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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 3-day sample pancreatitis diet menu.
What is pancreatitis?
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.
You may experience several symptoms resulting from the damage and inflammation to your pancreas that leads to pancreatitis.
Symptoms of pancreatitis include (1):
- 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 (2).
With malabsorption, you may have foul-smelling, greasy, or fatty stools.
Pancreatitis may cause malabsorption because it 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 (3).
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 (1):
- kidney disease
- viral infections like hepatitis
- bacterial infections
- genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis
In other instances, pancreatitis can occur with no known cause.
Pancreatitis — which may be acute or chronic — can cause malabsorption, weight loss, nausea, abdominal pain, and other uncomfortable symptoms. The most common causes of pancreatitis include excessive alcohol use, gallstones, and high triglyceride levels.
With acute pancreatitis, your doctor may restrict you from consuming food or drinks by mouth (NPO).
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 (4).
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 (7).
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 (8, 9).
With acute pancreatitis, your doctor may restrict your food intake until you start to feel better before advancing you to a low-fat or bland diet. Once you recover, eating certain food and avoiding others may help reduce your risk of developing recurring episodes of pancreatitis.
Foods to avoid
Whether you just recovered from acute pancreatitis or you have chronic pancreatitis, you avoid foods that can tax your pancreas or cause further inflammation.
Eating high-fat foods with pancreatitis can cause or worsen abdominal pain (10).
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 (12).
What’s more, it has been reported that the progression from acute to chronic pancreatitis is most common in people who regularly abuse alcohol (13).
As such, you should completely avoid consuming alcohol with pancreatitis.
Avoid or limit foods and beverages that can tax your pancreas and cause further harm, including alcohol and foods high in fat and added sugars.
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 (17).
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.
Fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains possess anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that can protect your pancreas from further damage.
3-day sample pancreatitis diet menu
Here is a 3-day sample pancreatitis diet menu that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains:
- 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
Day 2 (vegan)
- Breakfast: tofu scramble
- Snack: 1/4 avocado spread on whole-grain toast
- Lunch: garbanzo bean salad
- Snack: apple slices and almonds
- Dinner: mango and black bean tacos
- Breakfast: overnight oats
- Snack: low-fat cottage cheese on toast with sliced tomato
- Lunch: white bean salad
- Snack: Greek yogurt and orange slices
- Dinner: salmon, brown rice, and brussels sprouts
Aim to include a variety of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet. Eating smaller, more frequent meals and snacks can help promote better digestion and reduce stomach discomfort.
Helpful supplements for pancreatitis
In addition to diet, enzyme and antioxidant supplements have been shown to benefit people with pancreatitis.
Pancreatic enzymes supplements
Pancreatic enzyme supplements contain enzymes normally produced by your pancreas that help break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
These include (20):
- 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 (21).
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 a placebo with each meal for seven days (22).
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 (23).
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.
Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize free radicals, preventing or decreasing their ability to cause oxidative stress and damage cells.
People with pancreatitis tend to have high levels of oxidative stress from the excessive production of free radicals, which contributes to the severe pain commonly experienced.
However, supplementing with antioxidants has been shown to alleviate this pain by decreasing oxidative stress.
For example, a review of 8 studies involving 573 patients with pancreatitis showed that antioxidant supplementation was significantly associated with pain relief and decreased the need for pain medication (24).
Examples of antioxidant supplements include:
- vitamin C
- vitamin E
These antioxidants may be supplemented individually or together.
One blend that has been shown effective in two studies contains:
- 600 mcg of selenium
- 540 mg of vitamin C
- 9,000 IU of beta-carotene
- 270 IU of vitamin E
- 2 grams of methionine
Although antioxidant supplements are generally well-tolerated, they may cause minor side effects such as allergies, headaches, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea (24).
Supplementing your diet with pancreatic enzymes and antioxidants can help improve digestion and alleviate pain.
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 and antioxidant supplements may help improve digestion and decrease stomach pain.