Curious Cook: The recovery after

Protein is crucial for recovery and is available through meat, seafood and soy-based products like tofu. — SHERMAN KWAN/Unsplash

As people age, their bodies become more susceptible to various ailments. For some, this would be the result of earlier diseases or other physical conditions. For others, it is likely due to wear and tear as both internal and external organs lose their flexibility, resilience, and recuperation capabilities, resulting in generally poorer health.

However, for increasingly larger numbers of people, it appears that many old-age ailments are the end outcomes of long periods of various constant major or minor abuses, which may be physical, mental, environmental, dietary, or various combinations of all four factors. This may simply be due to living in a modern world packed with unhealthy foods, drinks, stress, and environmental hazards.

Regardless of how such age-related ailments develop, the treatments range from drugs to invasive/intensive procedures (eg, surgery, endoscopy, laser/radiation treatment, etc), and also usually involve some lifestyle changes. For certain specific conditions, newer techniques such as targeted gene therapy may also be available, though this generally applies only in the more developed countries.

This article is about various dietary factors that may help to promote a better, more effective recovery from medical procedures or illnesses.Proteins

One of the top items to consider would probably be ensuring that adequate protein is available in an illness-recovery diet. Protein is essential for healing wounds, tissue repair, and rebuilding muscle mass lost during illness or surgery. Protein also helps the body make new blood cells, reconstruct damaged tissues, and form collagen for wound healing.

Good sources of protein include lean cuts of meats (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, etc), fish and seafood, eggs, legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, peas), various nuts, soy-based foods (e.g. tofu, tempeh), etc.

It would be best if the protein sources were free from contamination by pesticides and antimicrobials. Ideally, the proteins should also be low in saturated fats, as such fats can impede the healing effects of proteins.

Nutrient-dense foods

The next category to focus on would be nutrient-dense foods. This would obviously mean avoiding all ultra-processed foods (UPF), and any starchy or bulky foods with low mineral and vitamin content. Food nutrients play crucial roles in the healing process and the immune system. Some examples include:

Vitamin C is essential for collagen formation, tissue remodeling, and wound healing. The most plentiful source is possibly the Asian guava fruit, but other common sources include kiwifruits, citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, bell peppers, papayas, and Brussels sprouts.

Zinc is heavily involved in wound healing, repair of tissues, and importantly, boosting the immune system, which can help reduce the risk of secondary infections. The best source is probably oysters, followed by other shellfish, lean beef, lean pork, pumpkin seeds, etc.

Iron is necessary for making new red blood cells, which are needed for wound healing and transporting oxygen to tissues. There are many rich sources of iron, which include liver, oysters, other shellfish, lentils, spinach, tofu, sardines, and iron-fortified foods.

Nutrient-dense foods also tend to contain lots of antioxidants, which are used to protect cells from damage. Antioxidants also reduce inflammation, which can significantly aid recovery. Foods with lots of antioxidants are easy to spot because they tend to be brightly coloured or dark green vegetables.

However, there are very diverse and different types of antioxidants so it would be a good strategy to eat a mix of berries, nuts/seeds, and colourful vegetables. Then one can also add different antioxidants with coffee, green tea, other fruits, and dishes cooked with spices such as turmeric, cloves, cumin, ginger, parsley, etc.

Vitamin D

An often overlooked but important nutrient for people recovering from surgery and illness is Vitamin D. Perhaps it is because people are aware that the body can make its own Vitamin D from sunlight, and hence the assumption is that there is no need to supplement it from the diet.

However, the body’s capacity to produce the vitamin decreases significantly with age, and generally, people aged 65 or more would be able to produce only a quarter of the Vitamin D of people aged 20. Statistically, people lose around 13% of their Vitamin D production capacity every decade after the age of 20.

A study suggested that the human body can use perhaps up to 37.5% more Vitamin D when recovering from trauma and diseases than normal people. Hence, it is entirely feasible for aged patients to suffer from a deficiency in this nutrient even while sitting periodically in the sun.

Staying adequately hydrated is crucial for promoting wound healing and nutrient movement. — ENGIN AKYURT/UnsplashStaying adequately hydrated is crucial for promoting wound healing and nutrient movement. — ENGIN AKYURT/Unsplash

Vitamin D3 (also known as “cholecalciferol”) is important in the recovering body because it helps reduce inflammation, which is beneficial in the post-surgery/illness period. It also improves cardiovascular health and strengthens bones and muscles, aiding recovery.

Multiple studies have investigated the link between Vitamin D and patients involved in orthopaedic and other surgeries. The data suggests strongly that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with impaired wound healing, increased risk of infections, longer hospital stays, and poorer surgical outcomes overall.

Furthermore, a systematic review found that 84% of studies reported one or more significantly worse outcomes in patients who were deficient in Vitamin D after various types of surgical procedures. These negative outcomes include surgical site infections, graft failure, cardiac issues, and increased mortality risk.

How Vitamin D works is linked to the ubiquitous presence of Retinoid X Receptors (RXR) in many tissues throughout the body. The RXR have specialised Vitamin D Receptors (VDR) which combine with activated forms of Vitamin D, forming special proteins known as “VDR-RXR heterodimers”.

How these proteins work is beyond the scope of this column, but the final outcomes are the expression of a wide array of genes involved in cellular processes such as proliferation (multiplication of cells), differentiation (specialisation of cells), apoptosis (destruction of errant/damaged/aged cells) and improving the immune function.

Hence, Vitamin D has some influence over 300 metabolic pathways in the body, and this explains its importance in promoting soft tissue and bone healing.

One important thing to remember is that Vitamin D is only soluble in fat. Hence, it is necessary to have some oils or fats at the same time as taking Vitamin D (preferably as drops). A suggested daily intake level of 2,000IU should be enough. Note that taking a tablet of Vitamin D with water or juice has very little effect on its absorption.


Adequate hydration is crucial for nutrient transport, wound healing, and preventing constipation. It is therefore suggested to drink between 1.8 to 2.3 litres of fluids throughout the day, such as water, broths, herbal teas, and unsweetened juices.

Small, frequent meals

Eating smaller, more frequent meals (5-6 per day) can aid digestion and reduce discomfort, gas, and nausea that may occur during an illness or after surgery. A sequence of smaller meals also ensures that the body receives a steady supply of nutrients throughout the day, which can be important for recovery.

Dark green veggies are typically very nutrient-dense. — YAROSLAV SHURAEV/PexelsDark green veggies are typically very nutrient-dense. — YAROSLAV SHURAEV/Pexels


The amount of dietary fibre may need to be augmented, especially if constipation is a problem. However, in situations where there is digestive discomfort or diarrhoea, then fibre may need to be reduced until the digestive tract recover. Fibre is easily available via whole grain foods, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds.


Alcohol should be avoided during recovery as it can interact with medications, cause dehydration, and possibly also impair wound healing. It can also increase the risk of complications and slow down the healing processes in the body.

Stay off the rubbish

One potential issue during recovery is that the healthy diets may be somewhat bland, and hence there may be urges to eat some tasty UPFs. But succumbing to a bucket of fried chicken or a greasy burger with fries washed down with a sugary drink can contribute significantly to inflammation and disruption to the body’s equilibrium during the recovery phases. It is almost certainly not worth the risk.

Zinc helps boost the immune system and can be found in foods like oysters. — ELLE TAKES PHOTOS/PexelsZinc helps boost the immune system and can be found in foods like oysters. — ELLE TAKES PHOTOS/Pexels

An optimum diet?

Looking at the situation from another perspective, it is highly plausible that a diet for people recovering from illnesses can also be considered an optimum diet for daily living. All the requisite good, healthy nutritional factors are fulfilled along with the avoidance of the usual negative dietary elements. It is something to think about as part of a healthy lifestyle.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Curious Cook , Chris Chan , recovery , illness , fibre , Vitamin D


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