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How to Create a High-Protein Diet When Living With Cancer

How to Create a High-Protein Diet When Living With Cancer

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 1/18/22


Protein is a macronutrient that is vital to a healthy diet. It helps repair and build cells and tissues in your body (like muscles, bones, skin, and hair). Sufficient protein is essential for functions like blood clotting, immune response, and proper hormonal balance. 
Rich sources of protein include animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, as well as plant-based foods like legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds, and ancient grains. You can also get smaller amounts of protein from certain vegetables.  
For cancer patients, protein needs are even more critical than for the general population, so your protein needs may be higher than what’s typical. Your protein needs will also vary throughout your treatment and recovery, and under certain circumstances your doctor or nutrition professional may suggest a high-protein diet. 
Why protein is so important for cancer patients 
Cancer treatment is extremely hard on the body. Whether your protocol includes chemo, radiation, surgery, medication, or a combination, as your treatments fight the cancerous cells in your body, they unfortunately also cause damage to your healthy cells in the process. Because of this, your body is working overtime to repair, rebuild, and regenerate new healthy cells, and it needs all the support it can get in this endeavor. 
Protein-rich foods are the building blocks for this new-cell growth, and dietary protein (as part of a healthy balanced diet that also includes plenty of vegetables and fruits) is a critical source of support that you can offer your body as you heal. Research across different types of cancer points to the importance of keeping your protein intake on the high side during treatment.  
How much protein do you need?
It can be challenging to eat at all during treatment, so know that these suggestions are best practices, and that it’s not necessarily realistic that your diet will be optimized every day. Still, having goals to aim for can help you know how to nourish yourself on the days when you do feel up to eating ideally, so let’s look at exactly how much protein you want to aim for and what you can eat that will get you there. 
For the general population, estimated minimum daily protein needs are 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. (You can figure this out by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms, and then multiplying that number by 0.8.) 
For cancer patients, however, many experts recommend a minimum of 1.0 to 1.5 daily grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, you’d divide that by 2.2 to get about 68, and then you’d multiply that by 1.0 (which would be 68) and then by 1.5 (which would be 102) to get your ideal range of protein per day: 68-102 grams. 
Once you know your approximate daily protein needs, you have a bit of a framework from which you can reverse-engineer an eating plan. Knowing how many meals or snacks you are typically able to eat in a day, you can then do some simple division to get a sense of how much protein each meal or snack would ideally include. If you eat five times a day, and you’re aiming for, say, 80 grams of protein, that would mean each meal/snack should have about 16 grams of protein. Armed with these concrete goals in mind, let’s look at how to actually get those grams onto your plate and into your body. 
How to meet your protein goals 
Animal products are rich sources of high-quality protein. That said, eating more than a little bit of red meat is linked to increased cancer risks, so we’re going to steer clear of those sources. (It’s worth noting that “red meat” doesn’t just mean beef—it means the meat of all mammals, including beef, pork, lamb, goat, bison, etc.) Even without red meat, however, there is a great variety of high-quality healthy animal protein sources to choose from. 
Bite for bite, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy products will give you the most protein by volume, and within those categories there are lots of options that you can choose and customize to fit your tastes and to accommodate any food aversions or digestive issues you may have.
Here’s a quick breakdown of how much protein is in some popular options, and some easy ways to get it in:
  • Poultry
Chicken, turkey, and duck each have about 7 grams of protein per ounce of cooked meat and can be palatable as cuts of meat or boiled into soups. 
  • Fish
Most fish have about 6 grams of protein per ounce. Steaming filets of soft, milder white fish like cod and less-fishy options like salmon is a great choice if chewing is an issue. 
  • Seafood
With 7 grams of protein per ounce, shrimp are extremely easy to cook. The sweet soft meat of crab or lobster has about 5 grams of protein per ounce and can be tossed in with veggies or an omelet for a protein boost. 
  • Eggs
Whole eggs have 6 grams of protein, and egg whites, at 3 grams per ounce, can be added to many different recipes. 
  • Dairy
Cheese (7 grams per ounce), yogurt (3 grams per ounce), and milk (1 gram per fluid ounce), are vegetarian-friendly protein sources.  
Beyond the world of animal protein, you can also source smaller amounts of protein from legumes, soy products, ancient grains, nuts and seeds, and vegetables. Here are some plant-based protein sources to try out:
  • Legumes
Beans, chickpeas, lentils, edamame, and other legumes generally contain about 2 grams of protein per cooked ounce. Try them boiled and then whipped into a mashed-potato-like consistency for some protein-packed comfort food.
  • Soy products
Tofu, tempeh, TVP, seitan, and other soy products have a range of protein levels, from about 2 grams for tofu up to about 6 for seitan. These forms of soy are processed, so it’s important to read ingredients on the label and to watch sodium contents, but the good news is that eating higher levels of soy is thought to decrease risk of breast and prostate cancer.
  • Vegetables 
Broccoli, spinach, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts are some of the highest protein vegetables you can find at about a gram per ounce. There are also small amounts of protein in most other vegetables, which can add up over the course of the day if you’re getting plenty of servings in. Soups and smoothies are great ways to take in a lot of veggies without staring down a giant bowl of salad. 
  • Nuts and seeds
Cashews, almonds, walnuts and other nuts have between 4 and 6 grams of protein per ounce, as do seeds like sesame, flax, pumpkin, and chia. If eating whole nuts is difficult, consider grating them onto other foods like fruit or yogurt, or using ground seeds or nut butters.
  • Ancient grains
Amaranth, einkorn, millet, kamut, sorghum, teff, farro, and freekeh are ancient grains with nutritional profiles far superior to our modern varieties; each provides between 6 and 18 grams of protein per cooked cup. They are tasty boiled or pressure-cooked and topped with butter or olive oil, or you can add them to a soup. 
This resource from Johns Hopkins is a simple guide to use to check protein counts. You can also rely on an app like MyFitnessPal to measure and track your intake. Investing in a kitchen scale can help you keep track of portions—this one can also be used to look up protein counts in the foods you’re weighing.
Whole foods are the ideal staples of your diet, but as you’re trying to ramp up your protein, it’s perfectly acceptable to use supplements. Flavored protein powder can be prepared as a shake (either with ice and water for something lighter, or with milk, cream, and/or nut butter if you’re trying to get more calories in), and unflavored versions can be snuck into almost anything you’re preparing, from smoothies to soups to sauces. True Nutrition offers customized choices that are free of preservatives, toxins, or additives. Choose from a huge variety of animal and plant-based sources, from classic grass-fed whey to pumpkin.  
Keeping your body fed for the long haul
As you work on optimizing your protein intake, remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you’ve been grazing on simple carbs because that’s all you can hold down during chemo, it’s not fair or realistic to expect yourself to go full bodybuilder and start gobbling chicken breasts by tomorrow. What is important to ask yourself is how you can incrementally improve your protein intake, inching each meal and each day closer to that ideal goal. Your body is working so hard, and as it rebuilds from the inside out, finding ways to sneak in a little protein powder here and a few almonds there is a form of self-care with real, evidence-based scientific outcomes.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.