What to Eat If You Have Pancreatitis

In This Article

Table of Contents

Besides making insulin, which 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 (pancreatitis), it has a harder time breaking down fat and isn’t able to absorb as much nutrition. A pancreatitis diet takes 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 committing to a long-term pancreatitis diet, can help you manage your symptoms and prevent attacks, as well as keep you properly nourished despite your condition.

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

Benefits

The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is alcohol abuse, accounting for approximately 80% of cases. Although diet does not directly cause pancreatitis (it can contribute to gallstones and increase lipid levels, both of which can lead to the condition, however), it can help treat symptoms and prevent future attacks in those who are diagnosed with the condition.

And the benefits go beyond comfort. A pancreatitis diet helps support an organ that's already functioning inefficiently, which is of great significance because a pancreas that becomes unable to contribute to insulin regulation can give way to developing diabetes.

Central to all of this is fat restriction. The less you consume, the less burden you put on your pancreas which, due to pancreatitis, is already challenged when it comes to metabolizing fat.

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.

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, 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.

The pancreatitis diet's promotion of nutrient-dense foods also helps you thwart the possibility of malnourishment. One reason this can happen is that several key vitamins (A, D, and E) are fat-soluble; issues with fat digestion beget issues with properly absorbing 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

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 point.

It’s generally recommended that you avoid choices that are:

  • High in fat
  • Heavily processed
  • Have a lot of sugar
  • Contain alcohol

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 to 50 grams per day, depending on how well it’s tolerated.

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, 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.

Approaches

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.

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 are 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 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 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 (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, 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

  • 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 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.

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 butters 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 to occasionally eat a small piece of dark chocolate.

Beverages: Alcohol must be completely avoided. If caffeinated tea, coffee, and soft drinks contribute to symptoms, you may choose to limit or avoid them as well. 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 doctor are a few other options.

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 also 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

General Nutrition

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.

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.

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’re feeling better.

A nutritionist can help you make choices that 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 actually 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 both 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, however, 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 also 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 parameters in terms of avoiding or limiting foods that are high in saturated fats.

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, there are many, 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.

Support and Community

If you’re feeling frustrated by or disappointed about 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. There isn’t a single pancreatitis diet that works for everyone, but diet can have a big impact on how you feel. Know that finding the right plan for you can take time, and work with your doctor, a registered dietician, and/or nutritionist to fine-tune a pancreatic diet that meets your 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. Rasmussen HH. Nutrition in chronic pancreatitis. World Journal of Gastroenterology. 2013;19(42):7267. doi:10.3748/wjg.v19.i42.7267

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

Additional Reading