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Pancreatitis is the damage and inflammation of your pancreas.
Your pancreas secretes important enzymes and hormones that help you digest food and regulate blood sugar.
This damage and inflammation prevent your pancreas from working properly and can cause many health problems.
Diet plays an important role in both the prevention and management of pancreatitis.
This article explains what to eat and avoid with both acute and chronic pancreatitis and provides a sample pancreatitis diet menu.
Causes and risk factors
Pancreatitis is a common disease, affecting about 8% of the world’s population (1).
Pancreatitis may either be acute or chronic.
Acute pancreatitis develops suddenly and can last several days, whereas chronic pancreatitis develops slowly over months to years.
Recurrent episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to chronic pancreatitis.
The most common causes of pancreatitis include excessive alcohol use, gallstones, and a high level of a type of fat in your blood called triglycerides.
Other factors that can cause pancreatitis include (2):
- kidney disease
- viral infections like hepatitis
- bacterial infections
- genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis
In other instances, pancreatitis can occur with no known cause.
You may experience several symptoms resulting from the damage and inflammation of your pancreas that leads to pancreatitis.
Symptoms of pancreatitis include (2):
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- fatty stools
- unintended weight loss
Unintended weight loss tends to occur more commonly with chronic pancreatitis resulting from malabsorption, which occurs when you can’t absorb enough nutrients from food (3).
With malabsorption, you may have foul-smelling, greasy, or fatty stools.
Malabsorption can occur because pancreatitis prevents your pancreas from producing and secreting the necessary enzymes and hormones for nutrient digestion and absorption.
Chronic pancreatitis is associated with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), a condition in which excess bacteria inhabit the small intestine and cause intestinal symptoms, which can also cause malabsorption (4).
Diagnosis and treatment
To diagnose pancreatitis, your doctor will likely review your health history and any symptoms that you have been experiencing.
Based on your symptoms, your doctor may also perform additional tests to rule out other conditions that present similar symptoms.
Tests can include (2):
- a blood test to measure lipase levels, an enzyme that digests fat
- genetic testing for an inherited disease, if suspected
- imaging tests to view your pancreas
- fecal fat test to measure how much fat your stool contains
These tests can also help your doctor identify any complications from pancreatitis to develop the best treatment plan for you.
A primary component of this treatment plan should focus on diet.
With acute pancreatitis, your doctor may restrict you from consuming food or beverages by mouth (NPO).
Once your abdominal pain, nausea, and appetite improve, your diet may be advanced to a clear liquid diet followed by a low-fat solid diet over the span of several days.
However, research has shown that people with mild acute pancreatitis experienced significantly shorter hospital stays when started on a solid diet compared with a clear liquid diet (5).
After you recover from an episode of acute pancreatitis, there is a risk that you will experience future attacks as well as develop chronic pancreatitis (8).
Depending on the cause of pancreatitis, eating certain foods and avoiding others can help reduce your risk of developing recurrent episodes of acute pancreatitis, better manage any pain from the condition, as well as reduce the risk of other health complications (9, 10).
Foods to avoid
You should avoid foods that can tax your pancreas or cause further inflammation.
Eating high-fat foods with pancreatitis can cause or worsen abdominal pain (11).
This is because eating a fatty meal stimulates the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes and hormones that can stress and inflame it.
Avoid or limit high-fat foods including:
- fried foods
- full-fat dairy products
- red meat and dark meat poultry
- chips and crackers
- cakes and other desserts
Added sugar foods
Added sugar is sugar added to foods and beverages during the manufacturing process.
Common sources of added sugars include:
- regular soft drinks
- fruit and sports drinks
- dairy desserts
- many kinds of breakfast cereals
- condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce
- specialty coffee drinks
The excess consumption of added sugars has also been associated with the development of diabetes, a condition that people with chronic pancreatitis are already at risk for (13).
What’s more, it has been reported that the progression from acute to chronic pancreatitis is most common in people who regularly abuse alcohol (15).
As such, you should completely avoid consuming alcohol with pancreatitis.
Foods to eat
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can help improve your nutritional status and reduce the risk of health complications from pancreatitis.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
They also contain beneficial plant compounds called polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
This is important as one study reported that people with pancreatitis are 20 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer (19).
Consume fruits and vegetables of various colors as each color provides different nutrients and health benefits.
Lean proteins are foods rich in protein but low in fat.
Consume a variety of animal- and plant-based proteins to support your immune system and muscle function.
Good sources of lean protein include:
- white-fleshed fish
- skinless, white-meat poultry
- plain Greek yogurt
- beans, peas, and lentils
- low-fat cottage cheese
- low-fat milk
Despite their higher fat content, eggs and fatty fish like salmon are also good sources of protein and other beneficial nutrients.
Similar to fruits and vegetables, whole grains provide a range of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols.
Examples of whole grains include:
- brown rice
Products made from these foods like certain types of bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals are also considered whole grain.
One-day sample pancreatitis diet menu
Here is a one-day sample pancreatitis diet menu that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
This sample diet also contains smaller, more frequent snacks and meals to help promote better digestion and reduce stomach discomfort.
- Breakfast: oatmeal cooked with water, a banana, and scrambled egg whites with diced peppers
- Snack: low-fat cottage cheese and blueberries
- Lunch: turkey sandwich and apple slices
- Snack: herbed yogurt dip with fresh vegetables for dipping
- Dinner: fish tacos and asparagus
Pancreatic enzymes supplements
Pancreatic enzymes supplements contain enzymes normally produced by your pancreas that help break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
These include (22):
- Proteases. These break proteins into small components called amino acids. The two primary pancreatic proteases are trypsin and chymotrypsin.
- Lipase. This enzyme breaks down fat into smaller components called monoglycerides and free fatty acids.
- Amylase. This enzyme breaks down carbohydrates into smaller sugar molecules.
Supplementing with pancreatic enzymes has been suggested to ease pain from pancreatitis and improve digestion and nutrient absorption (23).
Indeed, researchers from one study randomized people with chronic pancreatitis or that had part or all of their pancreas surgically removed to take a prescription pancreatic enzyme formula or placebo with each meal for seven days (24).
At the end of the seven days, those who took the pancreatic enzyme formula experienced significant improvements in fat and protein absorption compared with the placebo.
Another study found similar results, demonstrating that the same pancreatic enzyme formula led to significant improvements in symptoms of malabsorption when taken with meals for seven days (25).
Most pancreatic enzyme supplements and prescription medications are made from the pancreas of pigs. However, you can also find supplements that contain digestive enzymes derived naturally from plants, such as bromelain from pineapple, and papain from papaya.
Both bromelain and papain help digest protein.
You can buy digestive enzymes online.
The bottom line
Pancreatitis is the damage and inflammation of your pancreas that prevents it from working properly.
Eating certain foods and avoiding others can help reduce your risk of developing recurrent episodes of acute pancreatitis and better manage your symptoms.
Limit your intake of foods high in fat and added sugars, and completely avoid alcohol.
Instead, fill up on fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
In addition to a healthy diet, pancreatic enzyme supplements may help improve digestion and decrease stomach discomfort in chronic pancreatitis.