Guidelines For Clinical Practice Open Access
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World J Gastrointest Oncol. Apr 15, 2010; 2(4): 187-191
Published online Apr 15, 2010. doi: 10.4251/wjgo.v2.i4.187
Early postoperative feeding in resectional gastrointestinal surgical cancer patients
Emma J Osland, Department of Surgery and Nutrition, Ipswich Hospital, Ipswich, Queensland 4305, Australia; Department of Mathematics and Computing, Australian Centre for Sustainable Catchments, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland 4305, Australia
Muhammed Ashraf Memon, Department of Surgery and Nutrition, Ipswich Hospital, Ipswich, Queensland 4305, Australia; Department of Surgery, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4305, Australia; Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, Bond University, Gold Coast, Queensland 4305, Australia; School of Health and Social Sciences, University of Bolton, Bolton, Lancashire BL3 5AB, United Kingdom
Author contributions: Both authors were involved in drafting the manuscript and critically revising it for important intellectual content. Furthermore, both authors have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for its content.
Correspondence to: Muhammed Ashraf Memon, FRCS, FRACS, Professor, Department of Surgery and Nutrition, Ipswich Hospital, Chelmsford Avenue, Ipswich, Queensland 4305, Australia.
Telephone: +61-7-32814455 Fax: +61-7-32814456
Received: March 9, 2009
Revised: August 26, 2009
Accepted: September 2, 2009
Published online: April 15, 2010


Malnutrition is present in the majority of patients presenting for surgical management of gastrointestinal malignancies, due to the effects of the tumour and preoperative anti-neoplastic treatments. The traditional practice of fasting patients until the resumption of bowel function threatens to further contribute to the malnutrition experienced by these patients. Furthermore, the rationale behind this traditional practice has been rendered obsolete through developments in anaesthetic agents and changes to postoperative analgesia practices. Conversely, there is a growing body of literature that consistently demonstrates that providing oral or tube feeding proximal to the anastomosis within 24 h postoperatively, is not only safe, but might be associated with significant benefits to the postoperative course. Early post operative feeding should therefore be adopted as a standard of care in oncology patients undergoing gastrointestinal resections.

Key Words: Early feeding, Surgery, Meta-analysis, Randomised controlled trials


Malnutrition is a common finding in patients presenting for surgical management of gastrointestinal malignancies, with an estimated prevalence in this group of 40% to 80%[1]. A complex mix of factors, such as tumour location, tumour type, stage of disease, and preoperative radiation and/or chemotherapy treatments, might predispose patients to malnutrition. Nausea, vomiting, reduced appetite, early satiety, taste changes, diarrhoea, pain, mucositis, physical obstruction, and malabsorption could result in weight loss, which in turn is a strong prognostic indicator of poor outcome in terms of survival and response to treatment. Similarly, cancer cachexia is frequently observed in patients with solid tumours of the gastrointestinal tract, and it is estimated that the physical wasting of both fat and lean body tissue associated with this syndrome is implicated in approximately 30% to 50% of all cancer deaths[1].


Traditional perioperative care following resectional surgery for gastrointestinal cancer involves, among other things, withholding of nutritional provision postoperatively until resumption of bowel function, as evidenced by passage of flatus or first postoperative bowel motion, which in some cases might not occur for close to a week after surgery. Reasons purported for this practice include reducing the risk of postoperative abdominal distension, nausea/vomiting and subsequent concerns regarding anastomotic breakdown, wound dehiscence, and pulmonary aspiration. Moreover, when dietary intervention is recommenced, fluids of limited nutritional value such as water, tea, lemonade, consommé soups and jelly are traditionally provided for the first several days until tolerance is thought to be established[2]. This could result in a patient receiving little or no nutrition within the first week post surgery, further contributing to the nutritional deficit incurred during the perioperative period and exacerbating the weight loss and malnutrition experienced by this already nutritionally vulnerable patient group[2].

However, in the last 30 years, many studies have challenged this traditional approach to postoperative nutritional care by investigating the safety, feasibility, and benefits of providing nutrition within 24 h following gastrointestinal surgery. Since the first randomised controlled trial investigating this topic in 1979[3], there have been no less than 30 randomised controlled trials investigating this topic in some form, the majority of which have been conducted in patients receiving surgical oncology management. The results of these studies have collectively failed to support the traditional postoperative management principles, and many demonstrate clear benefits associated with early feeding in terms of nutritional, biochemical, anthropometric, financial, and clinical outcomes. In particular, despite long held concerns that early feeding would increase the likelihood of anastomotic dehiscence, this finding was not significantly associated with the early provision of nutrition in any individual study that reported on this outcome (Table 1)[4-7] or by any of the meta-analyses examining this topic (Table 2)[8-10]. Furthermore, a recent study has also demonstrated the safety of early oral feeding within 24 h of receiving major upper gastrointestinal surgery such as gastrectomy and Whipple’s procedures[7].

Table 1 Randomised controlled trials investigating early feeding published since 2005.
StudyYearTypes ofGastrointestinal Surgeryn(Trad/Early)Earlyfeeding protocolOutcomes
Lucha et al[4]2005Open colorectal surgery25/26Regular diet from 8 hr following surgeryNo difference in post operative complications between groups (1 d vs 1 d) or LOS 6.6 d vs 6.3 d
Zhou et al[5]2006Excision and anastomosis for colorectal tumour155/161Liquid fibreless diet D1-3 post opStatistically significant benefits of early feeding Flatus 3.0 ± 0.9 d vs 3.6 ± 1.2 d, P = 0.000 Stool 4.1 ± 1.1 d vs 4.8 ± 1.4 d, P = 0.000 LOS 8.4 ± 3.4 d vs 9.6 ± 5.0 d, P = 0.016 Reduced complications with early feeding Reduced febrile illness: 3 vs 15, P = 0.042 Pulmonary infection: 1 vs 7, P = 0.034 Pharyngolaryngitis: 5 vs 36, P = 0.000 No differences in wound complications 4 vs 3, P = 1.0 No differences in anastomotic leakage 2 vs 4, P = 0.441
Han-Geurts et al[6]2007Open colorectal surgery50/46Regular diet from D1 post opNo statistically significant differences in outcomes between groups in any in-hospital complication, including mortality. No statistically significant differences between return of bowel function and length of hospital stay between groups
Lassen et al[7]2008Hepatic, pancreatic, oesophageal, gastric resections, bilioenteric and gastroenteric bypass procedures, unspecified procedures in which traditional NBM management would be indicated227/220Early oral feeding provided with ordinary hospital diet from D1 post op NB control group received enteral nutrition via a jejunostomy tube from D1 post opNo differences between number of patients major complications between groups (33% in jejunum fed vs 28% early oral, P = 0.26); less overall complications in early oral feeding group (100 vs 165, P = 0.012) No differences in mortality between groups within the trial period (8.4% early jejunum feeding vs 5.9% early oral, P = 0.36) Increased likelihood of intra-abdominal abscesses in gastrectomy patients with early jejunum feeding vs early oral intake (6 vs 0, P = 0.012) Shorter duration to passage of flatus early oral feeding group (2.6 vs 3.0 d, P = 0.01); no difference for duration to first bowel motion (4.3 vs 4.0 d, P = 0.112) Longer length of stay with jejunum fed patients (16.7 vs 13.5 d, P = 0.046)
Table 2 Comparison of outcomes and characteristics of published meta-analyses on early feeding.
Lewis, Egger, Sylvester & ThomasBMJ 2001[8]Andersen, Lewis & ThomasCochrane Database Syst Rev 2006[9]Lewis, Andersen & ThomasJ Gastrointest Surg 2009[10]
Inclusion criteriaElective gastrointestinal surgery RCTs Enteral feeding within 24 h post op vs NBM/traditional management Included unpublished dataRCTs (un/published) Colorectal surgery Early feeding (within 24 h) vs NBM Malignant/benign disease incl. IBD Studies solely in paediatric population RCTs with no blinding If reported on outcomes including adverse outcomes, mortalityRCTs (unpublished/published) Colorectal surgery Early feeding (within 24 h) vs NBM Malignant/benign disease including inflammatory bowel diseases Studies solely in paediatric population RCTs with no blinding If reported on outcomes including adverse outcomes, mortality
Exclusion criteriaNot statedPN Non-RCTs Unpublished abstracts with no correspondence dataPN Non-RCTs Unpublished abstracts with no correspondence data
Number of patients92911731173
Number of included studies111313
Publication dates1979-19981979-20041979-2004
Gastrointestinal surgery types includedColonic, ileal or colonic resection; oesophago-gastrectomy, gastrectomy, ileoanal J pouch, reanastomosis; esophagectomy, pancreatoduodenectomy; unspecified laparotomyColonic, ileal or colonic resection; oesophago-gastrectomy, gastrectomy, ileoanal J pouch, reanastomosis; esophagectomy, pancreatoduodenectomy; unspecified laparotomyColonic, ileal or colonic resection; oesophago-gastrectomy, gastrectomy, ileoanal J pouch, reanastomosis; esophagectomy, pancreatoduodenectomy; unspecified laparotomy
Wound infectionsRR 0.71 (0.44-1.17) χ2 value not reported, P = 0.074RR 0.77 (0.48-1.22) P = 0.3 (FEM) χ2 = 10.30 P = 0.26RR 0.78 (0.38, 1.68) (REM) RR 0.77 ( 0.48-1.22) P = 0.3 (FEM) χ2 = 10.30 P = 0.26
Intra-abdominal abscessesRR 0.87 (0.31-2.42) χ2 value not reported, P = 0.84RR 0.87 (0.31–2.42) P = 0.8 χ2 = 1.45 P = 0.84RR 0.94 (0.32, 2.77) (REM) RR 0.87 (0.31–2.42) P = 0.8 (FEM) χ2 = 1.45 P = 0.84
PneumoniaRR 0.73 (0.33–1.59) χ2 value not reported, P = 0.85RR 0.76 (0.36-1.58) P = 0.5 χ2 = 3.73 P = 0.81RR 0.71 (0.32, 1.59) (REM) RR 0.76 (0.36-1.58) P = 0.5 (FEM) χ2 = 3.73 P = 0.81
Any infectionRR 0.72 (0.54-0.98) P = 0.036 χ2 = 10.7, P = 0.22Not assessedNot assessed
MortalityRR 0.48 (0.18-1.29) P = 0.15 χ2 value not reported, P = 0.99RR 0.41 (0.18-0.93) P = 0.03 χ2 = 0.6 P = 0.99RR 0.42 (0.18, 0.96) (REM) RR 0.41 (0.18-0.93) P = 0.03 (FEM) χ2 = 0.6 P = 0.99
Anastomotic dehiscenceRR 0.53 (0.26-1.08) P = 0.08 χ2 = 2.1, P = 0.96 NB-little evidence that data from proximal vs distal feeding results differed P = 0.42RR 0.69 (0.39-1.32) P = 0.3 χ2 = 4.89 P = 0.77RR 0.62 (0.30, 1.28) (REM) RR 0.69 (0.39-1.32) P = 0.3 (FEM) χ2 = 4.89, P =0.77 for FEM. No χ2 reported for REM
Length of hospital stay-0.84 d (-0.36-1.33) P = 0.001 χ2 = 16.2, P = 0.094-0.60 d (-0.66, -0.54) χ2 = 18.86 P = 0.06-0.89 d (-1.58, -0.20) (REM) -0.60 d (-0.66, -0.54) (FEM) χ2 = 18.86 P = 0.06
VomitingRR 1.27 (1.01-1.61) P = 0.045 χ2 value not reported, P = 0.52 NB-non-significant increase in N&V with early feeding where NGs were not placed at time of surgery RR 1.21 (0.73-1.99) P = 0.46RR 1.27, (1.01-1.61) P = 0.04 χ2 = 4.21 P = 0.52RR 1.23 (0.97, 1.55) (REM) RR 1.27 (1.01-1.61) (FEM) χ2 = 4.21 P = 0.52

Withholding nutrition from patients until the resolution of the transient postoperative ileus has been employed as the standard postoperative management for well over 100 years[11], and is thought to have developed in response to the high rates of postoperative emesis experienced by patients anaesthetised with traditional agents, such as ether and chloroform[12]. From this origin, a cautious reintroduction of diet following operative procedures has been adopted, irrespective of the site of surgery, and particularly so if it has involved the gastrointestinal tract[12]. A textbook on surgical after-treatment from 1915 recommends “feed(ing) the patient as soon as possible, but at the same time to avoid distension” for patients undergoing abdominal surgery, for which a clear fluid diet (consisting of water, tea and sparkling wine) is promoted in the first few days post surgery, followed by boiled fish or eggs after “a day or two”[13]. The addition of other elements such as dairy and “farinaceous” (starchy) foods are recommended to be “cautiously added” after a few days on the light protein diet allowing the “gradual return made to a full mixed diet”[13]. Similar concepts were promoted into the 1930’s with dietary intake being limited to milk diluted with limewater on the third or fourth postoperative day, once flatus had been passed[12]. By the 1940’s a more rapid progression through the dietary stages were appearing in surgical texts; however, little in terms of dietary composition or reasoning behind the provision of this had changed. A textbook from 1940 advises to avoid oral nutrition within the first 24 h post surgery so as not to "interfere with" the anticipated paralytic ileus resulting from physical manipulation of the bowel, and to commence milk and water orally after 1 d, then solids 48 h thereafter[14]. Another source makes the recommendation of “giving water in the first 12 h, then liquids for the next 24 h, and thereafter a light diet until the bowels have moved” following abdominal and thoracic surgery[15]. Even within the last 20 years these recommendations have been largely adhered to and promoted[16].

Despite a growing number of studies that challenge the benefit of this long held surgical tradition, clinicians in many cases have been slow to adopt these practices. Perhaps this is best illustrated through the example of "Fast-Track" perioperative programs, which incorporate early feeding, among other strategies, in a structured program in an attempt to hasten postoperative recovery[17]. These programs have demonstrated compelling results in support of a structured, multi-modal approach-particularly in colorectal surgery[18]; However, the widespread implementation of these practices has been disappointingly low[19,20].

Based on this information, several points should be made clear. Firstly, patients undergoing resectional surgery for gastrointestinal malignancies frequently present with malnutrition symptoms, weight loss, and/or cachexia, and do not have the reserves to withstand extended periods of fasting without risking further nutritional compromise that will adversely affect their postoperative course and overall prognosis. Secondly, the evidence supporting the ongoing practice of withholding nutrition postoperatively is lacking: oral nutrition has been shown to be safe even after major upper gastrointestinal surgery. Furthermore, it appears to confer significant benefits to the postoperative course, especially when incorporated into a multi-modal perioperative program. Thirdly, the rationale for which traditional postoperative nutritional management was introduced has essentially been rendered obsolete with the availability of modern anaesthetic agents and changes to post-operative analgesic management. In this day and age of evidence-based practice, there can be little justification for the continuation of the outdated and detrimental practice of withholding much needed nutrition to oncology patients during their postoperative course. Early feeding appears to have much to offer both to the patients and the institutions in which they are being treated, and given the overwhelming evidence supporting its safety, early feeding can, and should, be adopted with confidence as part of standard postoperative care.


Peer reviewers: Sonia Maria Oliani, Professor, Biology Department, IBILCE, São Paulo State University-UNESP, Rua Cristovão Colombo, 2265, São José do Rio Preto, SP, CEP 15054-000, Brazil; Angelo Zullo, MD, Department of Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy, “Nuovo Regina Margherita” Hospital, Via E. Morosini 30, Rome 00153, Italy

S- Editor Li LF L- Editor Stewart G E- Editor Yang C

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