Managing Your Diet Before And After Colon Surgery

Your colon is central to your digestive system, so it's important to ensure you're receiving adequate nutrients before and after your surgery. It's also crucial to treat your colon with care to avoid any unnecessary digestive stress. Leading up to your procedure, your healthcare provider should outline the instructions for what you may and may not eat before surgery.

For bowel preparation, you will only be allowed to consume clear liquids unless stated otherwise. Following these steps is critical to creating the best surgical conditions. Otherwise, your colon may not be clear enough for surgery, and you may have to reschedule.

The better you follow your dietary instructions, the better your bowel prep and recovery outcomes will be. Most of the time, a low fiber diet is recommended before and after colon surgery. In some cases, your doctor may advise you to follow a soft diet instead of a low fiber diet.

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What to eat before colon surgery

Leading up to your appointment, your doctor should outline what foods are and aren't allowed before your procedure. In most cases, your doctor will advise you to follow a low fiber diet for three to seven days before surgery and a clear liquid diet for 24 to 48 hours before surgery. If you've ever had a colonoscopy before, you may be familiar with the diet and bowel preparatory process.

Low fiber diet  — what you can eat

The low fiber diet (also known as the "low residue diet") makes it easy to completely empty your bowels during the prep before surgery. Studies¹ have shown that following a low fiber diet before your bowel prep leads to the best outcomes. Your doctor may advise you to stay on the low fiber diet after surgery, as well.

As a rule of thumb, you must avoid anything high in fiber, including any raw fruits or vegetables, any fruits or vegetables with skin or seeds (like blueberries), and any unrefined grains. You should also avoid spicy foods and liquids or sweets that are red, orange, or purple. (These colorings can leave residues in the bowels that look like blood.)

Acceptable beverages:

  • Coffee and tea 

  • Carbonated beverages (soda or seltzer/sparkling water)

  • Pulp-free fruit drinks

  • Dairy - limit to two cups per day

  • Soy or oat milk

Acceptable bread, cereals, rice, and pasta:

  • Refined/white bread, rolls, biscuits, and muffins

  • Pancakes and waffles made with white flour

  • Crackers

  • Plain pastries, bagels, donuts, and English muffins

  • White rice

  • Refined pasta

Acceptable cereals:

  • Refined, cooked cereals such as grits, cream of rice, and farina 

  • Refined cereals including puffed rice and corn flakes

Acceptable desserts and sweets:

  • Plain cakes and cookies

  • Sorbet, popsicles, and Jell-O (avoid ANYTHING red, orange, or purple)

  • Hard candies (again, avoid anything red, orange, or purple)

Acceptable fats:

  • Butter, margarine, salad oils, and dressings

  • Plain gravy

  • Mayonnaise

  • Plain cream cheese

Acceptable fruits and vegetables:

  • Most peeled, well-cooked and canned, seedless fruits or vegetables

  • Bananas 

  • Applesauce or fruit cups (pineapple, pear, or peach fruit cups)

  • Seedless jelly

Acceptable meats and proteins:

  • Ground or well-cooked lean beef

  • Ham, pork, poultry, or fish

  • Eggs, cheese

  • Smooth peanut butter

Acceptable potatoes:

  • Cooked white or sweet potatoes without skin

  • Hash browns, tater tots

Acceptable condiments:

  • Salt, pepper, mild spices, herbs

  • Sugar

  • Vinegar, ketchup, mustard

Soft diet — what you can eat

In some cases, your doctor may tell you to follow a soft diet leading up to and following your procedure. This diet is recommended for those with difficulty in chewing or swallowing. The soft diet is also recommended for those who may need to take extra precautions to soothe their digestive tracts.

As its name implies, foods that require a lot of chewing are not permitted while following the soft diet. Instead, stick with soft, easy-to-digest foods, such as:

  • Peeled and mashed vegetables, canned fruits, apple sauce, avocado

  • Farina

  • White bread and softened crackers (you can soak your crackers in milk to soften them)

  • Cooked white pasta or rice

  • Clear broth

  • Baked, poached, or broiled fish

  • Ground or thinly shaved meat

  • Tuna or chicken

  • Silken tofu

  • Hard-boiled eggs and egg salad

  • Butter, margarine, cooking oils, or sauces

Clear liquid diet — what you can drink before colon surgery

In most cases, you will begin your clear liquid diet 24 hours before your procedure unless your doctor has advised otherwise. During this stage, you may not consume any solid foods, dairy, or beverages red, orange, or purple in color.

However, the following liquids are safe to drink before colon surgery:

  • Sports drinks — the electrolytes will help prevent dehydration during your laxative bowel prep

  • Clear broth

  • Apple juice

  • Popsicles

  • Soda

  • Black coffee

  • Black tea

If you have diabetes, opt for low-sugar sports drinks, sodas, and popsicles.

What foods to avoid before colon surgery

The foods you should avoid will vary slightly depending on whether you're following the soft diet or low fiber diet. If you're following the low fiber diet, you must avoid the following:

  • Alcohol

  • Any beverages containing fruit or vegetable pulp

  • Anything red, orange, or purple 

  • Any pieces of bread, grains, pastries, or desserts made with whole-grain flour, bran, seeds, nuts, or coconut

  • Dried fruit

  • Popcorn

  • Oatmeal

  • Whole grain, bran, or granola cereals

  • Any cereals containing nuts, seeds, or coconut

  • Non-white or non-sweet potatoes

  • Any potatoes with skin

  • Any meats that are fried or coated in a whole grain batter

  • Peas, lentils, chickpeas, legumes

  • Chunky peanut butter

  • Hot or Cajun spices, hot sauce

The best foods for after colon surgery

Immediately after surgery, it's important to treat your colon with care. You must give your body adequate time to heal and recover before diving back into a "normal diet." Being careful will help reduce nausea, food intolerances, and other adverse side effects that commonly occur after colon surgery.

During your hospital stay, your care team will help you to reintroduce foods into your diet. At first, you may stay on a clear liquid and low fiber diet regimen until you're ready to start experimenting with "full liquids." Creamy soups, dairy, milkshakes, puddings, and ice creams are examples of full liquids.

While reintroducing new foods, it's best to give yourself one to two hours to fully digest what you ate before trying anything new. That way, if you feel nauseous afterward, you’ll be able to identify what might have upset your stomach quickly. For example, it's common to feel nauseous while reintroducing dairy into your diet after colon surgery.

You may also find it easier to break your meals into four to six smaller portions throughout the day. Eating four to six smaller meals (as opposed to three large meals) helps reduce the stress on your colon.

Some of the best foods you can eat after colon surgery are nutrient-dense, low fiber foods. You should continue to follow the low fiber diet, as outlined above, once you’ve been discharged from the hospital.

How long to stay on a low fiber diet after colon surgery

Your care team will likely advise you to stay on a low fiber diet for one month after your surgery. Once it has been a whole month since your procedure, you may begin slowly reintroducing other foods into your diet with your doctor’s advice. Again, take it slow and go easy on yourself.

The lowdown

Your colon is a crucial part of your digestive system, and it's important to care for it as best as you can before and after surgery. In most cases, your doctor will advise you to follow a low fiber diet for three to seven days before your surgery. You may also have to follow a clear liquid diet for 24 to 48 hours while you're completing your bowel prep.

After surgery, your care team will help reintroduce foods back into your diet. It's also likely that your doctor will recommend staying on the low fiber diet for a month after your procedure. This measure is taken to help reduce nausea and other symptoms that may occur following your surgery.

Remember, you're in great hands, and you're not alone. More than 600,000² surgical procedures are performed to treat or prevent colon disease every year in the United States.

Learn more about colon surgery here.

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