Families of kids with pancreatitis are hungry for information and strategies to help them manage their condition and feel better. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that can cause significant pain, swelling, infection, or permanent damage to the organ. This problem can be either acute (sudden onset) or chronic (goes on for a long time). Pain is the most significant side effect of pancreatitis, but other problems can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss and issues with other organs.
During their initial information gathering, parents often ask about dietary recommendations. They wonder if specific foods could have triggered their child’s pancreatitis. They’re also curious if a specific diet could help control their child’s symptoms or avoid repeated episodes of pancreatitis altogether.
Can Pediatric Pancreatitis Be Managed with a Specific Diet?
The short answer is probably not. We do not recommend a particular diet – unless a child has another related condition, like hypertriglyceridemia (high levels of blood triglycerides) – because the literature does not support it. At one point in time, doctors thought that a “low fat diet” could help a person decrease the chances of pancreatitis and lower their lipase levels. Lipase is a type of protein made by the pancreas that helps the body digest fat. Elevated lipase levels can be an indicator of pancreatitis.
However, studies have shown that eating a low-fat diet does not improve lipase levels, nor help kids’ symptoms. What has shown to be helpful is eating healthy, well-balanced meals and avoiding the foods that we all should be limiting. This is relevant to the kids who are managing acute episodes or in-between episodes. We suggest that kids with pancreatitis (and even kids without!) follow the below general guidelines. The USDA’s website is a great resource for further information.
- Eat more fruits and veggies (about half the plate)
- Encourage whole grains (rather than simple carbs)
- Proteins should be about a fourth of the plate
- Limit sugar and simple carbs (such as juice, cookies, chips, etc)
- Stop eating when full
A Healthy, Balanced Diet in Addition to Other Approaches Work Best
This information may seem both encouraging and frustrating. On one hand, it’s easier when kids don’t have to follow a restricted diet. On the other hand, not having a single, tangible “fix” can be discouraging.
In our Pancreas Care Center, we have found that a healthy, well-balanced diet in tandem with other approaches work best. These may include taking digestive enzymes, vitamins, medicines, and pain management techniques. Sometimes endoscopic procedures or surgery are recommended to improve the negative effects caused by pancreatitis. I recommend finding a team that encompasses different health specialists as defined by pancreas centers of excellence to address your child’s unique set of needs and to determine an individualized care plan.