What to Eat and Avoid

What to Eat and Avoid

A pancreatitis diet can help you manage symptoms of pancreatitis, a condition that makes it harder for your body to break down fats.

Your pancreas produces insulin and enzymes that help your body digest food and absorb nutrients. Pancreatitis causes inflammation of the pancreas, which leads to reduced production of these compounds.

A pancreatitis diet limits fatty foods, like fried foods and butter, and adds foods like beans, poultry, and other low-fat, high-protein foods. Changing how you eat, either temporarily or for the long term, can help you prevent attacks.

This article will help you understand what to eat and what to avoid if you have pancreatitis.

Verywell / Joshua Seong


Benefits of a Pancreatitis Diet

The goals of a pancreatitis diet include:

  • Preventing pancreatitis attacks
  • Preventing or managing related conditions, such as kidney problems and diabetes
  • Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels
  • Preventing nutritional problems

A 2018 study found that people with pancreatitis who ate a high-fat, meat-rich diet were more likely to have more severe pancreatitis symptoms.

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, and 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.

Foods to Avoid

To prevent future attacks, you may need to make long-term changes to your diet. Start by avoiding certain foods and categories of foods that can be hard on your pancreas.

High Fat Foods

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.

This is because your pancreas has to work harder in order to digest high-fat foods such as:

  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Fried foods like French fries and hamburgers
  • Greasy snacks like potato chips
  • High-fat condiments like mayonnaise

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 and adjusting your intake.

High Sugar Foods and Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates and foods that are high in sugar can cause your pancreas to overproduce insulin. Some examples of these types of food include:

  • White bread and pasta 
  • Sugary snacks like candy and cookies
  • High-sugar desserts, especially those made from milk like ice cream and custard
  • Soda and fruit juice

Sugary foods can also raise triglycerides, which is an important risk factor for pancreatitis.

Alcoholic Beverages

Heavy alcohol consumption can raise your triglyceride levels, leading to chronic pancreatitis. It can also make pancreatitis worse, especially if you drink during an attack. 

The most common causes of pancreatitis are related to alcohol abuse or are due to gallstones, stones of crystallized cholesterol that form in the gallbladder and block needed enzymes from leaving the pancreas.

Foods to Eat

Eating low-fat foods is one of the best ways to prevent a pancreatitis attack. A 2015 research review by researchers in Japan found that patients with severe chronic pancreatitis benefitted from a very low-fat diet. Look for low-fat versions of the foods you enjoy and make sure to get plenty of fiber.

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.

Fruits and Vegetables

Choose produce with plenty of fiber, whether fresh or frozen. Canned fruits and vegetables can also work well. However, 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.

Err on the Light Side

Avoid cooking produce with butter and oils, or topping it with creamy sauces.

Grains

For the most part, you should build your pancreatitis diet around fiber-rich whole grains such as whole grain bread and brown rice. Pasta is usually okay on a pancreatitis diet but stick to whole wheat varieties.

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.

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, your healthcare provider may advise you to eat a bland diet, during which time you may find white rice, plain noodles, and white bread toast 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.

What Should You Eat During an Attack?

For most mild attacks of pancreatitis, complete bowel rest or a liquid-only diet is not necessary. A 2016 review of research on acute pancreatitis found that a diet of soft, bland, low-fat foods 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.

Each person’s symptoms and food tolerance will be unique. However, it can help to have some guidelines. These lists show foods to choose and avoid on a pancreatitis diet.

Choose

  • 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

Avoid

  • 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

Depending on how your body reacts to certain foods, it may be fine to add small amounts of certain foods to your diet. For example, you may be able to add honey or a little sugar to tea or black coffee or occasionally eat a small piece of dark chocolate.

More Pancreatitis Diet Tips

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.

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 although you may tolerate small amounts for cooking.

Certain spices may be irritating, but turmeric and ginger are tasty and have digestive benefits.

Pancreatitis Diet Plans

If you’re looking for pancreatitis diet recipes, the National Pancreas Foundation offers a free online cookbook with breakfast foods, main dishes, sweets, and even kid-friendly options. From banana pancakes to minestrone soups or oven-roasted salmon, there are menu ideas for anyone living with a pancreatic disease.

Getting the Right Nutrients

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 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.

Dining Out

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.

Grocery Shopping

Read labels when you shop at the grocery store. For the most part, look for products that are low-fat or fat-free. Many exist, making the diet easier to follow.

Note that 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.

Supplements

If you develop exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (a condition in which your small intestine can’t digest food fully), your healthcare provider may want you to start pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT).

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 the amount (in units) your healthcare provider wants you to take with each meal.

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.

Modifications and Dietary Restrictions

If you have other health conditions, you may need to adjust your pancreatitis diet to ensure you get 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 along with any other issues.

Nutrition is especially important if you have another medical condition that affects your digestion or the way your body uses nutrients, such as:

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

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

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 pancreatitis 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, expect to make tweaks and changes to your diet, from how you prepare your food to how many times a day you eat.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • 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.