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A high calorie, high protein diet can help people with pancreatic cancer maintain or gain weight. A registered dietitian can ensure that a person gets the necessary nutrients while avoiding foods that may worsen symptoms.

Weight loss is common among people with cancer, but people with pancreatic cancer may face extra challenges maintaining or gaining weight.

If the tumor affects the stomach, a person may experience nausea, vomiting, and pain after eating, which may make them feel unable to eat.

Working with a registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition for people with cancer may help those with pancreatic cancer maintain or gain weight.

This article examines some nutritional recommendations for people with pancreatic cancer, foods to avoid, tips for gaining weight, and more.

The authors of a 2021 review suggest that diet can affect tumor growth and the efficacy of certain pancreatic cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. However, they stress that more research is necessary to examine the use of diet in pancreatic cancer treatment.

If people with pancreatic cancer have difficulty maintaining or gaining weight, they may benefit from a high calorie diet that is dense in nutrients and protein to sustain energy levels and increase their weight.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends the following tips for people who want to stop losing weight during cancer treatment:

  • Drink high calorie, high protein beverages such as smoothies and milkshakes.
  • Avoid drinking during meals to prevent filling up with liquids.
  • Eat high calorie, high protein snacks such as peanut butter, nuts, and granola.
  • Add high calorie foods to meals where possible.
  • Eat favorite foods at any time of day, such as breakfast food for lunch.

They also suggest that people work with a dietitian to create a personalized nutrition plan.

Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency

Pancreatic cancer can cause exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), in which a person has less pancreatic enzyme activity. Pancreatic enzymes help break down fats, proteins, and carbs. Without them, the body can have trouble digesting and absorbing food.

EPI may occur after a pancreatectomy, a procedure in which a surgeon removes part or all of the pancreas.

If a person with pancreatic cancer has EPI, a doctor or registered dietitian may recommend pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy. This treatment uses medication to replace the lost enzymes.

Learn more about EPI.

Other dietary supplements

The ACS cautions against using vitamins, herbs, and special diets, particularly as a treatment for pancreatic cancer. Some of these dietary changes may worsen pancreatic cancer symptoms and even affect treatment efficacy.

For example, consuming too much vitamin C can cause abdominal cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. Although people with pancreatic cancer may already experience these symptoms, they can make it more difficult to maintain or gain weight.

The ACS highlights the following potential effects that dietary supplements can have on cancer treatments:

  • causing skin sensitivity and other severe reactions in people receiving radiation therapy
  • negatively affecting medications during and after surgery
  • increasing the risk of bleeding and infection during and after surgery
  • increasing the risk of chemotherapy side effects
  • making chemotherapy treatment less effective

Before starting or continuing with any nutritional supplements, people with pancreatic cancer should speak with their doctor or dietitian.

Some people with pancreatic cancer may find that certain foods trigger or worsen symptoms such as nausea, indigestion, and diarrhea. People may try temporarily eliminating these foods to see whether their symptoms improve.

However, there is currently no scientific research to support a specific list of foods that people with pancreatic cancer should avoid.

A registered dietitian can create a personalized diet plan based on an individual’s tolerance levels for various foods.

Consuming high calorie, nutrient-dense foods and increasing protein intake may help a person with pancreatic cancer gain weight.

Additionally, high calorie snacks can boost a person’s calorie intake, as can smoothies, protein shakes, and nutritional snack bars. Staying hydrated is critical, but people may benefit from drinking between meals to avoid filling up on liquid when eating.

Some people with pancreatic cancer may need to follow a soft diet, in which people add liquids to soften their food. The nonprofit Cancer Research UK suggests the following tips for adding calories and protein to a soft diet:

  • adding ground meats, lentils, beans, or pasta to soups
  • blending bananas into protein shakes
  • making oatmeal and instant soups with whole milk or soy milk rather than water
  • blending tofu into soups and sauces
  • dipping steamed vegetables in hummus or guacamole

Some of the most common methods of gaining weight may conflict with foods and beverages that could cause digestive discomfort in people with pancreatic cancer. For example, adding a high calorie topping such as sour cream to a baked potato may worsen digestive symptoms that cancer can cause.

A registered dietitian can suggest personalized alternatives that do not trigger a person’s symptoms.

The following tips may help people who experience appetite loss and other digestive problems due to pancreatic cancer:

  • Eat small, frequent meals: Eating small, regular meals may benefit people with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and bloating.
  • Focus on soft, moist foods: Foods such as soups, smoothies, and yogurt may be easier to chew and swallow.
  • Experiment with food temperature: Some people may find chilled or room-temperature foods more comfortable to eat than hot foods.
  • Stay hydrated: A person can sip water throughout the day and try to consume foods with high water content, such as melons, peaches, and steamed zucchini or squash.
  • Continue managing symptoms: A healthcare professional may prescribe medications or suggest specific strategies to relieve nausea, pain, and other symptoms that make it difficult to eat.

Depression and anxiety are common among people coping with serious health conditions such as cancer, and both can affect a person’s appetite.

Family, friends, therapists, and support groups can provide emotional support to help people with pancreatic cancer who are experiencing depression or anxiety.

A 2019 research review suggests that limiting weight loss can improve outcomes and life expectancy in people with pancreatic cancer.

The authors state that anyone who is experiencing weight loss or symptoms of malnutrition should speak with a healthcare professional such as a registered dietitian.

A healthcare professional can take steps to stimulate appetite, create a personalized diet plan, and address symptoms that may make people with pancreatic cancer feel unable to eat.

People with pancreatic cancer may experience symptoms that make them feel unable to eat, including nausea, vomiting, and stomach pains.

However, weight loss can negatively affect quality of life and outlook. Working with a registered dietitian can help people maintain or gain weight during pancreatic cancer treatment.

A dietitian can personalize someone’s diet to avoid foods that trigger symptoms. They can also work with a person’s doctor to address those symptoms and provide any necessary supplements.

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