Why Should I Eat Protein First After Bariatric Surgery?

Published March 30, 2021 By Anne Cook Carroll, MS, RDN

Protein is a critically important macronutrient to consume after bariatric surgery for adequate healing, controlling satiety, and supporting weight loss. Protein helps to build and repair tissue and muscle as well as provide a source of energy. Eating enough protein helps promote weight loss from fat stores and not muscle, preserving our lean muscle mass. 

Because the volume of food you eat is going to decrease after surgery due to the smaller size of your stomach, it is essential that you prioritized getting protein at every meal. In general, we want to make sure our meals are high in protein and nutrient dense to meet our bodies macro and micronutrient needs. 

Consider the quality of the protein you are consuming, which is measured by the amino acid profile and ratio as well as its bioavailability (meaning how efficiently our bodies can utilize the protein). Animal-based proteins (including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and whey protein) tend to be higher quality proteins, containing more protein grams per ounce and all nine essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are building blocks of proteins that our body cannot make, and therefore, we need to consume them through diet. It is possible to get a complete protein intake on a vegetarian diet by consuming foods with complementary proteins, which can be achieved by diversifying your intake of plant-based proteins.

The types and consistency of proteins you can consume will depend on which stage of the post-operative diet progression you are currently following. Once you start the full-liquid phase of the post-operative diet plan, you should be looking to get at least 60-80 grams of protein per day from protein shakes. It is important to have an understanding of how much protein is in your food. Three ounces of most animal proteins (like chicken, meat or fish) contain about 150 calories and 20 grams of protein. As a visual reference, three ounces of protein is about the size of a deck of cards. You may not be able to consume nine ounces of protein from food sources in a day from a volume perspective, which is why protein shakes and powders are helpful supplements to reach your target daily protein intake. We recommend working closely with a dietitian to assess your individualized protein and calories needs.

High Protein Foods:

  • Animal-based proteins: Fish, shrimp, chicken, turkey, beef, pork
  • Dairy: 0 or 1% plain Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, skim milk
  • Vegetarian protein sources: tofu, seitan, tempeh, nuts, beans, quinoa, fortified alternative milks (like unsweetened almond milk), soy products 
  • Protein shakes: Ensure, Premier Protein
  • Protein powder: Whey protein isolate powder

Tips for incorporating more protein into your diet:

  • Include at least one homemade protein smoothie or packaged protein shake a day (you will consume more than this during the full-liquid phase of the diet progression to meet your needs) 
  • Aim for 3 ounces of protein at every meal
  • Eat 3 meals and 1-2 snacks throughout the day to ensure you are meeting your needs.
  • Eat the protein on your plate first, followed by fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This way we make sure that if we start to get full, we have fit in our protein.

Team Tip:

Since it’s common (and expected!) to fill up faster than before surgery – less room available for food – it’s all the more important to be sure you focus on eating protein first! Because protein is priority, eating it before all other foods will ensure you’re meeting your protein needs. Working closely with your Registered Dietitian can help you find the best sources you tolerate best!