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What is Pancreatitis?

Your pancreas helps you regulate the way that your body processes sugar. It also serves an important function in releasing enzymes and helping you digest food.

When your pancreas becomes swollen or inflamed, it cannot perform its function. This condition is called pancreatitis.

Because the pancreas is so closely tied to your digestive process, it’s affected by what you choose to eat. In cases of acute pancreatitis, pancreas inflammation is often triggered by gallstones.

But in cases of chronic pancreatitis, in which flare-ups recur over time, your diet might have a lot to do with the problem. Researchers are finding out more about foods you can eat to protect and even help to heal your pancreas.

To get your pancreas healthy, focus on foods that are rich in protein, low in animal fats, and contain antioxidants. Try lean meats, beans and lentils, clear soups, and dairy alternatives (such as flax milk and almond milk). Your pancreas won’t have to work as hard to process these.

Research suggests that some people with pancreatitis can tolerate up to 30 to 40% of calories from fat when it’s from whole-food plant sources or medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Others do better with much lower fat intake, such as 50 grams or less per day.

Spinach, blueberries, cherries, and whole grains can work to protect your digestion and fight the free radicals that damage your organs.

If you’re craving something sweet, reach for fruit instead of added sugars since those with pancreatitis are at high risk for diabetes.

Consider cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and hummus, and fruit as your go-to snacks. Your pancreas will thank you.

Foods to limit include:

  • red meat
  • organ meats
  • fried foods
  • fries and potato chips
  • mayonnaise
  • margarine and butter
  • full-fat dairy
  • pastries and desserts with added sugars
  • beverages with added sugars

If you’re trying to combat pancreatitis, avoid trans-fatty acids in your diet.

Fried or heavily processed foods, like french fries and fast-food hamburgers, are some of the worst offenders. Organ meats, full-fat dairy, potato chips, and mayonnaise also top the list of foods to limit.

Cooked or deep-fried foods might trigger a flare-up of pancreatitis. You’ll also want to cut back on the refined flour found in cakes, pastries, and cookies. These foods can tax the digestive system by causing your insulin levels to spike.

If you’re recovering from acute or chronic pancreatitis, avoid drinking alcohol. If you smoke, you’ll also need to quit. Focus on eating a low-fat diet that won’t tax or inflame your pancreas.

You should also stay hydrated. Keep an electrolyte beverage or a bottle of water with you at all times.

If you’ve been hospitalized due to a pancreatitis flare-up, your doctor will probably refer you to a dietitian to help you learn how to change your eating habits permanently.

People with chronic pancreatitis often experience malnutrition due to their decreased pancreas function. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are most commonly found to be lacking as a result of pancreatitis.

Diet tips

Always check with your doctor or dietician before changing your eating habits when you have pancreatitis. Here are some tips they might suggest:

  • Eat between six and eight small meals throughout the day to help recover from pancreatitis. This is easier on your digestive system than eating two or three large meals.
  • Use MCTs as your primary fat since this type of fat does not require pancreatic enzymes to be digested. MCTs can be found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil and is available at most health food stores.
  • Avoid eating too much fiber at once, as this can slow digestion and result in less-than-ideal absorption of nutrients from food. Fiber may also make your limited amount of enzymes less effective.
  • Take a multivitamin supplement to ensure that you’re getting the nutrition you need. You can find a great selection of multivitamins here.

The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is drinking too much alcohol, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Pancreatitis can also be genetic, or the symptom of an autoimmune reaction. In many cases of acute pancreatitis, the condition is triggered by a blocked bile duct or gallstones.

If your pancreas has been damaged by pancreatitis, a change in your diet will help you feel better. But it might not be enough to restore the function of the pancreas completely.

Your doctor may prescribe supplemental or synthetic pancreatic enzymes for you to take with every meal.

If you’re still experiencing pain from chronic pancreatitis, consider alternative therapy such as yoga or acupuncture to supplement your doctor’s prescribed pancreatitis treatment.

An endoscopic ultrasound or a surgery might be recommended as the next course of action if your pain continues.