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A young person grocery shopping with greens and juice in the cart
A young person grocery shopping with greens and juice in the cart

Pancreatic Cancer Nutrition: 12 Pancreatic Diet Tips

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People diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer often find it difficult to maintain their weight and follow a healthy diet. The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen, behind the stomach near the small intestine, gallbladder and duodenum. It has an essential role to help convert the food we eat into fuel for the body’s cells. Food may not be digested properly if the pancreas is not functioning due to cancer.

The pancreas has two main functions: an exocrine function that helps in digestion of food and an endocrine function that regulates blood sugar. Even if patients continue to eat and digest food normally, pancreatic cancer releases compounds into the bloodstream that break down muscle and fat, causing patients to lose weight and muscle mass, as well as feel fatigued.

Dietitians work closely with your care team to help you maintain good nutrition and maximize your health. They can assess your needs and design a diet plan that best meets your needs, including supplementary insulin or pancreatic enzymes. Dietitians can also help you alter the consistency, fiber content or fat content of your diet to prevent you from becoming malnourished.

Pancreatic Cancer Diet Tips

Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are treatments available for pancreatic cancer. Regardless of treatment type, pancreatic cancer takes a toll on the body and a person’s ability to maintain a healthy diet and nutrition. Below are some tips patients with pancreatic cancer find helpful to optimize nutrition during and after treatment.

  1. Monitor and maintain a healthy weight. It is normal to lose some weight after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and beginning treatment. Excessive weight loss and poor nutrition can cause a decrease in the body’s ability to fight infection and tolerate treatment. To help maintain a healthy weight:

    • Weigh yourself weekly.
    • Consult your care team and dietitian if you are losing more than 1 or 2 pounds a week. They can teach you ways to increase calorie and protein intake.
    • Avoid excessive weight loss, and seek help early with your care team to optimize nutrition.
  2. Stay hydrated. Drink enough fluid during cancer treatment to prevent dehydration.

    • Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses (64 ounces) per day.
    • To avoid feeling full at mealtime, drink fluids one hour before or after a meal.
    • Choose beverages that contain calories and nutrients.
    • Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol, which may lead to dehydration.

  3. Eat small, frequent meals. Frequent small meals will ensure your body has enough nutrients to tolerate treatment. Smaller meals are often better tolerated when enduring treatment side effects like nausea and lack of appetite. Consider setting an alarm to eat five to six meals per day every three to four hours.
  4. High-protein foods with every meal. Protein-rich foods help the body repair damaged cells and assist the immune system in recovering from illness. Lean proteins are easy to digest and should be included with each meal and snack.

    • Baked, grilled or boiled lean meats such as chicken, turkey and fish
    • Eggs
    • Nut butters such as peanut, almond or cashew
    • Low-fat dairy such as milk, yogurt and cheese
    • Beans
    • Soy products/tofu
    • Protein bars
  5. Consider the use of liquid supplements or shakes. As a side effect of treatment, sometimes food becomes less palatable or difficult to digest. When it is difficult to eat, liquids are easier to digest and can often be better tolerated. Be sure these supplements are protein rich. Foods that may help increase your caloric intake include:

    • Protein drinks
    • Bone broths to add to soup broths
    • Shakes made from Greek yogurt or high-protein milks
    • Pureed soups
    • Smoothies
  6. Choose foods that are easy to digest. Side effects of pancreas cancer treatment can impact digestion. Chopped, soft or boiled foods are easier for the body to digest. Avoid foods like red meat, pork or raw vegetables during times when digestion is a challenge.
  7. Choose essential whole grain foods. Whole grains are a good source of energy for the body, providing complex carbohydrates and fiber.

    • Oatmeal
    • Whole grain bread
    • Brown rice
    • Whole grain pasta
    • Bulgur
    • Corn
    • Farro
    • Quinoa
  8. Choose colorful foods. Whole fruits and vegetables are colorful foods high in antioxidants, which can help fight against cancer. Eat at least five servings per day of fruits and vegetables.
  9. Include healthy fats. Unhealthy fried, greasy and fatty foods may cause digestive issues and increase risk for cardiac disease. Healthy fats such as these provide energy, support cell growth and protect organs:

    • Olive oil
    • Canola oil
    • Avocado
    • Seeds
    • Nuts
    • Fatty fish
  10. Limit sweets and added sugars. Patients with pancreatic cancer often have trouble digesting foods high in sugar. Foods such as soda, cake, candy or desserts can increase blood sugar levels and often don’t provide nutritional benefit. Avoid these foods, and replace them with foods of high nutritional value.
  11. Watch for changes in bowel habits. Pancreatic cancer and treatments can often lead to changes in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas. If you experience changes in your bowel habits, let your health care team know. You may need to change your diet or medications, or add supplemental pancreatic enzymes taken with meals. These may help with absorption of nutrients and vitamins from your food.
  12. Stay active. Exercise can help stimulate appetite and natural endorphins, and staying active may create a sense of well-being and allow you to eat more. When possible, engage with family and friends during mealtime to make the experience more enjoyable.

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