What to Eat If You Have Chronic Pancreatitis

In This Article

Table of Contents

Your pancreas is in charge of making insulin, which your body uses to regulate blood sugar. A healthy pancreas also makes digestive enzymes that help your body break down food and absorb nutrition. If your pancreas becomes inflamed (pancreatitis) and can’t perform these jobs efficiently.

Pancreatitis symptoms like abdominal pain and diarrhea may come on suddenly (acute) or come back repeatedly over time (chronic). When your pancreas becomes inflamed, it has a harder time breaking down fat and isn’t able to absorb as much nutrition from the foods you eat.

Changing how you eat, either temporarily or committing to a long term pancreatitis diet, can help you manage your symptoms. While the specifics of a pancreatitis diet plan will depend on your dietary needs and preferences, there are some general guidelines you can use as a starting place. For example, many people find that avoiding high-fat meals and alcohol helps prevent “attacks” of pancreatitis.

Benefits

While there are many different lifestyle and genetic factors involved, research has shown diet affects both acute and chronic forms of pancreatitis. The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is alcohol abuse, accounting for approximately 80% of cases.

Although diet is not the only cause of pancreatitis, if you develop the condition your doctor will likely have you try making changes to your diet to treat symptoms as well as prevent future attacks.

About 15% of people who have an episode of acute pancreatitis will have another. Chronic pancreatitis happens in closer to 5% of people.  

A 2013 study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that male patients with pancreatitis who ate a high-fat diet were more likely to have ongoing abdominal pain. They were also more likely to be diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis at a younger age.

Changing your diet in ways that reduce your risk of gallbladder disease can help you avoid trouble with your pancreas, too. Gallstones are a risk factor for pancreatitis, as the stones can get caught in and block the ducts leading to the pancreas.

The guidelines for fat intake if you have pancreatitis vary. For example, the Digestive Health Center at Stanford University recommends patients with chronic pancreatitis limit fat intake to 30-50 grams per day, depending on how well it’s tolerated.

A 2015 review of treatment guidelines by researchers in Japan found that patients with severe chronic pancreatitis benefitted from a very low-fat diet, but people with milder cases usually tolerated dietary fat (especially if they took digestive enzymes with meals).

If you have recurrent attacks of pancreatitis and continued pain, your doctor may have you experiment with your daily fat intake to see if your symptoms improve.

Chronic Pancreatitis Dos and Don'ts
Verywell/Joshua Seong

How It Works

The main goal of a pancreatitis diet is to prevent and relieve symptoms, but the benefits of doing so go beyond comfort. If your pancreas becomes unable to contribute to insulin regulation, you’re at risk for developing diabetes.

Additionally, if your body is not absorbing fat and other important nutrients from the food you eat, you may become malnourished. One reason this happens is that several key vitamins (A, D, and E) are fat-soluble. If your body can’t digest fat, it won’t be able to properly absorb these vitamins (malabsorption).

Being deficient in one or more fat-soluble vitamins comes with its own set of symptoms and health risks. For example, vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis (especially after menopause).

It’s generally recommended that you avoid foods that are high in fat, heavily processed, or have a lot of sugar if you have chronic pancreatitis. However, fat is still an important part of a balanced diet—you just may need to start paying more attention to the kind of fat you eat. If you have trouble digesting certain types of fat, adjusting your intake can help prevent symptoms.

For example, a type of fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) can be digested without any help from your pancreas. Coconut and coconut oil are naturally rich sources of MCTs, but it’s also available in supplement form.

If your body is struggling to process healthy fats, your doctor might suggest you take digestive enzymes. These synthetic enzymes help make up for what your pancreas can’t produce. They usually come in a capsule that you take when you eat.

Duration

There are two overall approaches to managing pancreatitis with your diet. You may find you need to use both, depending on whether you are having an attack of symptoms or trying to prevent inflammation.

When you’re having acute pancreatitis symptoms, eating a limited diet of easily digested foods can be soothing. If you are in the middle of an acute attack, your doctor may want you to be on a limited diet of soft foods until your body heals. 

For most mild cases of pancreatitis, complete bowel rest or a liquid-only diet is not necessary. A 2016 review of clinical guidelines for treating acute pancreatitis found that a soft diet was safe for most patients who were unable to tolerate their typical diet due to pancreatitis symptoms.

However, in cases were symptoms of pancreatitis are severe or there are complications, a feeding tube or other methods of artificial nutrition may be necessary.

If you tend to have recurrent bouts of pancreatitis, changing how you eat in the long-term can help prevent attacks while ensuring you’re probably nourished and hydrated.

What to Eat

Compliant

  • Air-popped popcorn (without butter/oil), wheat or spelt pretzels

  • Beans, lentils, legumes

  • Coconut/palm kernel oil (for MCTs)

  • Corn or whole-wheat tortillas

  • Couscous, quinoa, whole wheat pasta

  • Dairy-free milk alternatives (almond, soy, rice)

  • Egg whites

  • Fish (cod, haddock)

  • Fresh/frozen/canned fruits and vegetables

  • Fruit and vegetable juice without sugar, seltzer, sparkling water

  • Herbal tea, decaffeinated coffee (small amounts of honey or non-dairy creamer)

  • Lean cuts of meat

  • Low-fat or non-fat dairy products (cottage cheese, Greek yogurt)

  • Low-fat sweets (graham crackers, ginger snaps, tea biscuits)

  • Nutritional supplement drinks Boost, Ensure)

  • Poultry (turkey, chicken) without the skin

  • Reduced sugar jams and jellies

  • Rice

  • Low-fat/fat-free clear soups and broth (avoid milk-based or creamy)

  • Spices and fresh herbs (as tolerated), salsa, tomato-based sauces

  • Steel-cut oats, bran, Cream of Wheat, grits

  • Sugar-free gelatin, ice pops

  • Tofu, tempeh

  • Tuna (canned in water not oil)

  • Whole grain bread, cereals, and crackers

Non-Compliant

  • Alcohol

  • Baked goods (doughnuts, muffins, bagels, biscuits, croissants)

  • Battered/fried fish and shellfish

  • Butter, lard, vegetable oil, margarine, ghee

  • Cake, pies, pastries

  • Cheese, cream cheese, cheese sauce

  • Cookies, brownies, candy

  • Eggs with yolk

  • Fatty cuts of red meat, organ meat

  • Fried foods/fast food (stir-fried vegetables, fried rice, fried eggs, French fries)

  • Ice cream, pudding, custards, milkshakes, eggnog, smoothies with dairy

  • Jams, jellies, preserves

  • Lamb, goose, duck

  • Milk-based coffee drinks

  • Nut butter (peanut, almond)

  • Nuts and seeds (in moderation as tolerated)

  • Potato or corn chips

  • Processed meat (sausage, hot dogs, lunchmeat)

  • Refined white flour bread, pancakes, waffles

  • Refined/white flour bread, cereal, granola, crackers, pretzels

  • Refried beans, olives

  • Store-bought salad dressing, mayo, creamy pasta sauces (Alfredo), tahini

  • Whole milk, full-fat dairy products

  • Soda, energy drinks

Fruits and Vegetables: Choose produce with plenty of fiber, whether fresh or frozen. Canned fruits and vegetables can also work well, though you'll want to drain and rinse them to reduce the sugar/salt content. High-fat produce like avocados may be too rich for you to digest if you have pancreatitis. You'll also want to avoid cooking produce with butter and oils or topping with creamy sauces.

Dairy: Choose low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt or dairy-free alternatives such as almond, soy, and rice. Most types of cheese are high in fat, though lower-fat options like cottage cheese may not worsen your symptoms and can be a good source of protein.

Grains: For the most part you'll want to build your pancreatitis diet around fiber-rich whole grains. The exception can be when you're having symptoms and your doctor advises you to eat a bland diet, during which time you may find white rice, plain noodles, and white bread toast are easier to digest. Check the ingredients list carefully for cereals and granola, as these products can have added sugar and brands with nuts may be too high in fat if you have pancreatitis.

Protein: Look for low-fat sources of protein to include in your pancreatitis diet such as white fish and lean cuts of skinless poultry. Beans, legumes, and lentils, as well as grains like quinoa, also make easy and tasty protein-packed meals. Nuts and nut butter are rich plant-based protein sources but the high fat content may contribute to pancreatitis symptoms.

Desserts: Rich sweets, especially those made from milk like ice cream and custards, are usually too rich for people with pancreatitis. Avoid high-sugar desserts like cakes, cookies, pastries, baked goods, and candy. Depending on how well your body can regulate blood sugar, it may be fine to add honey or a little sugar to tea or black coffee or a small piece of dark chocolate in moderation.

Beverages: If you have pancreatitis you will need to completely stop drinking alcohol. If caffeinated tea, coffee, and soft drinks contribute to symptoms, you may choose to limit or avoid them. In general, avoiding soda will help you cut back on sugar in your diet. If you continue to drink coffee, avoid milk-based drinks like lattes with sweetened syrups. Herbal tea, seltzer water, fruit and vegetable juices with sugar, and nutritional supplement drinks recommended by your doctor are a few options.

Recommended Timing

If you have pancreatitis, you may find that you feel better adhering to a certain schedule for meals. Try eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day instead of three large ones.

If you tend to feel full quickly, it can also be helpful to avoid eating and drinking at the same time. You may also feel better if you avoid eating certain foods at the same time or combining ingredients, such as meat and fat, that require more work to digest.

Cooking Tips

Avoid fried, sautéed, or stir-fried foods. Instead, try baking, grilling, roasting, boiling, and steaming. Fats like butter, lard, and oils are best avoided, though you may tolerate small amounts for cooking. Certain spices may be irritating, but turmeric and ginger are tasty and have digestive benefits.

Modifications

If you have other health conditions, you may need to adjust your pancreatitis diet to ensure you’re getting the nutrition you need. For example, attacks of pancreatitis can occur during pregnancy. Your dietary needs (and possibly tastes) will be different when you’re pregnant or nursing.

Your doctor may have you follow a modified pancreatitis diet if you have symptoms. To ensure you’re properly nourished, you may also need to take supplements.

Nutrition is also an important consideration if you have another medical condition that affects your digestion. For example, if you have inflammatory bowel disease or cystic fibrosis, you may already have issues with malabsorption.

If you have gallbladder disease not only are you more likely to have digestive symptoms, but you may be more likely to develop pancreatitis (particularly if you have gallstones).

If you have diabetes, your pancreas is already working extra hard—or not working well at all. In this case, the decisions you make about what you eat and drink will have an even greater effect on your overall health should you develop pancreatitis.

People who have chronic pancreatitis can also develop diabetes due to the condition. Researchers actually refer to it as “type 3 diabetes,” and it occurs in 30-50% of cases. 

Additionally, people who have high levels of triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia) may also develop hypertriglyceridemia-induced pancreatitis. While there are many factors that determine whether someone’s triglyceride levels are elevated, dietary factors can be controlled by avoiding or limiting foods that are high in saturated fats.

If you are pregnant or have diabetes, you have a higher risk of developing hypertriglyceridemia-induced pancreatitis.

Speak to your doctor and dietitian about your diet if you also have diabetes, celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or any other type of healthcare issue that requires dietary changes.

Considerations

The choices you make about what to eat are rarely limited to one area of your life, such as grocery shopping and food prep. Eating is inevitably part of your day-to-day life at work, school, at home with family, or out socializing with friends. It’s normal for these aspects of your life to be affected by the changes you make to your diet.

While it can be challenging to make adjustments (and stick to them) thinking about they could impact each part of your life will help you build a network of support and feel more prepared.

General Nutrition

Maintaining adequate nutrition is especially important in cases of severe pancreatitis, as research has indicated the body’s energy needs may actually increase. Research has shown that when patients with pancreatitis are underweight or critically ill from infections like sepsis, the amount of energy their body uses at rest (resting energy expenditure) can increase by up to 50%. 

In some cases, people with pancreatitis try to prevent symptoms by restricting their diet on their own, which also contributes to malnutrition. While there are foods that can make pancreatitis worse, there are also plenty of nutritious foods that also promote digestive health and may help reduce inflammation.

Plant-based and lean sources of animal protein, whole grains, and fiber-rich produce provide key vitamins and minerals your body can use for energy without putting too much stress on your digestive system.

Fiber is another essential component of a healthy diet, but you may need to adjust your intake according to how you feel. If you’re having acute pancreatitis symptoms, you may want to stick to a low-fiber diet until you’re feeling better.

Flexibility

Fast food ingredients and prep is generally too fatty and greasy for a pancreatitis diet. These items also tend to be high in sodium and sugar. If you're dining out and are not sure how much fat is in a particular dish you're considering, ask your server. You may be able to lower the fat content by asking for swaps or substitutions, or splitting an entree.

Be sure to read labels when you shop at the grocery store. For the most part, you'll want to look for products that are low-fat and fat-free. Remember: while nutrition labels list the amount of fat per serving, a package may contain more than one serving.

Support and Community

Your doctors, family and friends, community, and even other patients all make up your personal team of support. While you can take many of your questions to your healthcare team and lean on family and friends for emotional support, sometimes, you might just want to talk to someone who has “been there.”

If you’re feeling frustrated or disappointed by the need to change how you eat, it can be helpful to talk to other people who have been through what you’re experiencing. Joining an in-person or online support group is one way to connect with other people managing pancreatitis through diet. What works for them may not work for you, but sharing ideas and support one another can help you keep up your motivation.

Cost

If your doctor wants you to take nutritional supplements, you’ll find the price of vitamins varies considerably based on type, brand, and dose.

If you develop exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and your doctor wants you to start pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), this can be another added cost.

Much like nutritional and vitamin supplements, you may be able to find PERT capsules at most pharmacies and health food stores. The product you’ll need to purchase will depend on the combination of enzymes and amount (units) your doctor wants you to take with each meal.

If you have health insurance, ask your doctor if they can prescribe vitamins, nutritional supplements, or PERT. Your insurance may cover part or all of the cost. However, with PERT, coverage may be limited based on FDA approval.

A Word From Verywell

Pancreatitis can be a painful and frustrating condition, especially when it becomes chronic. While there are some factors, such as genetics, that you can’t control, changing how you eat is one way you may be able to relieve some of your symptoms and prevent future pancreatitis attacks. Proper nutrition is essential, as people who have pancreatitis may be more at risk for malnutrition. There isn’t a single pancreatitis diet that works for everyone. If you have other health conditions, such as diabetes, along with pancreatitis you will need to take all your dietary needs into account. To ensure you’re getting all the nutrition your body needs, it’s best to work with your doctor, a registered dietician and/or nutritionist to create a pancreatic diet that meets your individual needs.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Spanier BWM, Dijkgraaf MGW, Bruno MJ. Epidemiology, aetiology and outcome of acute and chronic pancreatitis: An update. Best practice & research Clinical gastroenterology. 2008;22(1):45-63. doi:10.1016/j.bpg.2007.10.007


  2. Castiñeira-Alvariño M, Lindkvist B, Luaces-Regueira M, et al. The role of high fat diet in the development of complications of chronic pancreatitis. Clinical Nutrition. 2013;32(5):830-836. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2013.02.002

  3. Rasmussen HH. Nutrition in chronic pancreatitis. World Journal of Gastroenterology. 2013;19(42):7267. doi:10.3748/wjg.v19.i42.7267

  4. Clinical practice guideline: management of acute pancreatitis – Canadian Journal of Surgery. Canjsurg.ca. http://canjsurg.ca/vol59-issue2/59-2-128/. Published 2016.

  5. Vonlaufen A, Wilson JS, Apte MV. Molecular mechanisms of pancreatitis: Current opinion. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2008;23(9):1339-1348. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1746.2008.05520.x

  6. Sarles H. Chronic pancreatitis and diabetes. Bailliere’s clinical endocrinology and metabolism. 1992;6(4):745-775. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1445167.

  7. pubmeddev, CC C. Acute pancreatitis in pregnancy. - PubMed - NCBI. Nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=9532870. Published 2019.

Additional Reading

  • Conwell, Darwin L., et al. “American Pancreatic Association Practice Guidelines in Chronic Pancreatitis.” Pancreas, vol. 43, no. 8, Nov. 2014, pp. 1143–1162, doi:10.1097/mpa.0000000000000237.

  • Duggan, S., and K. Conlon. “A Practical Guide to the Nutritional Management of Chronic Pancreatitis.” PRACTICAL GASTROENTEROLOGY, vol. NUTRITION ISSUES IN GASTROENTEROLOGY, no. 118, 14 June 2013.

  • Singh, Siddharth, et al. “Dietary Counseling Versus Dietary Supplements for Malnutrition in Chronic Pancreatitis: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, vol. 6, no. 3, Mar. 2008, pp. 353–359, doi:10.1016/j.cgh.2007.12.040.

  • Vonlaufen, Alain, et al. “Molecular Mechanisms of Pancreatitis: Current Opinion.” Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, vol. 23, no. 9, Sept. 2008, pp. 1339–1348, doi:10.1111/j.1440-1746.2008.05520.x.

  • Yadav, Dhiraj, and Albert B. Lowenfels. “The Epidemiology of Pancreatitis and Pancreatic Cancer.” Gastroenterology, vol. 144, no. 6, May 2013, pp. 1252–1261, doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2013.01.068.