Colon Surgery Diets Explained

NPO Stands Means 'Nothing by Mouth'

Senior patient in hospital bed having lunch
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You don't need a degree in nutrition to appreciate the dietary intricacies associated with colon surgery. Any time your bowels are touched or manipulated in some way, like during bowel surgery, they shut down in self-defense. This is a temporary mechanism, but one that will change the way you approach nutrition in the meantime.

Your doctor may order different diets based on your needs before, during and after your bowel surgery.

Some dietary terms you may hear include:

The doctor will decide when and how to progress your diet following surgery, depending on your general health, the extent of surgery required and your nutritional needs.


NPO stands for nil per os, which is Latin for nothing by mouth. Prior to certain procedures, such as a colonoscopy or bowel surgery, your doctor may tell you to stop all food and fluids six to eight hours prior. This time window allows any remaining food or fluid to leave your stomach, which decreases your risk of complications while receiving sedation. There is the potential that sedation can make you vomit –- if you are sedated and have food or fluids in your stomach, this can create a dangerous situation.

Nothing by mouth includes gum, hard candies, water, smoking (or smokeless tobacco) and medications. Talk to your doctor if you take prescription medication daily.

Clear Liquids

The clear liquid diet can be prescribed for a few days prior to procedures or surgery on the colon. This diet includes all liquid (or liquid at room temperature, like gelatin) foods that you can easily see through. Prior to procedures or surgery, this diet allows all solid food and waste to exit your body, complementing colon-cleansing prep efforts.

Following surgery, a clear liquid diet is ordered to facilitate rest and begin the healing process in your colon, as the liquids are gentle on your digestive tract. Your doctor may also keep you on a clear liquid diet if you are having problems with nausea and vomiting. Most frequently, a clear liquid diet is composed of:

  • Thin meat- or vegetable-based broth (without any solid parts)
  • Consommé or bouillon
  • Flavored gelatin
  • Water (plain or mineral)
  • Tea (mild without cream or milk)
  • Apple or cranberry juice
  • Clear sodas, such as lime, club soda or ginger ale

Soft Diet

The soft diet masquerades under many different names and varieties depending on the reason your doctor ordered it. There are two main types of soft diet, including the soft mechanical, for people with chewing or swallowing difficulties, and the soft digestive, for people who need to take it easy on their digestive tract. If your doctor does not immediately progress you to a regular diet (from the clear liquid diet), he or she will probably order a soft digestive diet to prolong the rest period for your colon. The foods on this diet are still fairly easy to digest, but provide more healing nutrients than the liquid diet and may include:

  • All fluids and soups, including creams
  • Foods with mashed potato or scrambled egg consistency
  • Finely ground or soft meats, such as white fish or tender, fine-cut poultry
  • Fruits and vegetables that are well-cooked
  • Overcooked pastas and soft breads

A rule of thumb for most soft diets: if you can smash it with a fork, you can eat it. Hard, chewy and crunchy foods are not allowed on the soft diet, including tough meats (any meat you have to bite or chew), jerky, raw fruits or vegetables, crackers, nuts, seeds or peanut butter.

Decreasing Side Effects

Your doctor, nurse, and nutritionist can work with you following surgery to ensure your diet does not complicate any symptoms.

While recovering from bowel surgery, you may experience abdominal gas, pain, cramping, bloating and even constipation. Eating and drinking certain foods can exacerbate these symptoms. Foods and beverages that complicate gas pains may include:

  • Beans
  • Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli or cauliflower
  • Dairy
  • Foods containing yeast, such as bread
  • Carbonated drinks (or drinking through a straw)

If you are having abdominal pains or constipation, your doctor may restrict the amount of hard-to-digest foods (meats, fibrous foods) in your diet. You may also try eating smaller portions more frequently and drinking plenty of water to combat constipation or digestive pains. Don’t talk while eating and chew your food thoroughly to reduce gas and increase digestion.

Nausea can sometimes be mitigated by eating a bland diet and refraining from greasy or fatty foods. You may want to try decreasing your intake of dairy, processed and salty foods until your stomach settles. If nausea persists, contact your doctor. He or she may anticipate this symptom with prescription medications. Do not "wait for it to pass" -- most doctors encourage taking your anti-nausea medications as soon as you become uncomfortable.


American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society's Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.

Lange, V. (2009). Be a Survivor. Colorectal Cancer Treatment Guide. Los Angeles: Lange Productions.

Medline Plus. (n.d.). When You Have Nausea and Vomiting. Accessed April 15, 2012.

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