Post-surgery recovery may be affected by what a patient eats just before an operation, a new study claims.

During surgery, doctors usually have to cut through layers of fat to get to the site of a procedure. Fat, like other tissues of the body, communicates with other tissues through molecular signals, and these communications can have widespread effects.

“Surgeons have learned that generally minimizing trauma accelerates patient recovery from surgery,” senior author and vascular surgery researcher Dr. C. Keith Ozaki said in a statement. “While we do this well for specific organs such as the heart, blood vessels, liver, and so forth, we historically have paid little attention to the fat that we cut through to expose these organs.”

In research whose results were published in the journal Surgery, Ozaki and colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston examined how mice that adhered to different eating regimens recovered from surgery. One group of mice was fed a high-fat diet prior to surgery (with about 60 percent of their calories coming from fat), making them obese, while another group was raised on a more-normal diet (with about 10 percent of their calories coming from fat).

About three weeks before the researchers performed surgery on the mice, some of the animals on high-fat diets were switched to a lower-fat diet.

The surgical procedure performed on the mice quickly affected fat tissues near and far from the surgical site, resulting in inflammation. This effect was especially exacerbated in the obese mice. But reduced food intake right before surgery tended to reverse this effect for both fat and skinny mice.

“Our findings challenge us all to learn more about how fat responds to trauma, what factors impact this response, and how fat’s response is linked to the outcome of individual patients,” Ozaki said.

Overall, the current study points toward restricting diet right before surgery as a way to possibly combat complications with surgery, although the theory still needs to be borne out in human studies.

At least one earlier paper pointed toward slightly different conclusions. A 1988 study of 83 human patients conducted by a trio of researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand found that wounds healed better in the group that had adequate food intake up to the time of surgery, as opposed to those patients whose food intake was reduced by more than one-half in the week before surgery.

“The relationship between surgical outcomes and obesity has always been complex,” Ozaki said. “Our results and those of others highlight that the quality of your fat tissues appears to be important, along with the total amount of body fat when it comes to the body’s response to an operation.”

SOURCE: Nguyen et al. Preoperative diet impacts the adipose tissue response to surgical trauma.Surgery, April 2013.