You probably rarely think about your pancreas until something goes awry. Located in the abdomen, the pancreas plays a vital role in converting the food we consume into fuel that powers the body’s cells.
The pancreas secretes enzymes into the small intestine, which helps digest protein, fat and carbs. Additionally, the pancreas releases the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream, which help regulate the body’s blood sugar.
We understand it may be hard for people with pancreatic disease to eat at all — but eating well can have a profound impact on both your quality of life and the outcome of your diagnosis. Below, we’ll take a deep dive into eating habits that can ease your pain, as well as some food options for better health.
Your Health Guide Overview: What to Eat With a Bad Pancreas
In general, the best foods for people suffering from pancreatic are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean cuts of meat and fish. But, there’s a lot more to eating for pancreas health than adding more veggies to the mix and skipping the drive-thru.
There are some foods and drinks you should definitely avoid and others that you should load up on. Here’s a look at which foods you should and shouldn’t consume that may help heal your pancreas.
Avoid Alcohol When You Have Pancreatic Troubles
We know societal pressures from innocuous get-togethers with friends to networking events make it difficult to go alcohol-free. But those with pancreas issues would do much better without the stuff, and here’s why.
If you drink alcohol on a regular basis, you run the risk of developing pancreatitis, a painful condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Over time, binge drinking can contribute to both chronic and acute pancreatitis, and may even cause permanent damage to the organ if you’re not careful.
With acute pancreatitis, scientists currently don’t have a clear picture as to why alcohol is linked to this condition — but they have established that there is a connection. One theory that’s been circulating is that alcohol contains a type of molecule that may interfere with pancreatic cells, preventing them from doing their job correctly and inhibiting the production of the enzymes needed to digest fats and oils properly.
Whatever the cause, there is a definite link between acute pancreatitis and alcohol consumption, second only to gallstones. While acute pancreatitis may be treated at the hospital, and it’s often a one-time occurrence, continued alcohol abuse can lead to more bouts of the condition. And if you’ve gotten acute pancreatitis several times, you run the risk of developing the chronic version of the condition.
With chronic pancreatitis, there’s a much clearer link to heavy drinking. It’s often caused by acute pancreatitis patients continuing to abuse alcohol. This disease can cause permanent damage to the pancreas, increasing the chances of developing cancer or struggling with a chronic, painful condition.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, the best road to better health is to stop drinking:
- In many cases, this may help ease the pain and prevent further damage to the organ.
- Continued drinking makes things considerably worse, increasing the odds of dying from the condition by three times.
- With acute pancreatitis, even if it’s not caused by alcohol, you should avoid drinking completely for at least six months. You need to give your pancreas time to recover.
Stop Smoking When You Have Pancreas Issues
Smoking may increase the risk of developing pancreatitis. It’s not necessarily a cause of pancreatitis, but it certainly can accelerate the progression of the disease. Smoking also exacerbates the effects alcohol can have on the organ.
Smoking is linked to double the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, too, so it’s better to avoid smoking for all the known reasons if you’re already experiencing pancreas issues.
Smaller Is Better When It Comes to Meals
To protect your pancreas, it might be helpful to have smaller meals and eat them more often. Some people find specific foods trigger symptoms, and for that reason, it’s easier to keep track of the foods that make you feel good — say, whole grains and grilled chicken versus that meal that came with a little too much butter.
It’s also worth noting the standard three-larger-meal-a-day approach to eating doesn’t quite work for people with pancreatitis. Larger meals take longer to digest, and when your digestive enzymes are out of whack, you’re almost sure to trigger some pain after eating. Split mealtimes into six smaller meals — it’s easier on the digestive system and the metabolism.
Track Your Food Intake to Identify Triggers
If you have pancreas issues or have in the past, it’s a good idea to jot down your habits on a daily basis. Write down what you eat and how often, and document any changes you notice during the day. While the food diary may be a little annoying, it’s a great tool for keeping you personally accountable when it comes to your diet.
From there, you can make sure you avoid foods that aggravate your condition. A bout of acute pancreatitis is characterized by:
- An increased heart rate
- A deep boring sensation in the abdomen
It’s a good idea to avoid any items that cause pain or flare-ups for at least two weeks. Obviously, anything more severe warrants a visit to the doctor.
Make a Meal Plan
If it’s hard to plan out meals or you’re finding you flub up a couple of times a week for one reason or another, it’s understandable.
All of us cave and get something quick and easy from time to time, but chronic pancreas conditions require more vigilance than people who need only be concerned with calories or trying to find a balanced approach to eating. But making a meal plan can enable you to meet your dietary needs for pancreas health. Some tips for planning a healthy week to come:
- Make a shopping list for the week. You’ll want to include veggies, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy and protein.
- Buy enough produce to meet the “five-a-day” requirement, at a minimum.
- Foods easy to prep in advance, like canned beans, frozen vegetables and plenty of brown rice, can alleviate the burden of cooking every night.
- Make time for meal-prep twice a week. We recommend doing this on Sunday evenings and again mid-week. Chop up veggies and fruit for easy snacking, and make a few lunches for your work week.
- Invest in a food scale and measuring cups for getting serving sizes right.
Keep Fat Consumption to a Minimum
Too much fat in your diet can contribute to pancreatitis. A low-fat diet can keep symptoms at bay if you have this condition, as well help prevent it from happening in the first place.
Gallstones, one of the leading causes of pancreatitis, often develop when too much cholesterol builds up in your bile, the substance the body uses to break down fats. As a general rule, saturated fats from animal sources may contribute to gallstones or pancreatitis and can make symptoms worse if you already have one of these conditions. Cut out things like butter, ghee, lard and baked goods high in fat and sugar.
The fat you do eat should come from olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and coconut oil. Additionally, MCT-rich oils like coconut and palm oils are not digested through the use of pancreatic enzymes, making them a better source of fat than a pad of butter or even a sensible serving of plant-based grapeseed oil.
Should You Eat Meat If You Have Pancreas Problems?
The link between meat and pancreas health connects consumption to pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. According to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, regular pork and red meat intake may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The same is not true for eggs, fish, and poultry.
In addition to the increased cancer risk attached to your burgers, steaks and pork belly indulgence, if you’re currently suffering from a bad pancreas, red meat and pork (like alcohol or greasy foods) can trigger a release of pancreatic enzymes, which, in turn, can trigger an attack of pancreatitis.
Greasy Fare and Fried Foods
Like red and organ meats, as well as pork, greasy foods can also lead to pancreatitis attacks. It may seem obvious, but if you’re dealing with an episode or a chronic condition, you’ll want to avoid foods like potato chips, mayonnaise and anything fried.
Even healthy fats like olive oil or that hint of butter on your bread can trigger those dreaded excess enzymes — making it a little tricky to navigate dining out or eating in. Below, we’ve included a guide to fats to make things a little easier. Don’t be discouraged if it feels like everything has fat — we’ve added a few tips below for keeping your diet on track for optimal pancreatic health.
Make Your Food From Scratch
This tip may cause a few adjustments to your lifestyle, but it’s your best bet both for controlling your portion sizes and for staying away from the certain elements hidden within processed foods — like sodium or saturated fats. And going out to eat poses another challenge. Restaurant portions are considerably larger than your average homemade dinner, and in many cases the chef doesn’t skimp on the fat.
Unfortunately, this means you’ve got to take matters into your own hands, for the sake of your pancreas, if you genuinely want to keep your fat intake under control. Cooking for yourself allows you to find recipes that enable healthier swaps — think Greek yogurt instead of full-fat sour cream or using water or broth to add moisture to chicken at risk of drying out.
That said, not everyone can make every single item from scratch. So, get used to reading labels like your life depends on it. Here’s a basic fat rule of thumb. A product that can be classified as being high in fat contains 17.5 grams or more of fat per every 100 grams. For people with pancreas issues, you’ll want to look for foods that contain somewhere around 3 grams per every 100 grams.
It’s also worth noting that many pre-packaged meals advertised as being low in fat boast a higher sugar or sodium content, so you’re not missing out on too much flavor. Again, read labels diligently, sticking to natural food brands, if possible.
Add More Non-Meats to the Mix
In the United States, many of us are brought up with this inflexible idea of how to put together a meal — think one big piece of meat accompanied by a starch and a vegetable, plus a heavily ranched iceberg salad and maybe a buttered dinner roll to tie the whole thing together.
It’s time to ditch that whole way of thinking — a challenge to anyone switching up their diet, whether it’s veganism, the Whole30 or a pancreas-friendly meal plan. Meals that involve meat should include more vegetables and chickpeas, beans, lentils and the like than animal-based items.
For example, if you’re making a spaghetti sauce that typically calls for ground beef, swap it out for a small amount of turkey and add in some chickpeas and kale — you’ll get extra fiber plus protein from the beans.
And hey, the more often you eat vegetables, the more you’ll start to crave them. You’re retraining yourself—eventually, you’ll look forward to a plate full of lentils, veggies and fish, and your body will, too.
Cut Back on the Amount of Oil You Use
We know it can be tricky to make certain foods without any oil. Foods like potatoes just dry out and stick to the pan when you skip the oil — setting the tone for a thoroughly disappointing meal. Try using these tips to ease away from oil:
- Measure your oil rather than dumping into the pan as you go. An excellent way to measure oils is one teaspoon per serving.
- If you’re preparing vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower, try steaming them to get the bulk of the cooking done and add the pre-measured oil after the fact.
- If you are cooking meat that is sticking to the pan, a small drop of water may help rather than adding more oil.
- If the recipe calls for oil as a greasing agent, use a non-stick cooking spray and wipe off excess fat with a paper towel.
- Long story short, avoid using oil unless necessary.
Take Toppings and Dressings Into Your Own Hands
Salad dressings and dips can be full of hidden fats and excess sodium. Making your dressings like a lemon-miso combination or one with an apple cider vinegar base can help you amp up the flavor, while still keeping your fat intake in check. Add plenty of herbs for some nuance.
For the creamy stuff — think thin. Build on a base of low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese for best results.
Skip the Skin
This one should probably go without saying, but skip eating the skin next time you make chicken or turkey.
Remove Excess Fat
Remember the old pizza blotting trick? It may have been laughable the last time you saw someone do that, but this principle can help those with pancreatic issues avoid eating more fat than necessary. Skim the fat off of dishes like stews or casseroles, sop up excess oil before serving roasted vegetables — you get the idea.
Don’t Fry Your Food
When trying to heal an ailing pancreas, you can bake, steam, broil, boil or grill instead of fry. Or flavor with chicken stock or vegetable broth, if your minimal oil intake doesn’t feel like enough.
Get Plenty of Nutrients
Finally, if you’re trying to heal the pancreas or keep gallstones, pancreatitis and more away, you’ll want to eat foods with plenty of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Though it may feel as though there is a lot you can’t eat with a bad pancreas, and while that may be true, there are a great many foods that will ease your pain. They can even help cure things like chronic or acute pancreatitis.
Here are some of the foods that best soothe an ailing pancreas.
Kale, spinach, Swiss chard and mustard greens — use these guys as a base for countless salads to come. Spinach is rich in vitamin B and iron, critical nutrients for the health of your pancreas. Kale features vitamins B, C and K, along with minerals like iron, copper and manganese. Leafy greens have the benefit of going with just about anything — steamed with garlic and herbs, mixed into soups, or served alongside your favorite pasta dish.
Tofu is a great choice for those concerned about their pancreas, as it’s a good source of protein yet also low in fat. Protein plays a vital role in healing from pancreatitis, but too much fat from meat or fatty fish can hurt the healing organ.
Mushrooms, with their earthy flavor and bland color profile, may not seem like the most nutrient-dense player in the produce aisle, but they’re actually really great for pancreas health. Mushrooms are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Those in the throes of pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer are already aware that there are times you won’t feel like eating. Apple, grape or cranberry juices, as well as chicken or vegetable stock, provide some gentle nutrients if you need a break from traditional foods. That said, it’s wise to speak with a doctor before starting a liquid diet.
Additionally, you’ll want to drink plenty of water. The pancreas may become inflamed if you’re dehydrated, so it’s a good idea to keep a water bottle on hand at all times for easy sipping.
Think low-fat yogurt, kombucha or fermented vegetables—all of these options contain probiotics, which work to help the immune and digestive systems run a little more smoothly. Just be sure to select yogurts that don’t contain any added sugar.
Sweet Potatoes, Squash and Other Orange Foods
Orange foods like sweet potatoes, carrots and squash contain a form of vitamin A known as beta-carotene, which may have a positive effect on pancreas health.
Sweet potatoes contain B complex vitamins, vitamin C and minerals like manganese and copper. Squash contains vitamins B6, C and K, along with calcium, choline, potassium and magnesium.
Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, all contain anti-cancer compounds, like indole-3-carbinole, vitamins C and E, and more.
Berries, Cherries and Grapes
Rich in antioxidants, these snackable fruits help prevent cell damage throughout the body. Red grapes contain a potent antioxidant known as resveratrol, a nutrient found in red wine. Since alcohol is a no-go for those seeking pancreatic healing, red grapes can be a great way to take advantage of those same nutrients — minus the irritation.
Get the Help You Need to Heal Your Pancreas
In the end, it’s important to be connected to the foods you’re putting in your body. Eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones can help you avoid developing pancreatitis. If you’re experiencing pain you believe may be linked to gallstones, pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer, and are in the Baltimore area, fill out the form to set up a consultation with Dr. Fraiman or one of our other liver and pancreas specialists.