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Science in Mind

Could changing your diet weeks before surgery help healing?

To surgeons, fat has long been the tissue that gets pulled out of the way to clear space for the delicate work of repairing a heart or removing a tumor. Now, a new mouse study provides evidence that fat is more than just bodily bubble wrap.

The work, led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, shows that a short-term switch to a low-fat diet can change the way fat responds to the trauma of surgery — and perhaps could reduce complications and speed recovery.

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“Over the last few decades, we’ve learned that if you minimize trauma to the liver, kidney, blood vessels, or heart when you operate, it helps accelerate people’s recovery from surgery,” said Dr. C. Keith Ozaki, a vascular surgeon at the Brigham. “We never really think of that fat tissue. We bore right through it, burn and yank it aside.”

In the study, published in the April issue of the journal Surgery, Ozaki and colleagues provide early evidence in mice that short-term changes in diet in the weeks prior to an operation can have biological effects that may translate to healthier recovery.

The researchers raised three groups of mice: one on a low-fat diet, another on a high-fat diet, and a third group that was raised on the high-fat diet and then switched to the healthier low-fat diet three weeks before surgery. Then, the researchers mimicked surgical procedures on each mouse. They cut into their fat, opened and closed a clamp several times in the animals, and burned a section of fat tissue before stitching them back up.

The researchers found that the fat behaved differently in each case. In the high-fat group, genes involved in inflammation were very active compared with those in the mice raised on the low-fat diet and production of specialized hormones decreased.

But the mice that had eaten the low-fat diet for just three weeks had fat that behaved more like the fat tissue in mice that had been raised only on a low-fat diet.

Ozaki said he hopes to move forward with pilot studies in people. Based on the animal research, Ozaki believes modifying a patient’s diet for as little as one week before surgery — for example, by cutting back on protein — might have a meaningful effect.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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