Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be frightening and overwhelming. Making good nutrition a priority can help ease the discomforts of cancer treatment and may improve outcomes. Consuming adequate amounts of protein is a key component of proper nutrition for cancer patients.
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Importance of Protein with Cancer
Protein plays a key role in many body functions including the maintenance and growth of connective tissues, muscles, enzymes and red blood cells. It also helps maintain proper hydration and immune function. Cancer patients may suffer from hypermetabolism, a condition that changes the way that the body utilizes protein and calories. Consuming adequate calories and protein with cancer can help maintain your immune system, prevent weight loss, improve strength and help ease side effects of cancer treatments.
Protein and Calorie Needs With Cancer
Individual calorie and protein needs vary depending on weight, age, sex, activity level, type of cancer and other factors. The recommended daily allowance for protein for adults is 45 to 60 grams per day. The Abramson Cancer Center recommends estimating protein needs by dividing your current weight in pounds by two. The answer will equal the number of grams of protein to consume daily. Both protein and calorie needs may increase with cancer. According to the Stanford Medicine Cancer Institute, cancer patients should try consuming at least 25 to 35 calories per kilogram of weight per day.
Types of Protein
Composed of amino acids, proteins are considered complete or incomplete depending on the amount and types of amino acids they contain. Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids. Most animal proteins are complete. Incomplete proteins are lacking one or more of the essential amino acids. For the body to receive adequate protein, incomplete proteins must be combined and eaten in a way that provides all of the essential amino acids. Two or more incomplete proteins that together provide all of the essential amino acids are called complementary proteins. An example of complementary proteins are grains and legumes. Most plant sources of protein, except soy and quinoa, are incomplete.
High-Protein Foods and Beverages
Meat, poultry and fish are good sources of protein as they provide about 21 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving. One egg contains 7 grams of protein, and 1 cup of milk provides 8 grams. A half-cup of tofu will provide 14 grams of protein, while a quarter-cup of nuts or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter provides 7 grams. Vegetables provide about 2 grams of protein per serving, which is a half-cup cooked or 1 cup raw. Protein supplements and nutritional drinks can add additional protein to your diet if you are unable to eat adequate amounts through food alone. Consult your health care provider before beginning to use oral nutritional supplements.