Cancer, Patient Blog | May 30 2022

Adding extra calories and protein during cancer treatments

woman with head scarf_Dietitians on Demand

Meeting your nutritional needs during cancer treatment is not always easy. Your calorie and protein needs may not be that different from a healthy adult’s needs. However, there are often several factors that work against you and make it difficult to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Here’s how to overcome these challenges to maximize the nutrients you need to put up your best fight.  

Factors that can reduce your appetite during cancer 

  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Chemotherapy 
  • Constipation 
  • Diarrhea  
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing 
  • Dry mouth  
  • Depression and anxiety  

Nutritional needs for cancer  

Calorie and protein needs vary depending on the type and staging of cancer. Many times, additional calories and protein are needed, especially while undergoing treatments. Sometimes, nutritional supplements are used to bridge the gap between your body’s nutritional needs and what you are able to consume. Supplements come in a variety of brands, flavors, and formats, so speak to your dietitian about what options are available. Your cancer clinic may have free samples or coupons available to you. 

Experiencing weight loss while undergoing treatment for cancer is not unusual. However, it can delay or interrupt treatments. It is best to speak with your cancer doctor or a dietitian about your unique nutritional needs. If you are having unplanned weight loss or significant difficulty with eating and drinking, bring this to the attention of your treatment team right away. 

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How to increase calories and protein in your diet 

Increasing protein and calories during cancer treatment may be needed if you have had unplanned weight loss due to the cancer itself and/or side effects of your treatment. Some easy ways to ensure you are getting enough calories and protein include: 

  • Plan small, frequent meals that can be eaten throughout the day. This may look like six to seven snacks consisting of protein, healthy fats, and antioxidants to keep your energy up without making you feel full or bloated. 
  • Save fluids for after meals. Drinking too much fluid before or with a meal can fill you up fast. Sip on water or low-sugar beverages after and between meals to stay hydrated without leaving you feel stuffed.  
  • Use a nutritional shake or supplement if solid food is difficult to swallow or cannot be tolerated. There are commercial products that can be helpful, but a homemade fruit and yogurt smoothie or protein shake can be just as good. Aim for at least 300 calories and more than 10 g of protein per serving.  
  • Incorporate nuts and nut butters when you can, such as on your morning toast, midday trail mix snack, or in a smoothie. Nuts are high in calories and healthy fats that provide a good source of plant-based protein when you’re looking for an easy and nutritional way to boost both calories and protein. 
  • Enjoy full-fat dairy, like milk, yogurt, ice cream, puddings, and cheese for calories and protein in one product. Some people find soft, smooth, or cold items easier to tolerate and the sweetness is appealing, making dairy a good option for meal and snack choices.  

Barriers to adequate nutrition 

Nausea, fatigue, GI upset, and loss of appetite are all common reasons why people fighting cancer may have a hard time meeting their nutritional needs. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and side effects of treatment. There are medications that can be prescribed to treat nausea and GI upset. Appetite stimulants may help you overcome some of the challenges preventing you from eating enough.  

How to combat nausea 

In addition to medications, nausea can sometimes be relieved naturally by trying: 

  • Oral or aromatic peppermint 
  • Ginger 
  • Acupuncture or acupressure 
  • Vitamin B6 supplement 
  • Gentle exercise 
  • Breathing exercises 
  • Yoga and meditation  

The importance of maintaining a healthy weight 

Whether you are actively fighting cancer, have recently become cancer-free, or are in remission, maintaining a healthy body weight and eating a balanced diet should always be a priority. Good nutrition can lead to a more positive outcome when it comes to fighting cancer. Eating foods rich in antioxidants, high in fiber, and low in saturated fat can lead to a higher chance of survivorship and a better quality of life while you endure the fight. A registered dietitian is a great partner when it comes to helping you achieve your health goals while you fight cancer.  

If you have more questions about your nutrition needs during cancer treatments, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions.

Note to readers: The information discussed in this blog is not intended to replace medical advice. Please meet with your physician and dietitian before making any changes to your diet.  

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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®)–Patient Version. Available at Accessed April 15, 2022 
Nutrition for Cancer Patients: How to Fuel Your Body for the Fight. Available at Accessed April 15, 2022 
Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: Answers to Common Questions. Available at Accessed on April 20, 2022 
Sarah Hammaker, RDN

About Sarah Hammaker

Sarah Hammaker, RDN is a clinical dietitian working primarily in long term care and acute rehabilitation hospital settings in PA. She holds certificates of training in the areas of Adult Weight Management as well as Integrative and Functional Nutrition. Outside of work, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband and their four children. She loves running and being outdoors. Her hobbies include reading, planting and shopping.

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