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Eating Well Through Cancer: How to Manage Changes in Nutrition Needs

Yiwen Lu, MS, RD
December 2, 2023
December 8, 2023

Dealing with cancer is not only a physically and emotionally challenging journey that affects various aspects of a person's life, but also a condition that majorly impacts a person's nutritional needs. Cancer and its treatments can significantly alter the body's requirements for calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Understanding these changes and knowing how to adapt to them is crucial in managing the side effects of cancer therapy. In this article, we will explore how nutrition needs become different when you have cancer and how to adapt to these changes.

Caloric Needs

Cancer and its treatments often lead to significant metabolic changes, increasing the body's need for calories. This heightened demand for calories is due to a combination of factors, including inflammation, elevated resting energy expenditure, and the taxing side effects of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. All of these factors contribute to cancer patients needing more energy. Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight is vital to provide the body with the necessary support during treatment and to ensure proper immune system function.

When it comes to calorie requirements, it's important to note that each individual's needs will differ. As a rough estimate of calorie requirements, plan on consuming 25 to 35 calories for each kilogram of body weight.

In cases where an individual cannot meet their caloric requirements through diet alone, it is advisable to consider nutritional supplements such as Ensure, Boost, Magic Cup, and similar options. These supplements can provide additional support to ensure adequate caloric intake during cancer treatment.

Protein Needs

When it comes to cancer patients dealing with the disease and its treatments, adequate protein intake is critical. There are two main reasons for this increased protein requirement. First, cancer can send the body's protein metabolism into overdrive. Overdrive causes proteins to break down and rebuild at a faster pace. This rapid turnover means your body needs more protein to keep everything functioning properly. Second, cancer can take a toll on your muscle mass. Maintaining muscles is essential for overall strength, and a good protein intake is a key part of that process.

Protein needs, like calorie needs, are individualized, but as a general rule of thumb, you'll want to aim for around 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein for every kilogram of your body weight.

Include protein-rich foods in the diet:

  1. Chicken: Whether you prefer chicken breast or thigh, both make for great sources of lean protein.
  2. Fish: Think about salmon, tuna, or other fish – they not only provide a good dose of protein but also those valuable omega-3 fatty acids for your overall health.
  3. Beans and Legumes: Foods like lentils, chickpeas, and black beans are all protein-packed options if you're choosing a vegetarian route.
  4. Tofu: This soy-based product is an excellent source of plant-based protein. You can sear it or add it to soup during cooking.
  5. Greek Yogurt: If you're a fan of dairy, opt for Greek yogurt with its higher protein content compared to regular yogurt.

If you find it hard to meet your protein needs through food alone, don't worry. You can consider adding protein supplements. They come in two convenient forms: powdered supplements that you can blend into a high-protein smoothie yourself, or pre-made liquid options. These can be a great way to make sure you're getting enough protein while going through cancer treatment.

Carbohydrate and Fat Needs

While cancer predominantly impacts calorie and protein needs, the importance of carbohydrates and fats in a well-balanced diet should not be overlooked. The key lies in prioritizing the quality of these macronutrients. Opt for a diet that combines whole grains, fiber-rich foods, and healthy fats to fulfill your carbohydrate and fat requirements. Cutting down on processed foods and sugary snacks is suggested. It's also recommended to minimize the consumption of saturated and trans fats, as they can worsen inflammation.

Here are some top picks for high-quality carbohydrates:

  1. Quinoa: This complete protein source and fiber-rich grain provide sustained energy.
  2. Sweet Potatoes:Unlike simple carbs that might cause blood sugar spikes, sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates and offer a steady release of energy, 
  3. Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are rich in antioxidants and supply a healthy dose of carbohydrates.
  4. Oats: Whole oats are an excellent source of fiber and carbohydrates and make them an ideal choice for breakfast.
  5. Whole Grains: Options like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and barley are substantial sources of complex carbohydrates, adding fiber and nutrients to your diet.

Here are 5 preferred sources for high-quality fats:

  1. Avocado: This nutrient-dense fruit is abundant in healthy fats and offers a substantial caloric boost. Each gram of fat provides 9 calories.
  2. Nuts and Nut Butters: Thanks to their high-fat content, almonds, cashews, and peanut butter are excellent sources of calories.
  3. Healthy Cooking Oils: Health cooking oils such as olive oil and avocado oil are versatile cooking ingredients that introduce healthy fats and additional calories to your meals.
  4. Cheese: Numerous cheese varieties are calorie-dense and can be added to sandwiches, salads, or enjoyed as snacks.
  5. Fatty Fish: Salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines not only provide calories but also valuable omega-3 fatty acids, which support overall health.


Cancer and its treatments often result in side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which can, in turn, lead to dehydration. Maintaining proper hydration is essential for managing these side effects and promoting overall health.

To stay well-hydrated, consider the following tips:

  1. Frequent, Small Sips: Take frequent, small sips of water throughout the day to prevent dehydration.
  2. Electrolyte-Rich Beverages: Consume electrolyte-rich beverages such as sports drinks or oral rehydration solutions to help restore electrolyte balance lost through vomiting or diarrhea.
  3. Clear Broths: Clear, low-sodium broths can provide both hydration and essential nutrients.


Dealing with cancer can really shake up your nutrition needs, affecting everything from calories to protein, carbs, and fats. But getting a grip on these changes and adapting to them is super important in helping your body handle the challenges of the disease and its treatments. It can make a world of difference in how you feel about taking care of yourself during this journey. And don't forget, our care team is just a message away, ready to back you up every step of the way!

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