Tips for Cooking and Eating After a Gastrectomy

by Pamela Kaufman Health Writer

Chef Hans Rueffert, a tough competitor on “The Next Food Network Star” in 2005, certainly knows how to cook. After his stomach removal surgery (known as a “gastrectomy”) for stomach cancer, though, he needed to learn how to eat. Here, the cancer survivor talks about how he changed his pantry — and his perspective — and shares the food and cooking strategies that helped him most.

Appetizers on tray.
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Go for quality over quantity

Instead of three large meals a day, aim for six to eight small meals or snacks. “When I had a stomach, I wasn’t happy unless I was miserably full,” Rueffert says. “Now it’s about quality. That doesn’t mean expensive; it just means well-thought-out, intentional, deliberate food.”

Food and journal.
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Keep a food diary

“This was the single best piece of advice I got after my gastrectomy,” Rueffert says. Write down everything. “I didn’t realize how many miniature candy bars I was sneaking in a day. That alone can be enough to tip the apple cart, so to speak.” Record what you eat and how you feel afterward, then use that information to pinpoint foods to seek out or avoid as well as share with your doctor.

Sugar in bowl.
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Watch out for sugar

If you’ve had a gastrectomy, you might know (or not yet know) that a big dose of sugar can trigger something called dumping syndrome, creating a host of symptoms that range from uncomfortable to alarming. “Once I began paying attention to the glycemic index of foods and started going for Stevia instead of sugar, I found those crashes were fewer and farther between,” Rueffert reports. He uses diabetic cookbooks focusing on limiting sugar intake to counteract this.

Orange cut in half.
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Beware of acid

“You need stomach acid to process the acid in foods,” Rueffert says. “It’s not that I can’t eat very acidic foods like citrus; I just need to be careful.”

Almonds and almond butter.
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Try nut butters

“For me, nut butters are essential in maintaining and gaining weight,” Reuffert says. He’ll stir a spoonful of peanut butter into a split-pea soup, for instance, or mix some cashew butter into a vinaigrette. He adds this caveat: “I’ve known people who can’t tolerate nuts post-gastrectomy. Just because something works for me doesn’t mean it’s going to work for someone else.”

Kefir and cottage cheese.
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Focus on dairy products with live and active cultures

Lactose can be a challenge for some people post-gastrectomy. But Rueffert says he does well with dairy foods that contain “good” bacteria that help digest lactose, including yogurt, kefir, cultured cream cheese, and hard cheeses like Swiss.

Vegetarian meal.
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Eat meat sparingly

For people who’ve had a gastrectomy, meat can be problematic. “It’s high in protein but it’s very hard to get any nutrition out of it,” Rueffert says. “It’s almost indigestible to me.” On the rare occasion when he does cook meat, he uses just a small amount to add flavor to a vegetarian dish.

Whole grains.
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Remember the greatness of grains

Foods that are high in dietary fiber can help protect a delicate digestive system, serving as a kind of buffer. “Grains are great at absorbing excess anything — sour, salty, sweet, whatever it is,” Rueffert says. He considers quinoa to be a mainstay and also loves sorghum, spelt, amaranth, and millet. He has no problem with gluten so also eats bulgur wheat and freekeh (roasted green wheat). “They’re full of protein and easy to digest.”

Dish of beans.
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Become a 'beans guy’

“I’m definitely a beans guy,” says Rueffert. “People make jokes about beans as the musical fruit, but in reality if you eat them often, you don’t [usually] have a problem. You’re training your body."

Hummus and pita chips.
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Get hungry for hummus

Hummus is one of Rueffert’s favorite dishes because it’s so versatile and nutritious. He thinks beyond the classic chickpeas-and-tahini combination. “You can make edamame hummus, green-pea hummus, black-bean hummus,” he says. “Or, rather than using tahini, I like using almond butter, cashew butter, or different combinations of butters to get in as many calories as I can.”

Pamela Kaufman
Meet Our Writer
Pamela Kaufman

Pamela Kaufman got her professional start covering health at Vogue, where she wrote two columns on news and trends as well as feature stories. Her interest in healthy eating brought her to Food & Wine, where she became executive editor. Today she writes articles about health and food, profiles courageous people living with chronic disease, and pursues all kinds of great stories. You can follow her adventures as an eater, mom, and traveler.