Diet tips for pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer can affect how well your body can digest food. Problems with digestion can cause symptoms, including losing weight and having diarrhoea. The following tips may help you manage different symptoms that can affect your eating and diet.
If you have questions about any of these tips, speak to your doctor, nurse or dietitian. You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line.
If you have pancreatic cancer, taking pancreatic enzymes can help you digest your food. This can help with diet symptoms. Don’t forget to take pancreatic enzymes when you eat.
If you are having problems eating or you are losing weight, these tips may help.
- If you can’t manage large portions, try eating smaller amounts more often – for example three small meals and three snacks a day.
- Every mouthful helps. If you feel sick or very full, have a break and eat some more an hour or so later.
- Eating even a small amount can be a big achievement – try to set realistic goals for yourself. It’s normal to have good and bad days with how much you can eat.
- Freeze portions of homemade dishes if you don’t feel like cooking, or try ready meals.
- Keep snacks close by so that you can eat whenever you feel like it.
- Sometimes, the smell of food can put you off. If a family member or friend can cook for you that might be a big help.
“I managed to get her to eat more food simply by leaving time in between meals and snacks, and leaving snacks in front of her. I noticed that she would go back to them to take another mouthful from time to time.”
''I remember going to the store and just buying one of everything that she loves, just in case she fancied it.’’
Losing weight is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer, and can be caused by problems with your digestion. If you have lost weight or have a small appetite, you might need more calories (energy) and protein in your food to help you put weight back on. This is called a build-up or fortified diet. Your dietitian can help you to make changes to your diet.
- Have high calorie foods, such as full fat milk, yoghurt and butter. You can also enrich your food to increase the calories and protein.
- If you are eating a higher fat meal, you may need to take more pancreatic enzymes.
- Try to have a pint of whole milk every day.
- Try to eat more foods that are high in protein, such as meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, beans and lentils, nuts, and yoghurt. Try to include protein in at least two of your meals each day.
- Try to have snacks between meals. These can include sweet things like cake, fruit, teacakes and malt loaf. Or savoury things like crumpets, samosas, cocktail sausages, cheese and crackers. High protein snacks such as yoghurts, cheese, nuts or cold meats are particularly good. Have a snack instead of a main meal if this is easier.
- Have a pudding once or twice a day – for example, yoghurt, ice cream, sponge pudding, or ready-made desserts.
- Drink about eight cups of fluids a day. Try having nutritious drinks such as milk, fruit smoothies (made with yoghurt, ice cream or whole milk), hot chocolate and fruit juice. If you find that drinks fill you up at mealtimes, it may help to have your drinks in between your meals.
- Look at food labels when you’re shopping to help you choose foods that have more calories. Avoid low fat or ‘diet’ food.
- Eat what you feel like and try not to worry about ‘normal’ meals. It’s fine if you fancy breakfast cereal for supper, your pudding before your main course, or soup for breakfast.
- Have some fruit and vegetables every day – but don’t fill up on these if it means you can’t eat foods that are high in calories and protein.
There are vegan options available if you need them. For example, Quorn®, tofu, hummus and dairy-free milk, cheese and yoghurt products. Dairy alternatives, such as soya or oat milk, often have fewer calories and less protein than dairy. Speak to your dietitian, doctor or nurse for advice on getting as many calories and protein into your diet as possible if you have a vegan diet.
Enriched food is food that has extra nutrients added to it. This can help you get more calories and protein, without needing to eat more food.
- Enrich milk by mixing two to four tablespoons of skimmed milk powder into a pint of whole milk. Use this instead of ordinary milk, in tea, coffee, cereals, porridge, soups, mashed potato and milk-based puddings.
- Add sugar, jam or honey to cereal, porridge, puddings and hot drinks.
- Add cheese, cream, milk powder, lentils or pasta to soup.
- Add grated cheese, cream, butter, margarine, mayonnaise or salad cream to meat, potatoes and vegetables.
- Add cream, evaporated milk or cheese to milk-based sauces.
- Add grated cheese to potatoes, or sprinkle on top of dishes like shepherd’s pie, fish pie or casseroles.
- Add cream, custard, evaporated or condensed milk, ice cream, honey, sugar, dried fruit, or nuts to puddings.
If you have other health problems, such as heart problems, you may have been told in the past to reduce the amount of fat in your diet. But if you have lost weight because of pancreatic cancer, eating some types of higher fat food can help you put weight on.
If you are still struggling with eating, or you are still losing weight on a build-up diet, speak to your dietitian. They may suggest nutritional supplements. If you haven’t seen a specialist dietitian, ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to one.
Macmillan Cancer Support has ideas for meals that you may find helpful in their booklet, The building-up diet.
“I shopped for food for her and baked and cooked her favourite foods. She was eating but needed tempting now and again. It made me feel that I could do something for her.”
If you are having problems with feeling and being sick, speak to your medial team. There are anti-sickness medicines that can help. If one type of medicine doesn’t work, try a different type, or a combination of drugs. You may also find these tips helpful.
- Nausea is often worse when the stomach’s empty – even eating a little dry toast may help.
- Try eating plain foods, for example, toast, bread and biscuits.
- Try eating cold foods, which smell less than hot food.
- If the smell of food cooking makes you feel sick, ask someone to cook for you, use ready meals, or get takeaways.
- Try sipping cold fizzy drinks between meals – it may help to let them go flat first.
- Try salty foods, such as crisps and salted nuts.
- Try food or drink containing ginger, such as ginger ale and ginger biscuits.
- Eat meals slowly and try to sit up for an hour after you have eaten.
- Try getting some fresh air before a meal.
- Remember to drink plenty so that you don’t get dehydrated, especially if you are being sick. Try to have nutritious drinks, such as milk, milkshakes, fruit juice, smoothies and soup
Some treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery can make food taste different. Food may lose its flavour or you might be put off your favourite meal or drink. This normally gets better with time. You might find these tips helpful in the meantime.
- Eat the foods that you do like the taste of and avoid those that you don't. Try different foods to find some that you like. If there are foods that you have gone off, try them again after a few weeks, as your taste may have returned to normal.
- If meat tastes bitter or like metal, try marinating it before cooking – for example, leaving it to soak for a couple of hours in wine, barbecue sauce or sweet and sour sauce. Cold meats may taste better served with pickle or chutney.
- If you find you can’t eat meat, other types of protein include fish, eggs, beans, pulses, lentils, milk, yoghurt and cheese.
- Try seasoning your food with strong flavourings, such as mustard, herbs, pepper, spices or lemon juice. Or try sharp tasting foods or drinks such as grapefruit, lemon or boiled sweets which may help to stimulate your taste buds and leave a pleasant taste in your mouth.
- If you do have a sore mouth or mouth ulcers, it may be best to avoid seasoned or sharp tasting food, as they can sting your mouth.
- Some people find cold or warm foods easier than hot food.
- If tea and coffee taste strange, try herbal tea, milky drinks, fruit juices or fizzy drinks.
- Try to drink plenty of fluids and keep your mouth and tongue clean. Brush your teeth regularly, and try using a soft toothbrush to clean your tongue.
- Use plastic or wooden spoons for cooking, and reusable plastic cutlery to eat with, rather than metal ones.
Ask your doctor or nurse to check for oral thrush. This can cause taste changes and sickness, but it is usually easy to treat.
Some treatments for pancreatic cancer can cause a dry mouth. You may find these tips helpful.
- Sip drinks frequently.
- Suck ice cubes or ice lollies.
- Suck sweets or mints, or chew sugar-free chewing gum to increase saliva.
- Make your food moist with sauces, gravy, custard or cream.
- Keep your mouth clean. Brushing your teeth before and after meals might help.
- Use mouthwash regularly. If you have a sore mouth, ask your nurse or dietitian which is the best mouthwash to use.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and smoking.
- Use lip balm to soothe dry lips.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have a dry mouth. They can check you don’t have any problems with your mouth, such as oral thrush. They can also give you medicines which can help with a dry mouth, such as a mouthwash, gels or tablets.
Pancreatic cancer can cause diarrhoea. Pancreatic enzymes can help manage diarrhoea if it is caused by problems with your digestion. Treatments such as chemotherapy can also cause diarrhoea – your medical team can give you medicines for this.
Diarrhoea can be a sign of infection. If you are having chemotherapy check if you have a temperature over 37.5oC. If you do, phone the emergency number that your chemotherapy team should have given you for urgent advice.
Speak to your doctor or dietitian for advice about diarrhoea – they can work out what’s causing it and how to treat it. The following tips may help.
- Eat small meals often.
- Chew your food well and try to eat slowly.
- Drink plenty (at least two litres a day) to replace fluid you’ve lost so you don’t become dehydrated.
- It can help to avoid spicy foods, alcohol, fruit juice, tea and coffee.
- Do not cut out fruit and vegetables completely as they can help to make your poo more solid.
- If you have very bad diarrhoea, you may need to replace lost salts and fluids with salty and sugary foods, isotonic sports drinks, or a rehydrating solution such as Dioralyte®.
Updated January 2020
Review date January 2023