Eating to starve Lymphedema

Eating to Starve Lymphedema 

by Anthony Flores

Occupational Therapist, OTR/L

Lymphedema and lipedema both are a dynamic health condition that involves multiple systems of the body. Healthcare professionals should consider and address each system when treating this condition. One area of importance that should be considered is the lymphatics in the gut.

Lymphatics in the gut make up 70% of the immune system and monitor the digestive tract contents of harmful elements, provide the first line of defense against foodborne infection and help with fat metabolism. A healthy lymphatic system plays a significant role in a healthy immune system. 

The walls of the small intestine contain two networks of lymphatic vessels. One removes excess fluid from the intestine itself. The other collects fats from foods being digested in the form of a milky white substance called chyle.

Chyle will flow through the lymphatic vessels surrounding the small intestines, enter into collecting vessels and then into the central lymphatic vessels which empties into the left subclavian vein back into the circulatory system. The health of lymphatic vessels and the efficient clearing of this chyle fluid is important to maintain immune health, promote nutrient absorption and prevent lymphatic overload.

The fat in our food is broken down into short-chained, medium-chained and long-chain fatty acids. Short and medium-chain fatty acids are not converted into chyle. These fats are absorbed and delivered to the liver where they enter the bloodstream. Long-chain fatty acids, however, are converted into chyle and passed through the lymphatic system.

Excessive long-chain fatty acid intake can double the volume of chyle produced and can add an extra half gallon of fluid to the lymphatic system daily. Consuming more short-medium chain fatty acids and less long-chain fatty acids can help reduce the amount of excess fluid introduced into the lymphatic system. The combination of reducing excess fluid in the system with Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT), will improve the ability to manage lymphedema long term.

It may be helpful to consume more short and medium-chain fatty acids:

  • Medium chain triglyceride: coconuts, coconut oil
  • Goat cheese, sheep milk cheese, sheep butter, ghee

Limit or avoiding long-chain fatty acids:

  • Other dairy based foods
  • Oils and other fat-based ingredients in salad dressing and other foods
  • Fried foods and cooking fats
  • Processed foods containing fats, especially chemically modified fats

Lymphedema and lipedema are dynamic health conditions involving multiple body systems and factors. When treating, one should consider and address as many of these systems as possible. Reducing excessive chyle in the lymphatic system can be one tool in successful management of lymphedema long term.


Ehrlich, C., Iker, E., & Herbst, K. L. (2016). Lymphedema and lipedema nutrition guide: Foods, vitamins, minerals, and supplements. San Francisco, CA: Lymph Notes.