The pancreas is the important insulin-secreting gland in our body that is situated close to stomach, gallbladder, and the small intestine. It helps with breakdown of carbohydrates, and secretes enzymes to help with digestion of proteins and fats. Needless to say, cancer in an organ like the pancreas, which helps with digestion, can place special nutritional demands on the body. To get the right kind of nutritional advice for pancreatic cancer patients and survivors, as well as for prevention, we reached out to Registered Dietitian Angela Hummel, a specialist of oncology nutrition.
What kind of food should one avoid during treatment of pancreatic cancer and what can one eat to feel better?
Making the healthiest choices to help maintain good nutrition is the first step for preparing your body to get through treatment. Choosing a balanced diet with adequate protein can help with maintaining a healthy body weight and muscle mass.
Diarrhea is often a side effect for people with pancreatic cancer. If you experience diarrhea, discuss possible causes with your healthcare team for appropriate treatment. There are different causes of diarrhea such as fat malabsorption due to pancreatic enzyme insufficiency, lactose intolerance, bacterial overgrowth, chemotherapy and/or dumping syndrome from surgical resection.
Depending on the type and location of pancreatic cancer, some individuals need to avoid excess fat intake due to pancreatic enzyme insufficiency. Often times, the use of enzyme replacement can help with fat digestion and resolve symptoms.
Consuming small, frequent meals can help combat fatigue and weight loss. It is important to make these meals look like “mini meals” rather than choosing “snack” foods. Balanced mini meals are more likely to supply necessary protein, vitamins and minerals to help maintain good nutritional status.
If you experience elevated blood sugar or hypoglycemia, it can be helpful to schedule meals with a consistent amount of carbohydrate. Adding a protein source like low-fat dairy, beans, fish or seafood, poultry or lean red meat can help with blood sugar stability.
You have a greater risk of dehydration during treatment. Maintain hydration by drinking clear beverages like water, juice, electrolyte replacement beverages or broth.
As a specialist in oncology nutrition, what is your advice to pancreatic cancer survivors who want to eat a nutritious diet but have a problem sticking to a strict routine and get bored with the same food?
After treatment, there will be a new normal eating routine for you. This is different for everyone. Strive for a plant-based diet as much as possible. This will take time as your body heals from treatment. Begin by adding easy-to-digest plant-based foods like oats, barley, bananas, applesauce, pears, peaches, turnips, sweet potatoes, carrots and asparagus. Over time, increase your intake of different plant-based foods and test your tolerance. Experiment with different foods, textures and flavors to determine what is most appealing. For plant-based recipes sign up to receive AICR healthy recipes: https://www.aicr.org/can-prevent/healthy-recipes/
Consider working with a registered dietitian by asking your healthcare team for a referral or search at http://www.eatright.org/find-an-expert.
What should one eat to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer?
Strive for a healthy body weight through diet. Tips for consuming a healthy diet:
- Choose a mostly plant-based diet including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and lentils and avoid highly processed foods with added sugar and fats.
- When choosing dairy products, consider reduced-fat or nonfat choices
- Limiting red meat to 1/3 or less of your plate can help reduce intake of saturated fat. When choosing red meat (beef, pork or lamb), choose lean cuts like sirloin, loin, round and 95% lean ground meat
- Avoiding high fat processed meats like bacon, salami, salami, sausage and hot dogs can significantly reduce fat intake
- Go easy on condiments like mayonnaise, honey mustard, salad dressing or queso-type dips can help you control the amount of added fat in your diet. Instead choose salsa, mustard, vinegars or hummus
- When choosing desserts, opt for fruit-based desserts and/or smaller portions
- Evaluating beverage choices can help reduce added sugar and fat consumption. Many specialty coffee, chai tea, dairy-based frozen, or smoothies contain a lot of sugar and some added fat.
Use physical activity to help achieve a healthy body weight.
- Be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day. When exercising, strive for at least a moderate intensity level. You should not be able to sing while exercising
- Limit sedentary behaviors, like sitting for hours without a break
- Take a break for 1 to 2 minutes for every hour sitting
- Engage in stretching activities for all major muscle groups at least twice per week
- Include strength training exercises in your exercise routine for all major muscle groups at least twice per week
Written by Angela Hummel, MS, RDN, CSO, LDN:
Angela is a specialist in oncology nutrition working in the clinical and community setting. She is passionate about helping people make positive diet and physical activity changes, either for cancer prevention or during their cancer survivorship journey. She initiated and developed two oncology nutrition programs in cancer centers. Angela also uses her expertise with two AICR programs – the New American Plate Challenge, and the Nutrition hotline.