Protein Intake For Cancer Prevention And Treatment


What is protein?

Proteins are large molecules in the body that do most of the work in our cells, and in effect, our tissue and organs. Proteins are made up of amino acids.

Why is protein important?

Protein is needed for body maintenance, growth, and repair. Protein is present in almost all body cells and has many functions, such as:

  • Formation and maintenance of muscles, connective tissues, red blood cells, enzymes, and hormones.
  • Transporting many body compounds, as well as medications.
  • Maintaining the balance of body fluids.
  • Fighting infections and strengthening immunity.

Generally, your diet provides enough protein; however, while undergoing surgery or treatment for cancer, your protein needs may increase. It is important to be aware of the food sources of protein and to include these foods at every meal and snack. 

Why is protein crucial for cancer patients?

Protein is one of the most important nutrients in the diets of cancer patients. “We really stress protein to our patients — to include it with every meal or snack,” says Candice Schreiber, RD, CSO, LD, a JamesCare for Life outpatient clinical dietician.

“Protein helps build and maintain muscle, which is important for cancer patients who might be having problems eating and are losing weight,” Schreiber says. “When they lose weight, it’s often muscle and not fat, so protein is vital during treatment.”

Other benefits of protein include enhanced cell growth and repair, as well as improvements in blood clotting and infection fighting.

Protein From Meat

“Normally, we recommend a diet higher in plant-based foods, including plant proteins, and lower in animal products,” Schreiber explains. Though she adds that during treatment, it’s important for cancer patients to find protein sources that they can tolerate, so if meat is something a patient can handle or even crave, it’s OK to include more during treatment.

“We do still recommend leaner meat proteins, such as chicken, turkey and fish,” Schreiber says. “If you do consume red meat, go with lean ground beef or anything with the word loin in it, like sirloin, tenderloin or pork loin, as those are better options than prime rib, ribeye steak or spare ribs.”

For some cancer patients, though, treatment has the opposite effect when it comes to meat.

“We see with many patients that their tastes have changed, and they no longer care for meat,” Schreiber says. This makes the consumption of non-meat sources of protein even more important.

Protein From Plants

There’s a vast number of plant-based protein options. Whatever a patient can tolerate — or even better, enjoy — should be consumed regularly.

“Dairy products are very good sources of protein,” Schreiber says of the group that includes cheese, Greek yoghurt (which is higher in protein than other yoghurt types) and milk from cows.

Eggs are inexpensive protein sources, with scrambled eggs often well-tolerated by many cancer patients.

Soy products are other good options that are safe for all cancer patients — products include soy milk, tofu and edamame.

Lentils and beans are great sources of protein and include the bonus of fibre. “One of the things we tell patients is to puree lentils and/or beans and add them to soup, which many patients seem to tolerate well. This thickens the soup and adds a lot of protein.”

Nuts are packed with protein, and while some patients struggle to eat whole versions, many do better with nut butters like peanut or almond spread on whole wheat toast or crackers.

Whole grains are other plant-based protein options, with oatmeal one of the more popular choices among patients. Schreiber recommends using dairy or soy milk in place of water for added protein and also adding toasted nuts or nut butter to further boost intake of the nutrient.

Smoothies are one of Schreiber’s favourite recommendations. Patients can make them with dairy or soy milk and toss in some Greek yoghurt, nut butter and fruit to create delicious and protein-packed drinks.

What foods are high in protein?

Foods that are high in protein include:

  • Meats – beef, chicken, fish, turkey, and lamb
  • Milk and cheese – yoghourt, cottage cheese, and cream cheese
  • eggs
  • Peanut butter (with bread or crackers)
  • Dried beans and peas (with bread, cornbread, rice)

Listed below are some suggestions for adding calories and protein to your meals and snacks:

  • Add powdered milk (33 calories and 3 grams protein per tablespoon):
    • to foods and beverages.
    • to puddings, potatoes, soups, ground meats, vegetables, cooked cereal, milkshakes, yogurt, and pancake batter.
  • Add eggs or egg substitute (80 calories and 6 grams protein per egg):
    • to casseroles, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, cooked cereal, macaroni and cheese, and chicken or tuna salads.
    • to French toast and pancake batter. (Add more eggs than you normally would.)
  • Use cheese (100 calories and 7 grams protein per ounce), as tolerated:
    • as snacks or on sandwiches.
    • in casseroles, potatoes, vegetables, and soups.
  • Use whole milk (150 calories and 8 grams protein per cup) in cooking and food preparation, as tolerated.
  • Use peanut butter (95 calories and 4 grams protein per tablespoon) on toast, bagels, crackers, bananas, apples, and celery.
  • Add Carnation Instant Breakfast™ (130 calories and 7 grams protein per packet) to milkshakes or milk.
  • Add nonfat dry milk to whole milk to prepare high-protein milk

How Much Is Enough

There is a protein equation for the overall population that can serve as a very general guide: 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. For example, a 150-pound person should consume 54 grams of protein daily.

“The dietary needs of every cancer patient, including protein intake, are different, and they often need more than the normal recommended amount,” Schreiber says. “So patients should consult with dietitians — like those at The James — to discuss how much protein is right for them.”


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