What is Pancreatitis?
The pancreas is the part of your body that helps you regulate the way that your body processes sugar. The pancreas 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 what’s causing the problem. Researchers are finding out more about foods you can eat to protect and even help to heal your pancreas.
What to eat if you have pancreatitis
To get your pancreas healthy, focus on foods that are rich in protein, low in animal fats, and contain antioxidants. These include lean meats, beans and lentils, clear soups, and dairy alternatives (such as flax milk and almond milk). These are foods that your pancreas won’t have to work as hard to process. Research suggests that some people with pancreatitis can tolerate up to 30-40% of calories from fat, when the fat is from whole-food plant sources or medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Others do better with much lower fat intake, often restricted to 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 snack food go-tos. Your pancreas will thank you.
What not to eat if you have pancreatitis
Foods to limit include:
- red meat
- organ meats
- fried foods
- fries and potato chips
- margarine and butter
- full-fat dairy
- pastries and desserts with added sugars
- beverages with added sugars
If you’re trying to combat pancreatitis, your focus needs to be on avoiding trans fatty acids in your diet. Foods that are fried or heavily processed, 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.
Anything that has been cooked or deep-fried might trigger a flare-up of pancreatitis. You’ll want to cut way back on the refined flour that’s in cakes, pastries, and cookies. These food items can tax the digestive system by causing your insulin levels to spike, which can lead to diabetes.
Pancreatitis recovery diet
If you’re recovering from acute or chronic pancreatitis, you should avoid drinking alcohol. If you smoke, you’ll also need to quit. You should continue to focus on eating a low-fat diet that won’t tax or inflame your pancreas. You should also focus on staying hydrated, keeping 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.
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 and palm kernel oils 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, regardless of the ways you might have to restrict your eating.
Causes of pancreatitis
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.
Other treatments for pancreatitis
If your pancreas has been damaged by pancreatitis, a change in your diet will help you to 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, you might want to try an 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.