Pancreatic Cancer Diet and Nutrition

The pancreas is an important gland in the body that secretes insulin. It is near the stomach, small intestine, gallbladder, and duodenum. It plays a large role in the digestion of foods. In particular, the pancreas aids in the breakdown of carbohydrates and secretes enzymes to help in the digestion of protein and fats. Pancreatic cancer treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Pancreatic cancer diet, however, can make the treatment process more manageable.

Pancreatic Cancer Nutrition Guidelines

Regardless of treatment type, pancreatic cancer takes quite a toll on the body, especially in the areas of diet and nutrition. Here are some tips on what to eat with pancreatic cancer on and how to optimize nutrition during and after treatment.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery for pancreatic cancer often contribute to unintentional weight loss. It’s important to avoid excess weight loss during treatment, as poor nutrition can cause a decrease in the body’s ability to fight infection.
  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Eating frequent small meals will ensure your body is getting enough calories, protein and nutrients to tolerate treatment. Smaller meals may also help to reduce treatment-related side effects such as nausea. Try eating five to six small meals or “mini” meals about every three hours.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking enough fluids during cancer treatment is important for preventing dehydration. Aim to drink 64 ounces of fluid daily. Avoid drinking large amounts of caffeinated beverages. Too much caffeine can lead to dehydration.
  • Be observant of changes in bowel habits. Pancreatic cancer and treatments can often lead to changes in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas. It is important to communicate with your healthcare team about any changes in your bowel habits. Changes in your diet or medications may be necessary to manage these side effects.
  • Choose foods that are easy to digest. One key responsibility of the pancreas is to aid in digestion. Pancreatic tumors can impact how effective the pancreas is at digesting foods. Choose soft foods that are easy to chew. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly.
  • Choose protein-rich foods. Foods high in protein are some of the best foods for the pancreas. Protein helps the body repair cells and tissues. It also helps the immune system recover from illness. Include a source of lean protein at all meals and snacks. Good sources of lean protein include:
    • Lean meats such as chicken, fish or turkey
    • Eggs
    • Low-fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese or dairy substitutes
    • Nuts and nut butter
    • Beans
    • Soy foods

Include whole grain foods. Whole grain foods provide a good source of carbohydrate and fiber, which help keep energy levels up. Good sources of whole grain foods include:

  • Oatmeal
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Brown rice
  • Whole grain pasta

Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables offer the body antioxidants, which can help fight against cancer. Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to get the greatest benefit. Aim to eat a minimum of five servings of whole fruits and vegetables daily.

Eat healthy fats

Choose sources of healthy fat. Avoid fried, greasy and fatty foods. Instead, choose baked, broiled or grilled foods. Healthy fats include:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Limit sweets and added sugars. It is not uncommon for individuals with pancreatic cancer to have more difficulty digesting foods high in sugar. Desserts and sweets may have adverse effects. These foods provide little nutritional benefit and often take the place of other foods that are better for you. These foods may also lead to high blood sugar or blood glucose levels.

Practice good food safety. Wash your hands often while preparing food. Use different knives and cutting boards for raw meat and raw vegetables. Be sure to cook all foods to their proper temperature and refrigerate leftovers right away. Talk to your healthcare team before taking any vitamins or supplements. Some medications and cancer treatments may interact with vitamins and supplements. Choose food as the main source of nutrients.

Pancreatic enzyme supplement

Take pancreatic enzymes if prescribed by your healthcare team. Your cancer may affect the functionality of your pancreas, which may affect your ability to digest food properly. Your doctor may prescribe pancreatic enzymes to take with meals. Pancreatic enzymes can aid in better digestion and help improve any digestive discomfort or problems you may be having.

Eat as healthy as possible

  • Nutrient-dense foods are foods that contain protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fat, vitamins and minerals, all needed by the body to function optimally.
  • Fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains are all nutrient dense foods.
  • Consult a registered dietitian for specific recommendations based on your level of food tolerance.

Try to eat with others when possible

  • Typically this makes meal times more enjoyable and may encourage you to eat more than eating alone.

Eat slowly and chew food well

  • Digestion begins in the mouth. Smaller food particles are much easier to digest and are less likely to cause discomfort during the digestion process.

What to do after you eat

  • Lying down after eating encourages acid from the stomach to flow back into the esophagus leading to symptoms of heartburn.
  • Stay in an upright position while food digests. This will keep the acid from the stomach in the stomach.
  • Ask a registered dietitian for guidance on which foods to avoid to prevent heartburn, gas, bloating and belching.

Be as active as possible

  • Exercise may help to stimulate appetite and endorphin production. Physical activity will provide a sense of well-being, which will make treatments more bearable and allow you to eat more.

Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration

  • A good starting point is to strive for eight eight-ounce glasses per day.
  • Only take small sips with meals to avoid excessive bloating, gas or feeling too full to eat.
  • The best time to drink fluids is an hour before or after a meal.
  • Choose beverages that contain calories and nutrients such as juices, smoothies and liquid nutrition supplements.
  • A registered dietitian can provide you with recommendations for a liquid nutrition supplement and how much is best for you.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Alcohol provides no beneficial nutrients and may contribute to dehydration, which can lower the abilities of your immune system.

Be observant of changes in bowel habits

  • You may experience symptoms of fat malabsorption by the frequency of bowel movements and the appearance of stools. Fat-containing stools are often bulky, frequent, foul-smelling and have an oily appearance.
  • These symptoms warrant the need for vitamin A, D, E and K supplements as well as a multivitamin. You may also need a calcium supplement.
  • Your healthcare team can advise you on choosing these as well as the correct dosage.
  • Ask your oncologist about vitamin B12 injections and iron to avoid becoming anemic.

Stay on top of your weight

It is normal to lose some weight after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and beginning treatment. Consult a registered dietitian immediately if you are losing more than one or two pounds a week. A registered dietitian can provide recommendations on how to increase calorie intake.

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