Why Is Protein After Weight Loss Surgery Important?

by | Mar 1, 2023 | Nutrition and Hydration

When you’re thinking about weight loss surgery, you may hear the term floating around ‘protein first.’ What does that mean exactly? Do your protein needs change after weight loss surgery? Questions about your new diet are common, particularly when it comes to protein. Learn about how to keep up with your requirements for protein after weight loss surgery. If you have had surgery, and find yourself not getting enough, this article might be a great reminder as to why you need to be on top of it.

What is the role of protein after weight loss surgery?

Protein comes from the Greek work proteis, which means ‘of primary importance.’ Protein is second only to water in its use throughout our bodies. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, linked together by chemicals called peptide bonds. They are found in every cell in the human body. Protein has several vital functions which include providing structure to cells, providing energy, transporting materials like oxygen and waste, and sustaining a healthy immune system. You know, just the basics 🙂
The thing about protein is that it is used by our bodies, not stored. This means humans need adequate protein intake every day to stay alive and well.

After weight loss surgery your stomach is smaller than it used to be. This means that you have significantly fewer calories you can consume before you physically feel too full to continue eating. Now that your stomach size is smaller, there is no room for empty calories. It is important to note, that reducing the size of your stomach does not decrease your protein needs. In fact, if you have also increased your level of physical activity your protein needs will be higher. Likewise, being able to consume fewer calories means protein becomes a higher priority.  After your surgery, your surgeon and/or dietitian will confirm your precise protein needs. Most times, it is important to create a balance to ensure you are consuming the nutrients you need for a healthy vibrant body.

What are the signs of not having enough protein?

For the weight loss surgery patient there are a few red flags that may indicate your protein intake is inadequate. These might include the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Excess muscle breakdown
  • Thinning or fragile hair or loss of hair
  • Swelling of feet and legs (oedema)
  • Changes in appetite (either nausea or increased hunger)
  • Weight loss stall

It is important to check back with your surgeon if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

What does “protein first” actually mean?

“Protein first” means making protein a priority. How do you do this? Here’s a few ways:

  • Building your meals around lean high-quality protein and nutrient-dense foods
  • Consuming the protein part of your meal first to ensure that if you do feel full, you have consumed adequate protein in every meal
  • Eating better quality protein – this means you have more room in each meal for vegetables, fruits, and other essential nutrients
  • Checking in regularly with your surgeon/dietitian about your protein levels and importantly;
  • Combining your protein intake with sufficient and regular water consumption

high protein foods after weight loss surgery

Water and protein: both of high importance

While protein is extremely important, it is not helpful without adequate hydration. In fact, too much protein when your body is not hydrated can actually stop you from absorbing other vital nutrients. Working on water and protein are therefore both highly important tasks for the bariatric surgery patient.

It is important to note, that hydration takes careful planning after weight loss surgery. It is not advisable to drink and eat together due to your reduced stomach size. Staying on top of hydration after weight loss surgery means drinking small amounts often throughout the day outside of meal times. Your dietitian is a great resource here for helping you plan this part of your new life. Often it comes down to creating new habits purposefully until it becomes second nature. You may also like my last article on meal prepping to inspire you into planning mode.

Additional protein benefits for weight loss surgery patients

  • Protein helps maintain and build muscle mass (maintaining protein intake helps prevent your body breaking down your own muscle mass for protein).
  • Higher muscle mass contributes to a better metabolism which helps burn more calories for increased and sustained weight loss
  • Protein takes longer to digest and keeps you feeling full for longer
  • Helps your body function better (better immune system, hormones)
  • Builds strong hair and nails

Follow-up is key

The delicate balance of adequate protein, hydration, and nutrients is not easy to achieve alone. Good consistent follow-up is one of the best ways to stay on top of all of your nutrition requirements after weight loss surgery. Your needs can often change over time, as you lose weight or adopt different lifestyle changes such as more rigorous exercise.

It is always a good idea to check in regularly on your nutrient levels so that you know your current diet and lifestyle is being supported by a strong, healthy body.

Maintaining good levels is most times easier with the help of a great dietitian. They can look at ways to balance all of your nutritional needs. At the same time, they are helping you to personalise a plan which fits in with your lifestyle and diet preferences.

Feature image by CA Creative on Unsplash 

Disclaimer: This article is of a general nature for educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for medical advice. A 1:1 consultation with a medical professional is always the best approach in order to receive accurate information which is tailored to your individual situation. 

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About Dr Garth McLeod

Dr Garth McLeod is a Sunshine Coast General and Bariatric Surgeon. He is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FRACS) in general surgery, with subspecialty training in obesity and metabolic surgery. Dr McLeod adopts a whole-patient approach to bariatric care with a multidisciplinary team