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Cystic Fibrosis: Diet and Nutrition

What Is Cystic Fibrosis?

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disease that affects the body's epithelial cells, which are found in many places, including the sweat glands, the lungs, and the pancreas. An error in these cells causes problems with the body's balance of salt and water. The body responds by making thick mucus, which blocks the lungs and sometimes other ducts and passageways, causing infections and breathing problems.

This mucus can also keep the intestines from absorbing important nutrients like fat and vitamins from food. People with CF need extra calories and nutrients to help them fight infection and keep their lungs strong.

With the right balance of nutrition, extra fat and calories, and prescribed supplements, though, teens with CF can keep themselves healthy.

What Nutrients Do Teens With CF Need?

Like everyone else, teens with CF should eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, dairy products, and protein.

But they also have some specific nutritional needs to help them stay healthy. Here are some of the nutrients they need to get more of:

Salt. Teens with CF lose more salt in their sweat than their peers, especially during hot weather and exercise. The dietitian may suggest taking salty snacks and sports drinks along when teens play sports or have gym class, and in hot weather.

Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K). These vitamins are important for immune function, growth, and healing. They're absorbed along with fat. Most teens with CF have trouble digesting and absorbing fat, which means they may not absorb fat-soluble vitamins. The doctor will check your fat-soluble vitamin levels once a year, and might prescribe a CF-specific multivitamin.

Calcium. Teens with CF are at risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis (weak, brittle bones). Dairy products are good sources of calcium (and the full-fat varieties also are good sources of fat and calories). If you don't drink cow's milk, consider trying a milk alternative that is fortified with calcium.

Calories. Some teens with CF need extra calories to grow healthy and strong. The extra calories should come from a well-balanced, healthy diet.

Besides eating high-calorie meals, it's a good idea for teens with CF to carry some high-energy snacks with them. Try trail mix, nuts, packets of cheese crackers or peanut butter crackers, and veggies like carrots or celery with small containers of dressing that don't need to be refrigerated.

What Is Tube Feeding?

In some cases, teens with CF may have low energy or trouble gaining weight, even with good nutrition and supplements. So doctors may recommend that they get extra nutrients through a tube inserted into the stomach (called tube feeding). Tube feedings, which most people choose to do overnight, provide about 1,000 to 2,000 calories. These overnight feedings leave teens with CF free to enjoy normal meals and activities during the day.

Tube feedings can be an excellent way to help teens who have trouble gaining weight, especially when they're sick. Having a tube put in for the feedings is usually an uncomplicated procedure that doesn't require extensive surgery or a long hospital stay. In fact, most teens who have feeding tubes inserted can go home the same day as they get the procedure done.

What Are Enzyme Supplements?

CF often causes a condition called pancreatic insufficiency. The enzymes made in the pancreas that digest fat, carbohydrates, and protein don't pass into the intestines as they should. So the body can't digest food normally.

People with pancreatic insufficiency might have problems with growth and weight gain, and they might also have frequent and bad-smelling bowel movements.

Someone with pancreatic insufficiency needs to take prescribed enzymes with meals and snacks to help food digest properly. A CF doctor will work with a dietitian to prescribe enzymes based on weight, growth, and how much the person with CF eats at a time. Enzymes need to be taken with every meal and most snacks. They should not be chewed or crushed, and the dose should only be adjusted by the dietitian or doctor.

What Else Should I Know?

Besides the right diet, exercise can help give people with CF the energy and mental boost they may need. Talk to your doctor about the right kind of exercise for you, and pay careful attention to how you feel while exercising. Rest or stop if you get tired.

Like everyone else, teens with CF need to take care of their bodies so they grow up healthy, strong, and full of energy.

Date reviewed: January 2020