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What is the Best Diet for Cystic Fibrosis?

Learning to cope with the effects of cystic fibrosis can be very difficult for patients and their families, especially early on. Many of the lifestyle choices made by healthy individuals are not available to those with cystic fibrosis, whether they revolve around diet, exercise, or other aspects of daily life. Perhaps the most significant point of consideration for those with cystic fibrosis is choosing what to eat; this illness has a significant impact on patients’ ability to process nutrients that most people take for granted, forcing drastic changes to food choices and the use of medical nutrition support. If you or someone you know has this condition, you might wonder what the best diet for cystic fibrosis might be. To find out, keep reading as the people at ENU explain.

How Cystic Fibrosis Affects Energy and Nutrition

To someone unfamiliar with the condition, cystic fibrosis may appear to be no different from a standard chest cold, but the reality is both more complicated and much more serious. Those with CF have a genetic mutation in their cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene, which causes the CFTR protein in cells to misbehave. Normally, this protein moves chloride to the outer edge of the cell, which attracts water to the surface and helps thin the mucus found throughout the body; without a properly functioning CFTR protein, the mucus found throughout the patient’s body becomes sticky and viscous, leading to the many problems associated with cystic fibrosis.

Respiratory Effects of Cystic Fibrosis

Those with CF have to contend with symptoms on two fronts: in their respiratory systems and in their digestive tracts. In the chest, the presence of thick mucus can block the airway and clog the lungs, making it much harder for CF patients to breathe. Because this mucus is so thick, it doesn’t move around as freely as it would in a healthy person, which means that it tends to trap germs in the airway; this often leads to respiratory infections.

The fact that CF patients have to constantly fight off infections combined with the increased effort required to simply breathe means that people with cystic fibrosis have much greater energy needs – in terms of calories – than most other people. Unfortunately, this energy is often hard to come by, thanks to the digestive symptoms of CF.

Digestive Symptoms of Cystic Fibrosis

The same issues with mucus-related blockages that affects the lungs of those with CF also occur in the digestive tract, primarily in the pancreas. This organ is responsible for releasing digestive enzymes that complete the process of breaking down food into small enough bits that the intestines can absorb them, but in those with CF, mucus stops up the ducts in the pancreas, preventing the release of these enzymes.

The effect of this is simple: Foods are not adequately broken down, so much of what’s eaten is not absorbed by the body. A person with cystic fibrosis may only be able to use as little as 50% of what they eat, so they have to take in much greater quantities of calories and nutrients – especially fats, protein, and fat-soluble vitamins – to maintain a healthy weight.

What to Eat with Cystic Fibrosis

Between the greater energy demands imposed by cystic fibrosis and the difficulties absorbing that energy when it’s consumed, patients with this condition have to take in significantly more food than most healthy people. The general calorie requirements for CF patients are detailed below:

  • Most men with cystic fibrosis should aim to consume at least 3,000 calories a day to stay at their current weight, with requirements reaching up to 3,700 calories for those looking to gain weight.
  • Most women with CF should get at least 2,500 calories per day to maintain their weight or 3,000 calories to gain weight.

To hit these numbers, those with CF should aim to eat consistently throughout the day. Bring snacks with you when you leave the house so you can maintain a consistent intake of calories wherever you go; a protein bar or nutritional shake might be a good choice.

In addition to calories, try to get as much healthy fat in your diet as possible. When you prepare a meal, consider cooking with high-calorie oils to boost your fat intake (and calorie intake) or add condiments to your food for the same effect. Most guidelines for eating with CF recommend getting at least 40% of your total calories from fats, so finding ways to incorporate this macronutrient into your diet is important.

Fats are an excellent source of energy for the body, but they’re crucial for another reason as well: Without adequate fat intake, your body can’t absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K – the four fat-soluble vitamins. Supplementing with these nutrients can help address any deficiencies, but only if there is sufficient fat into which these vitamins can dissolve.

Protein is another key nutrient for people with CF; it’s an essential part of the body’s healing process, which makes it critical for those facing constant respiratory infections, and it can help preserve muscle mass as well. You can get plenty of this macronutrient through protein-rich foods, such as meats, beans, and dairy products (which also tend to offer a good amount of calories) or by adding a protein supplement to your daily routine. Consider a protein shake for weight gain if you find yourself struggling with unwanted weight loss.

A Balanced Nutritional Shake for Cystic Fibrosis Diets

Finding ways to get enough calories, fats, and protein every day can be a challenge, but know that help is available. Nutritional shakes from ENU offer 340 calories in each carton, along with heart-healthy fats and easily digestible protein drawn from real food ingredients. If you or someone you know lives with cystic fibrosis, check out all our products by visiting us online or calling (855) 266-6733 today.