What to Eat If You Have Pancreatitis

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Besides making insulin, the hormone your body uses to regulate blood sugar, a healthy pancreas produces enzymes that help your body digest and make use of the food you eat.

If your pancreas becomes inflamed (a condition known as pancreatitis), your body has a harder time breaking down fat. You are also unable to absorb as much nutrition.

A pancreatitis diet takes all this into account, prohibiting fatty foods and emphasizing choices that are nutrient-rich, especially those high in protein.

Changing how you eat, either temporarily or for the long term, can help you manage your symptoms and prevent attacks, as well as keep you properly nourished despite your condition.

This article explains the benefits of following a pancreatitis diet. This article also addresses the two basic approaches to a pancreatitis diet and why it's helpful to remain flexible, particularly if you're living with another health condition at the same time.

About 15% of people who have an episode of acute pancreatitis will have another.

Benefits

The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is alcohol abuse. It accounts for about 80% of cases.

Keep in mind that diet does not directly cause pancreatitis. But it can contribute to gallstones and increase lipid (fat and cholesterol) levels in the blood, both of which can lead to the condition. And a sensible diet can soothe symptoms and prevent future attacks.

The benefits of following a pancreatitis diet go beyond comfort: It can help support an organ that's already functioning inefficiently. And this is important because a pancreas that becomes unable to produce insulin can lead to diabetes.

Central to all of this is limiting dietary fat. The less you consume, the lesser the burden you place on your pancreas.

A 2013 study 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.

Furthermore, a 2015 review of treatment guidelines developed by researchers in Japan found that patients with severe chronic pancreatitis benefitted from a very low-fat diet.

Meanwhile, 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 healthcare provider may ask you to experiment with your daily fat intake to see if your symptoms improve.

The pancreatitis diet's promotion of nutrient-dense foods can also help you reduce the possibility of malnourishment. This can happen because several key vitamins (A, D, and E) are fat-soluble; issues with fat digestion can make it difficult to properly absorb these nutrients.

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).

Chronic Pancreatitis Dos and Don'ts

Verywell / Joshua Seong

How It Works

A specific pancreatitis diet plan will depend on your dietary needs and preferences. But some general guidelines serve as a useful starting point. For example, it's wise to avoid foods that are:

  • High in fat
  • Contain alcohol
  • Loaded with sugar
  • Processed

The National Pancreas Foundation recommends that people with chronic pancreatitis limit their fat intake to 50 grams per day. Some people may have to reduce it further—to between 30 and 50 grams, depending on their height, weight, and tolerance.

Fat is still an important part of a balanced diet. You just may need to start paying more attention to and adjusting your intake of the kind of fat you eat.

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.

If your body is struggling to process healthy fats, your healthcare provider 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.

Approaches

There are two basic 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 are trying to prevent inflammation:

  • If you are in the middle of an acute attack, your healthcare provider may steer you to soft, bland, low-fat foods until you feel better.
  • To prevent attacks in the future, you may need to make long-term changes, using the diet tips described in the sections below.

For most mild attacks 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.

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

Duration

While you may be able to return to a less restricted diet once you're feeling better, doing so can cause symptoms to return. If you tend to have recurrent bouts of pancreatitis, changing how you eat for the long term can help prevent attacks while ensuring you’re properly 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 or carbonation

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

  • 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 types)

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

  • Steel-cut oats, bran, farina, 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 (donuts, 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, smoothies with dairy

  • Jams, jellies, preserves

  • Lamb, goose, duck

  • Milk-based coffee drinks

  • Nut butters (peanut, almond)

  • Nuts and seeds (in moderation as tolerated)

  • Potato or corn chips

  • Processed meat (sausage, hot dogs, lunchmeat)

  • Refined white flour options (e.g., bread, pancakes, waffles, granola, cereal, crackers, pretzels)

  • Refried beans, olives

  • Soda, energy drinks

  • Store-bought salad dressing, mayonnaise, creamy pasta sauces (alfredo), tahini

  • Whole milk, full-fat dairy products

Beverages: Alcohol must be completely avoided. If caffeinated tea, coffee, and soft drinks contribute to your 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 with sweetened syrups.

Hydration is important and, as always, water is the best choice. Herbal tea, fruit and vegetable juices, and nutritional supplement drinks recommended by your healthcare provider are a few other options.

Err On The Light Side

You'll also want to avoid cooking produce with butter and oils or topping it with creamy sauces.

Dairy: Choose low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt or dairy-free alternatives such as almond, soy, and rice milk. 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.

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 to occasionally eat a small piece of dark chocolate.

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.

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 healthcare provider 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.

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 butters are rich plant-based protein sources, but the high fat content may trigger pancreatitis symptoms.

Check Labels

Check the ingredients list carefully on cereal and granola. These products often contain added sugar. And those with nuts may be too high in fat if you have pancreatitis.

Recommended Timing

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

If you tend to feel full quickly, it can be helpful to avoid eating and drinking at the same time. You may also feel better if you avoid combining certain foods or ingredients; take note of how you feel after meals and make adjustments as needed.

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.

Considerations

In some cases, people with pancreatitis try to prevent symptoms by restricting their diet on their own, which can contribute 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.

For example, 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.

Make Fiber Adjustments

Fiber is an 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 feel better.

A nutritionist can help you make choices to manage your condition and keep you healthy. Maintaining adequate nutrition is especially important in cases of severe pancreatitis, as the body’s energy needs may increase.

Research has shown that when patients with pancreatitis are underweight or critically ill from infections like sepsis, the amount of energy their bodies use at rest (resting energy expenditure) can increase by up to 50%.

Modifications and Dietary Restrictions

If you have other health conditions, you may need to adjust your pancreatitis diet to ensure you’re getting the nutrition you need. It's important that you share any other diagnoses you have with your healthcare team and seek help devising a diet that manages your pancreatitis and other issue(s).

For example, attacks of pancreatitis can occur during pregnancy. Your dietary needs will be different when you’re pregnant or nursing, so your plan may need to be adjusted accordingly.

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. Having gallbladder disease means you are more likely to have digestive symptoms.

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.

Additionally, people who have high levels of triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia) may have stricter limits on saturated fats, which are found in sources like fried foods and red meat.

You must be extra-vigilant about your dietary choices if you have another medical condition in addition to pancreatitis.

Flexibility

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 a dish with someone.

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. These days, many such products exist, making the diet easier to follow.

Remember, though: While nutrition labels list the amount of fat per serving, a package may contain more than one serving.

Consider A Support Group

Consider easing the frustration of changing your diet by joining an online support group. Connecting with people who know how you feel may lift your spirits. Plus, you could share dietary ideas with others who are managing their pancreatitis.

Cost

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

If you develop exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and your healthcare provider 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 (in units) your healthcare provider wants you to take with each meal.

Summary

Diet does not directly cause pancreatitis, but it can contribute to gallstones and increase lipid levels, both of which can lead to the condition. A sensible diet can soothe symptoms and prevent future attacks.

With the assistance of a healthcare provider or nutritionist, it's important to design a diet that excludes fat, alcohol, sugar, and processed foods. Along the way, it's fair to expect to make tweaks and changes to your diet, from how you prepare your food to how many times a day you eat.

A Word From Verywell

Pancreatitis can be a painful and frustrating condition, especially when it becomes chronic. There isn’t a single pancreatitis diet that works for everyone, but diet can have a big influence on how you feel.

Finding the right plan for you can take time and patience. So work with your healthcare provider, a registered dietitian, and/or nutritionist to fine-tune a pancreatitis diet that meets your needs—and satisfies your cravings.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What kinds of vitamins and supplements should you take when you have pancreatitis?

    Your healthcare provider may suggest that you take artificial digestive enzymes to help your body to absorb nutrients. A multivitamin can also help you make up for nutrients lost due to pancreatitis digestive issues. Look for one with vitamins A, B12, D, E, K, folic acid, and zinc.

  • Are bananas good to eat when you have pancreatitis?

    Ripe bananas are a good option because they're easy to digest. They also have a good amount of fiber, reducing your risk of gallstones and high triglycerides, which can sometimes cause acute pancreatitis.

  • Can you eat eggs when you have pancreatitis?

    Egg yolks are high in fat, which can be hard for your body to digest when you have pancreatitis. Instead of eating a whole egg, opt for egg whites. They're low in fat and high in protein.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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