By Tammy Fansabedian MHSc, RD, Registered Dietitian, Head & Neck Site Group, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre
The side effects of cancer and its treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery) can make eating difficult. Getting enough nutrients can be a challenge when it is difficult to eat. It is very important to get enough protein because your body needs it to heal.
For people who normally eat meat, a majority of protein usually comes from meat products. Taste changes can make meat taste ‘metallic’. Some people have problems swallowing, meaning foods with a rough texture like meat that are hard to swallow are often cut out of the diet. When meat is cut out of your diet, other protein sources need to replace it.
Why is protein so important?
Your body uses protein to repair tissue and keep your immune system strong. You need to eat more protein when you are sick or healing. If you don’t get enough protein from your diet, your body will start breaking down muscle to get the nutrients it needs. Losing your muscle means your ability to move and function, and your strength can get worse.
How much protein do I need?
Protein needs are different for everyone depending on your weight, your health, and your need for protein. A registered dietitian can help you find out how much protein is right for you.
Find out how to see a registered dietitian at UHN »
What are some good sources of protein?
Eating meat may be an easy way to get a lot of protein, but there are other ways you can get protein in your diet. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting the amount of red meats you eat, including beef, lamb and pork. Canada’s Food Guide suggests eating other protein-rich foods like beans, lentils, and tofu instead. Here are some common foods you may want to try and the amount of protein per serving.
|Food Item|| Quantity|| Approximate Grams of Protein|
|Chicken Breast|| 3 oz, cooked|| 25g|
|Salmon Fillet|| 3 oz, cooked|| 19g|
|Canned Tuna|| 120g tin|| 30g|
|Egg|| 2 large|| 12g|
|Milk, 2%|| 1 cup|| 8g|
|Greek Yogurt, Plain|| 100g|| 10g, may vary|
|Tofu, Soft Variety|| 5 oz|| 9g, may vary|
|Tofu, Firm Variety|| 5 oz|| 22g, may vary|
|Cheddar Cheese|| 2 oz || 14g|
|Cottage Cheese|| 1 cup|| 26g|
|Chickpeas|| 1 cup|| 14g|
|Quinoa|| 1 cup, cooked|| 8g|
|Peanut Butter, Smooth|| 2 Tablespoons|| 8g|
|Ensure® Plus Calories|| 237mL bottle|| 13g|
How can I make sure I get enough protein?
Eat protein in every meal and snack. For example, add a few ounces of cheese to breakfast, or have a tuna sandwich at lunch.
Try eating small meals frequently. You may not feel like having a large meal. Instead, try eating a scrambled egg with grated cheese, some Greek yogurt, or a milk-based smoothie with a few tablespoons of a nut butter blended in.
It’s okay to have the same foods over and over. While it is normally good to eat different foods in your diet, your protein options may be limited during treatment. That’s okay for the short term. If you can eat eggs, try making them in different ways to get some variety. If you find you can eat yogurt and cheese, try different flavours or types to avoid getting bored of eating them every day.
Some other ways to pump up your protein!
Try some of these quick tips to boost protein in any meal:
- Cook an egg or two in broths or soups
- Add some grated cheese to eggs, baked potato, pasta, or cooked vegetables
- Stir in a few spoons of nut butter into oatmeal, smoothies, or puddings
- Use a liquid meal replacement like Ensure® or Boost® as the base for smoothies. Blend in some fruit, ice cream, or nut butters for a sweeter version. Try avocado and greens for something more savoury.
- Blend tofu into creamed soups. This is a great way to introduce tofu into your diet if you haven’t tried it before.
- If you’re missing the flavours of meat but have trouble swallowing it, try adding beef, chicken or fish into a big stew and pureeing it into a thick soup. You can also do this with legumes like chickpeas, lentils, or kidney beans.
Looking for protein-rich recipes?
The ELLICSR Kitchen program is designed to support people touched by cancer. Led by a Registered Dietitian and Wellness Chef, classes provide nutrition information and cooking skills to help manage cancer-related side effects with food. Caregivers, patients, family, friends and staff are welcome to join on the
third Thursday of every month in Toronto General Hospital, Basement Level B PMB 130. No registration is needed.
For information, call 416 581 8620 or email
Can't make it to a live class? Subscribe to the ELLICSR Kitchen YouTube channel, check out
ELLICSRKitchen.ca for recipes and tips, and follow @ELLICSRKitchen on Twitter and Instagram.
Learn more about the ELLICSR Kitchen program »
If you would like to speak to a registered dietitian, ask a member of your healthcare team for a referral.
Learn more about how a registered dietitian can help you »