supplements. As a daily recommended intake this boils down to:
- Adult men on average need about 56 grams a day.
- Adult women on average need about 46 grams a day.
As a general rule of thumb it is recommended to add an additional 20 grams of protein each day. For more serious wounds such as hard to heal ulcers or in older people the recommended intake is higher, up to about 40 grams.
Here’s how you can increase your body’s protein intake ability
Enzymes that naturally occur in your body help digest proteins in food. These proteolytic enzymes (proteases) are produced in the pancreas. Some foods also contain these enzymes. By eating these foods you can increase your protein take.
Foods that are really high in these enzymes are pineapple and papaya. The proteolytic enzymes present in these foods are called bromelain and papayin. Bromelain supplements are also available.
An additional benefit of taking these enzymes after surgery is that they are known to reduce pain and inflammation.
When do you need protein supplementation after surgery?
In case you are not able to eat healthy and eat additional protein.
After surgery there are several reasons why you are not able to eat as you normally do. Drugs, fatigue, intolerances, depression, distasteful hospital food, and complications can interfere with your normal eating habits.
Other reasons you may not be able to eat properly are disrupted taste due to medicine, dry mouth and throat, difficulty chewing or swallowing, and a general reduced appetite because of the situation.
Other situations in which a protein supplement can help as a replacement.
- If additional protein intake can not be achieved by adjusting the diet
- or in case you have a digestive/malabsorbtion problem or
- or had bariatric surgery and initially are not allowed to eat solid foods
- If you eat poorly or are traveling a lot
- When you are protein depleted (common in gastric surgery patiens as well as in some vegans)
Why sufficient protein in the body is important
Without enough protein from food, the body is forced to break down muscle and organ tissue in order to create the needed protein. This not only reduces your immunity but also inferes with healing.
Experimental protein depletion in animals showed a decrease in the tensile strength of wounds. In a study of 108 human patients with experimental wounds, individuals with either low serum protein or serum albumin had significantly weaker wounds than those with normal protein values.
Proper protein levels before surgery
In case of elective surgery it is highly recommended to have optimal protein levels. Not only protein but healthy nutritional parameters in general are important for healing and to reduce the risk on complications.
These levels can be tested and in case of deficiencies replenished before the operation takes place.
Some people are convinced that protein supplementation in the form of shakes or pills benefits everyone who undergoes surgery. Many websites state the same. However, until there are double blind controlled studies that back these claims I am not convinced.
Contrary to protein shakes, some other supplements (vitamins and minerals) do promote post-surgery healing in general. Hit the link to find out more about those recovery boosters.