Tips for Increasing Calories and Protein

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Tracey Birnhak Nutritional Counseling Services and Katherine Okonak, MSW, LSW
Last Reviewed: February 28, 2024

Cancer and its treatment can affect your nutrition. When cancer and its side effects impact your eating, it can be hard to get proper nutrition. Eating enough calories and protein is important to help you maintain your weight, for your body to work as it should, and to help your body heal.

Talk with your provider about any changes in your appetite or eating. It may be helpful to meet with a dietitian to make sure all of your nutritional needs are being met. You can also use food labels to help you learn about how many calories and grams of protein are found in certain foods and drinks.  

What are calories?

A calorie is a unit for measuring energy. All food and some drinks contain calories, which tells us how much energy is stored in it. When we eat, the food is broken down, releasing the stored energy for our body to use.

What is protein?

Proteins are large molecules made up of amino acids. Protein helps our cells, tissues, and organs work. It is needed to maintain, grow, and repair the body. Protein is found in some food and drinks and is measured in grams.

Why are calories and protein important?

Calories provide the energy our bodies need to work. Protein helps to ensure growth, to repair body tissue, and to maintain a healthy immune system. Without enough protein, the body takes longer to recover from illness, and you will have a lower resistance to infection. Your dietitian will be able to tell you how many calories and grams of protein you should try to eat in a day.

How can I increase my intake of calories and protein?

Below are some tips you can use to increase the amount of protein and calories you eat each day:

  • Have smaller meals more often (every 2-3 hours). This can make it easier to eat and digest. 
  • Try to eat a little, even if you aren’t hungry.
  • Eat high-calorie and high-protein foods at each meal and snack.
  • If you have heartburn/reflux, avoid eating 2-3 hours before you go to bed and sleep with your head elevated.
  • Eat your biggest meal when you are most hungry, don’t worry about the time of day.
  • Eat foods that taste good at any time of the day. For example, don’t think you can only have breakfast foods in the morning (eggs are a great source of protein any time of day).
  • If foods like nutrition bars, puddings, and liquid nutritional supplements taste good to you, these are great options to help you meet your daily calorie needs.
  • Light physical activity helps maintain muscle and helps you feel more hungry. Find ways to get moving like taking a walk to the mailbox, around the neighborhood, or at the mall.
  • Limit your fluid intake at meals. Fluids take up valuable space in the stomach, so try to drink them between meals not with them. 

Ways to Increase Protein in Food

Milk/Dairy products
  • Add cheese to potatoes, vegetables, soups, noodles, meat, and fruits.
  • Try milk instead of water in oatmeal/cream soups.
  • Try cream sauces over vegetables and pasta.
  • Add powdered milk to cream soup and mashed potatoes.
  • Hard-boiled eggs are a great grab and go snack. Keep them ready in the refrigerator.
  • Have an egg salad sandwich for a meal or snack.
  • Be sure your eggs are fully cooked to avoid harmful bacteria.
Meats, poultry, fish
  • Use leftover meat to add protein to soups, casseroles, omelets, and salads.
  • Add sour cream and spices to shredded meats for a quick high protein dip.
Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • Seeds can add texture, taste, and protein to fruit, ice cream, pudding, and custard.
  • Seeds are also great on vegetables, salads, and pasta.
  • Nut butters on toast, fruits or in smoothies also pack a protein punch.
  • Add beans and peas to salads, soup, and vegetables.
  • Tofu can easily be blended into a smoothie or makes for a great addition to a stir fry

Ways to Add Calories to Food

Butter and Margarine
  • Melt over potatoes, pasta, rice, and vegetables.
  • Add to soups and casseroles
  • Spread on bread with nut butters
  • Choose canned or jarred vegetables and fish packed in oil
  • Add whipped cream to desserts, waffles, pancakes, fruit, and hot cocoa.
  • Try sour cream on baked potatoes and vegetables.
Salad Dressing/Condiments
  • Use regular mayonnaise or salad dressings.
  • Skip the low fat, reduced-calorie or diet condiments.
Spreads (avocado, nut butters, beans)
  • Spread nut butter on toast or add to oatmeal
  • Add avocado to tuna salad or blend into a smoothie
  • Blend beans with olive oil and spread on pita or add to soup or sauce
  • Jellies, jams, and honey are a great way to add flavor and calories to bread, crackers, fruit, ice cream and cake.

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