Protein Needs During Cancer Treatment

Katrina VB. Claghorn, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: September 23, 2016

Why protein is important

Protein is very important to keep your body functioning and is also needed for growth and repair. Protein is found in almost all body cells and has many roles such as:

  • To form and maintain muscles, tissues, red blood cells, enzymes, and hormones
  • To carry many body compounds and medications
  • To maintain fluid balance
  • To fight infections and strengthen the immune system

In general, your diet will provide enough protein. However, during cancer treatment (such as surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy) your protein requirements may increase. It is important to be aware of food sources of protein and to include these foods at meals and snacks.

Your protein requirement

To come up with a quick estimate of your protein requirement:

  • Take your weight (in pounds) and divide by 2
  • The number you get is the approximate number of grams of protein you need daily

For example: If you weigh 180 pounds, 180 ÷ 2 = 90 grams of protein daily

If you are receiving chemotherapy, radiation or surgery you may need more protein. Your dietitian can help you figure out your protein needs during treatment.

Food sources of protein

Protein is found in both animal and plant foods. Animal sources of protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. Plant sources of protein include nuts, seeds, tofu and legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils). Grains (cereals, breads and rice) and vegetables contain a little protein. Fruits and fats do not have any protein.

Protein content of foods

Food Serving Grams of Protein

  • Meat - beef, pork, lamb 3 oz = 21 grams
  • Poultry - chicken, turkey 3 oz = 21 grams
  • Fish 3 oz = 21 grams
  • Milk 1 cup = 8 grams
  • Yogurt 1 cup = 10 grams
  • Cottage or ricotta cheese 1/2 cup = 12 grams
  • Hard cheese 1 oz = 8 grams
  • Dried beans and legumes ½ cup = 8 grams
  • Tofu ½ cup = 14 grams
  • Nuts ¼ cup = 7 grams
  • Peanut butter 2 Tbs = 7 grams
  • Vegetables ½ cup cooked = 2 grams
  • Starches -1 sl bread, ½ cup rice or pasta, 1 serving cereal = 2 grams
  • Fruit 0
  • Fats 0

High protein snacks

  • Cheese with crackers, vegetables or fruit
  • Trail mix (mixture of assorted nuts and dried fruits)
  • Granola, energy and breakfast bars
  • Cereal and milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cottage cheese or ricotta cheese with fruit
  • Chicken, tuna or egg salad on crackers
  • Deviled and hard-boiled eggs
  • Hot cocoa (if using instant cocoa replace water with milk)
  • Puddings and custards
  • A glass of regular, flavored or malted milk
  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter on crackers
  • Hummus (a dip made with garbanzo beans)

Ways to add protein to food

  • Shredded cheese - sprinkle over vegetables, potatoes, noodles, casseroles, soups or salads
  • Milk - use in place of water when making soups or cooked cereals
  • Hard-cooked eggs - chop and add to salads, vegetables or casseroles
  • Left-over meat, chicken or fish - add to soups, salads or omelets
  • Nuts and seeds - sprinkle over vegetables, fruits, salads, yogurt, cereal and pasta
  • Dried beans - add to salads, pasta or soups

Calories and protein

To make sure that the protein you eat is used for important body functions you must eat enough calories. If you loose weight, your body will use protein for energy rather than to support important body functions.

Protein supplements

If you are not eating enough protein you may need to use protein supplements. The cheapest and easiest protein supplement is dry skim milk powder. Mix the powder with liquid milk to increase the protein content. Also, add dry milk powder to any creamy foods such as mashed potatoes, casseroles, scrambled eggs and creamed soups. You can also add it to pancake and muffin batter. Use pasteurized egg substitute in shakes and recipes as a protein supplement. However, you should never use raw eggs, due to the risk of getting salmonella.

Double strength milk recipe:

  • Blend 1-cup dry skim milk powder into 1-quart milk.

You can buy protein supplements at drug stores and health food stores. They are available as powder that can be mixed with liquids or foods.

If you are lactose intolerant

Low lactose milks (Lactaid©), cheeses and ice cream are available. People who are mildly lactose intolerant can often tolerate yogurt and fattier dairy foods such as cheese and ice cream. Soymilk and rice milk, which are non-dairy products, can be substituted for milk. Lactaid© pills, which contain the enzyme that digests milk, can be taken before eating dairy foods. They are available at most drug stores.

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