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The Importance of Protein for Cancer Patients
The James Comprehensive Cancer Center, Ohio State University
September 28, 2020
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 James Care for Life outpatient clinical dietician.
The Power of Protein
“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 yogurt (which is higher in protein than other yogurt 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 fiber. “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 favorite recommendations. Patients can make them with dairy or soy milk and toss in some Greek yogurt, nut butter and fruit to create delicious and protein-packed drinks.
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.”