If you or someone in your family has cystic fibrosis, you know that this can be a difficult disease to live with. One things which can help improve the quality of life, however, is making sure that someone with this condition eats really well.  Good nutrition can help reduce the risk of some of the complications associated with cystic fibrosis – and is even associated with living longer!

Why is Nutrition So Important?

Good nutrition is important for everyone – but is especially crucial for cystic fibrosis patients. When someone has cystic fibrosis, their body produces a thick mucus – and one of the body systems most affected by this mucus is the digestive system.  One of the problems this mucus causes is to block off the tubes that lead from the pancreas into the small intestines. When these tubes get blocked, the enzymes that help the body digest fats cannot get into the digestive tract to do their work.

The result?  Cystic fibrosis patients can suffer from greasy stools, severe constipation and other difficult digestive problems. It also makes it harder for the body to absorb the nutrients it needs from the food that you eat.  In the long run, this can lead to a number of diseases – like anemia or osteoporosis – which happen when the body is not getting enough of the nutrients that it needs.

Pancreatic Enzymes: a CF Patient’s Best Friend

One thing that most doctors will prescribe for CF patients is oral pancreatic enzymes.  These enzymes are chemically the same as the one produced by the pancreas and are helpful for CF patients if their pancreas gets blocked off.  They need to be eaten with every meal and will help the body to break down fats.  This will improve symptoms like greasy stools and help kids to avoid some of the problems that come from having low levels of nutrients in their bodies. While nearly all CF patients will be on these enzymes, it is not right for everyone and it is good to talk to a doctor before starting this kind of treatment.

Supplemental Vitamins and Minerals.

Because of the digestive problems that go along with cystic fibrosis, it is also important that kids with this disorder get plenty of vitamins and minerals if their doctor thinks they need them. It is also important to try to get these nutrients in the diet. Some of the most common things that kids with CF can be low on include:

  • Calcium, which is needed by the body for build healthy teeth and bones. Eating things like yogurt, cheese and other dairy products is a good way to get calcium in the diet. Almonds and some other nuts have lots of calcium, too.
  • Vitamins A, D, E and K which the body needs for a strong immune system and for healing. These vitamins are called fat-soluble vitamins and because it is harder for the body of someone with CF to absorb fat, it is easier for them to get low in these important vitamins.
  • Zinc, which the body also needs to help it heal up from cuts, scrapes or even surgery. Foods which are rich in zinc include eggs, liver, seafood and different kinds of nuts.
  • Iron, which the body uses to make red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to rest of the body. Iron can be found in foods like red meats, spinach, liver, dried fruits and iron-fortified cereals.
  • Salt, which most people have to restrict in their diets, is actually good for kids with CF. This is because they lose a lot of salt in their sweat – especially if it is a hot day or they are very active –and can get too low in a hurry. It is easy, however, to add more salt to the diet in the form of simple table salt added to foods.

Pile on Those Calories!

Doctors recommend that most people cut back on their calories, especially if they need to lose weight. However, because it is harder for CF kids to absorb what they eat, most doctors will recommend a very high-calorie (and also usually a high-fat diet) in order to compensate and to give the body the calories it needs to grow and develop.

Tips for adding lots of calories to the diet include:

  • Eat small but frequent meals throughout the day
  • Snacking often on high-calorie snacks like pudding cups, yogurt, cheese and crackers, and fruit or vegetables with peanut butter
  • Adding powdered milk to dishes like soups or mashed potatoes
  • Indulging in high-calorie desserts like ice cream or cheese cake
  • Serving foods with sauces, dressings or gravies.
  • Adding extra cheese and/or butter to vegetable, rice, pasta and other dishes.

Making sure that a child with CF gets enough to eat is a group effort.  Teachers and staff at school need to know that it is ok for CF kids to eat in between meals, even if it is not a designated “snack time” and to remind, support and encourage the child to do this. If a child goes out to eat or has dinner with a friend, be sure the parents are aware that high-calorie, high-fat meals are okay.

In short, although cystic fibrosis can be a difficult condition to live with, nutrition has been shown to make a difference. When parents – and kids themselves – understand the particular needs of that the body has with CF, it is easier to take the supplements that are needed and to eat the foods that will be best for this condition.  And again, nutrition has been shown to be able to reduce complications and lead to better quality of life for people with this disease.