Cancer and cancer treatments can have a major effect on appetite and increase the risk of malnutrition. Not getting enough to eat may also increase the risk of complications. Protein shakes for people with cancer may serve as a simple source of nutrition that supports the cancer fight.
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Always consult with your doctor before adding any dietary supplements to your daily regimen, including protein powders and protein shakes.
Cancer, Appetite and Malnutrition
Good nutrition is important for everyone, but it's especially important for those fighting cancer. Between the disease and the treatments, you may feel as though your body is under constant attack. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), eating healthy may help you maintain your weight, improve your strength and decrease the side effects of your treatment.
Unfortunately, both the cancer itself and the treatments can make eating difficult. According to NCI, some forms of cancer alter the way your body uses nutrients, including protein, fat and carbohydrates. Even if you're eating enough, the cancer may affect your body's ability to absorb the essential nutrients from the food you eat.
You may not have much of an appetite when you're fighting cancer. Plus many cancer treatments cause side effects such as nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, taste changes and dry mouth.
All of these factors increase your risk of weight loss and cachexia, which is a medical condition characterized by weight loss, muscle wasting and lack of strength. According to a December 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies published in Nutrition Reviews, adherence to a high-quality healthy diet increased survival rates among people with cancer.
Read more: 10 Foods Linked to Cancer You Need to Stop Eating
Strategies to Improve Nutrition
Given the role nutrition plays in cancer treatment, nutrition therapy may be part of your treatment plan. If you have a poor appetite or you're losing weight, you may be referred to a registered dietitian who specializes in cancer nutrition and can devise a diet plan that addresses your personal nutritional needs.
The Mayo Clinic offers some nutrition strategies you can try at home, including:
- Eat when you're hungry
- Keep meals small and eat frequently
- Drink in between meals
- Avoid smells that make you sick
- Make meal time an experience you look forward to
- Add calorie and protein boosters, such as oil, butter, cheese, nuts, seeds and protein powders
You may find it easier to drink your calories, which may include protein shakes.
Protein Needs for Cancer
As noted earlier, cachexia is a common coexisting condition in people with cancer. The weight and muscle loss may play a significant role in your fatigue and weakness. According to the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism clinical guidelines for people with cancer in the September 2017 issue of Clinical Nutrition, people with cancer require 0.45 grams to 0.68 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
By comparison, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) — the average amount sufficient to meet the needs of most healthy people — for protein is 0.36 grams, according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine.
For perspective, if you have cancer and weigh 160 pounds, ideally you should be consuming 72 to 109 grams of protein a day. By comparison, a 160-pound person without cancer only needs 58 grams of protein a day.
Many of the diet strategies recommended by the NCI include ways to increase protein, such as eating your protein foods first, adding extra protein to your food (milk in in your hot cereal, beans on your salad) and to eat foods that are high in protein and calories (yogurt, eggs, beans and meat).
Protein Shakes for People With Cancer
Protein drinks for people with cancer, such as milkshakes, smoothies and blenderized drinks are also nutrition strategies recommended by the NCI to help improve intake when you don't feel like eating. According to a February 2014 report put out by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, oral nutritional shakes, including high-protein shakes, help them maintain their body weight and improve their quality of life.
You can easily find ready-made protein shakes at your local grocery or health food store. These shakes are convenient, and you can keep them in your refrigerator and drink them as a snack or when you don't feel like eating a meal.
Unfortunately, many ready-made protein shakes can be high in added sugar. To get the protein and nutrition, consider trying the high-protein smoothies found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. These drinks are usually sweetened with fruit or juice.
As the NCI points out, you can also blend your own protein shakes, which puts you in control of the ingredients. Foods high in protein that blend well in a smoothie drink include:
- Greek yogurt or regular yogurt
- Soy milk
- Nut butter, nuts and seeds
- Dried milk powder
Consider blending together Greek yogurt with strawberries, bananas, peanut butter and ice. Or try tofu with blueberries, raspberries, avocados and ice.
Read more: What Are the Benefits of Protein Shakes
Protein Powder for People With Cancer
Protein shakes for people with cancer are convenient and easily consumed, but protein powders may also help you get the additional protein your body needs. You can add protein powder to your juice or milk, hot cereal or soup, or mix in with your mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. Adding the powder can also up the protein content in your protein shake.
Protein supplements for people undergoing chemo may improve nutritional status and immune function, according to a small (42 total participants) June 2018 randomized double-blind control study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods. The participants in the study received a whey protein supplement with zinc and selenium or a maltodextrin powder and snack (control group) every day for 12 weeks.
The researchers found a significant improvement in nutritional status and immune health in the group supplemented with the whey compared to the control group. However, this was a small study and more research is needed before claims can be made.
However, it's important to note that protein powders are a dietary supplement. According to the Food and Drug Administration, with a dietary supplement it's up to the manufacturer of the product to ensure safety. In 2018, the Clean Label Project evaluated 134 protein powders for toxins, heavy metals, BPA and pesticides. Many popular brands, even those made from organic ingredients, were found to contain high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic and BPA.
Ideally, protein powder for people with cancer should be free of these harmful substances. Be sure to do your due diligence when selecting a product and look for ones that are as free of chemicals as possible — or talk to your doctor or dietitian about a brand for you.
Read more: How Much Protein Powder Should I Drink?
- National Cancer Institute: "Nutrition in Cancer Care"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Effect of Diet on Mortality and Cancer Recurrence Among Cancer Survivors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies"
- Mayo Clinic: "No Appetite? How to Get Nutrition During Cancer Treatment"
- Clinical Nutrition: "ESPEN Guidelines on Nutrition in Cancer Patients"
- Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Total Water and Macronutrients"
- National Institutes of Health: "Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI)"
- Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health: "Nutritional Supplementation for Patients With Cancer: A Review of the Clinical Effectiveness and Guidelines"
- Journal of Medicinal Foods: "Whey Protein Supplementation Improves Nutritional Status, Glutathione Levels, and Immune Function in Cancer Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind Controlled Trial"
- FDA: "Dietary Supplements"
- Clean Label Project: "Protein Powder"