Protein Powders for Cancer Patients: Which Is Best?

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Are you suffering from cancer? Do you worry about being able to get enough protein in your diet?

Are you going to start treatment and have been told you may lose your appetite and need to supplement your intake?

Do you feel confused about which one to choose?

We know it can be overwhelming, and that keeping up with all aspects of treatment is a tall order.

This guide will help you make sense of what you need to know when choosing among all protein powders for cancer patients. Which one is right for you?

Keep reading to find out!

What Is Protein?

Proteins are structural elements of cells and tissues and consist of one or more chains of amino acids.

There are about 20 amino acids that are of importance to humans.

Nine of those are called essential because they have to be supplied by our food. 

What Is Its Role in the Body?

The role of protein in the body is to help maintain things like muscle mass, communication, transportation, and fluid balance.

If your intake of protein changes or you eat very limited sources of protein, it’s possible that a shortage can develop.

A shortage can cause you to become more tired and weak, and develop more frequent infections and imbalances in the body.

To compensate, the body might have to break down your muscles to make up the difference.

Maintaining your muscle mass is vital for life and health, so getting enough protein to prevent shortages of amino acids becomes very important.

What Are Good Food Sources?

Proteins make up the structure of not just animal cells but also plant cells.

Hence, it’s present in plant foods such as broccoli, grains such as quinoa, and nuts such as peanut butter.

They have a little less protein than traditional proteins, such as eggs and red meat, but are still good sources of protein. 

To assure that you’re getting the best mix of amino acids in your diet, it’s best to vary your protein sources.

That way you can be sure that you have adequate protein quality in your diet.

How Much Do You Need?

The simplest way to estimate how much protein you need is by using the National Academy of Sciences formula:

  • Body weight in Pounds/2.2 = Body Weight in Kilograms
  • Body Weight in Kilograms x 0.8 = Suggested Grams of Protein per Day

For instance, if you weigh 150 pounds that would equal:

  • 150/2.2 = 68 kilograms
  • 68 x 0.8 = 55 grams protein per day

But what does 55 grams of protein look like? It might look something like this:

  • 2 scrambled eggs = 14 grams
  • A 2-oz piece of salmon = 20 grams
  • A scoop of a high-quality protein = 20 grams

However, for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment or for advanced cancer patients, it’s common that your protein need increases.

If you’re unsure of how much protein you need, a registered dietitian in your local clinic can assess your nutritional needs, including protein on an individual basis.

That way you can be sure that you’re eating sufficient protein to support your body.

Why Is Protein Important for Cancer Patients?

Protein is extra important for cancer patients, especially if you’re in cancer treatment because it can help you:

  • Keep your immune system strong
  • Tolerate your chemo drug better with fewer side effects
  • Complete treatment on schedule
  • Maintain your weight during treatment
  • Prevent cancer-related weight loss

On top of that, according to the National Cancer Institute, treatment can affect your appetite and change your taste.

That is, if you’re undergoing chemotherapy, it could make you feel sicker and more tired than normal.

Thus, it can be difficult for chemo patients to get enough protein, and adding a protein powder can make a big difference.  

Is Protein Powder Good for Cancer Patients?

Protein powders can be a convenient way for cancer patients to get more protein.

Whey protein isolate in particular can help malnourished advanced cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy improve muscle strength and body weight as shown in a 2019 Cancer Medicines study.

Protein powders can be added to milk, juice, ice cream, hot cereal, and prepared foods like mashed potatoes or soup.

Keep in mind that an unflavored protein powder might be best if you’re adding it to things like mashed potatoes or soup.

What Should You Watch Out For?

Some protein powders can be high in sugar, extra ingredients, and potential contaminants.

By checking the label for NSF International’s Certified for Sport®, LGC’s Informed Choice, USP, or ConsumerLab you can be sure it’s a quality product.

Furthermore, some protein powders are higher in certain amino acids called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).

BCAAs can be found naturally in eggs, meat, and milk products, including whey protein, and can have some effect on muscle mass.

It’s unclear, however, if they are safe and effective for cancer patients, or if they play some role in cancer progression.

On the other hand, although high in BCAAs, whey protein may also prove to be beneficial for cancer patients.

Because whey is high in the amino acid cysteine, a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione, it may play a role in immune defenses.

All and all, for health reasons, it’s probably best for cancer patients not to use a concentrated source of BCAAs.

Which Protein Powder Is Best for Cancer Patients?

When it comes down to which protein is best for you, a lot can go into your decision.

Things like your likes, lifestyle, whether you’re currently being treated for cancer, and the different cancer types are factors to consider. Consideration for breast cancer may be different from small cell lung cancer depending on goals, side effects, and difficulties experienced.

You probably also want a protein that has few additional additives and that is safe for you to use.

If you’re undergoing treatment, it might be best not to choose a powder with added probiotics, and be careful with concentrated sources of BCAAs, as mentioned above.

For instance, if you want to:

  • Try a plant-based protein, choose a plain pea protein powder or a mixed protein source. Some come with added powdered veggies and are organic.
  • To maintain your weight or gain weight, use your regular protein more often, or use products that include more protein, calories, and fat. Or to make high-calorie drinks for cancer patients, mix in some ice cream.
  • To maintain your weight or lose weight, choose protein as the only ingredient and mix it with fat-free milk or water.

Powders, Supplement Drinks, Meal Replacements, or Shakes, Does It Matter…?

Whether you choose to use powders, oral supplement drinks, meal replacements, shakes, or other products is to some extent up to you.

From a nutrition standpoint, when you compare them as supplemental protein sources, they are probably pretty comparable.

What’s important though is that you find a protein supplement drink or powder that you like and use it regularly to help meet your protein needs.

However, as described above, nutritional supplement drinks for cancer patients can be of various quality and have many processed ingredients besides protein.

In a nutshell, it’s really hard to mimic nature. Man-made nutritional supplements don’t compare well to food in the number of nutrients or protective effects.

If you’re unable to eat enough food though or get enough protein from food, then meal replacements can be an option.

As the name suggests, they’re meant to be used instead of food.

However, it’s a good idea to mix in regular food if you can and only use them to replace meals if you’re unable to eat a regular diet.

In any case, it’s prudent to choose quality products. Examples of quality products for cancer patients are Kate Farms shakes.

Their products use organic pea protein and range from 330-500 calories and 16-24 grams of protein per serving.

But they also provide vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients not always found in regular protein shakes in the supermarket.

The Best Protein Powder for Breast Cancer Patients

From a nutritional point of view, the best protein powder for breast cancer patients is probably a simple plant-based powder without added ingredients made up of a mix of different protein sources.

Since there’s some controversy regarding branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs) and breast cancer, it may be wise not to use whey as your main protein source.

An example of a protein powder with a few additional ingredients and additives is Ora So Lean & So Clean.

They use a blend of organic proteins alongside vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and digestive enzymes.

Still, it’s best used in addition to eating regular food.

Is Whey Protein Supplementation Good for Cancer Patients?

Whey protein powder is produced from milk into 3 main forms:  whey protein concentrate, whey protein hydrolysate, and whey protein isolate.

However, since there may be some controversy regarding whey protein powder for cancer patients, using whey as your only protein source may not be the best option.

An alternative to whey may a quality pea protein isolate. Pea protein isolates are absorbed faster than regular pea protein and are usually tolerated well.

Best Vegan Protein Powder for Cancer Patients?

The best vegan protein powders for cancer patients are those simple plant-based powders with few additional ingredients and additives.

Specifically, those containing pea protein or a blend of different plant-based proteins are good choices.

Some examples are Orgain Simple or Vega Protein and Greens.

Final Thoughts

Proteins are the structural elements of cells and tissues and consist of one or more chains of amino acids.

Protein is extra important for cancer patients, especially if you’re in cancer treatment because it can help you feel stronger and better.

Adding a protein powder to your daily intake can be a convenient way for cancer patients to reach their protein goals.

Whether you choose to use powders, protein supplements, meal replacements, or other products is to some extent up to you.

What’s important is that you find a protein supplement drink or powder that you like and use it regularly to help meet your protein needs.

It’s important to watch out for added sugar, extra ingredients, and potential contaminants, and not to use a concentrated source of branched-chain amino acids if you are a cancer patient.

The best protein powders for cancer patients are probably simple plant-based products without added ingredients made up of a mix of different protein sources.


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These general suggestions about protein powders for cancer patients are for educational purposes only and don’t constitute medical advice. Please work with your health care practitioner to promote your health. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Protein Powders for Cancer Patients: Which Is Best?”

  1. hello,
    I want to try and start some protein based drinks and shakes. that are either plant based soy protein isolate. ( Herbalife)
    and. whey protein isolate
    I am a previous stage 3 BC survivor of 8yrs
    with (estrogen produced cancer) but been clear and clean 8yrs.
    can I have that type of soy protein isolate?
    and can I have the Whey protein isolate?
    thank you

    1. Hi Gina,

      Thank you for your comment, I am sorry you are diagnosed but glad it seems to be controlled. Unfortunately, we can’t provide advise on an individual level. We always suggest to contact a local practitioner to assure your individual needs are being met. However, in general, if you have concerns regarding soy isolates, you could choose a pea protein or mixed plant-based protein instead, such as Vega Protein Made Simple (affiliate link) or Naked Nutrition Pea or Rice Protein (affiliate link).


      Dr. Annelie

  2. I am getting so confused about what to eat and not eat during chemotherapy. I understand I am to avoid anti-oxidants because they undermine the effectiveness of the chemotherapy. Does this also relate to what protein powder I can use? Since long before my cancer dx, I’ve been making a smoothie each morning using fruit, organic unsweetened soy milk, organic flax meal, and unflavored Designer Whey, but the protein powder also has vitamin B, probiotics, vit D, Calcium… Should I be switching to something else? My first chemo (TC) begins 7/26.

    1. Hi Tracy,

      So sorry you have received your diagnosis. We’re unable to provide individual advice, however, generally, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that any antioxidants in food are fine for the most part, the concern is primarily for larger supplemental doses you may take in pill form. It’s best to always check with your provider team because there are so many caveats. A protein powder consisting of just protein and no other additives such as those mentioned in the blogs (for instance Naked Protein – affiliate link) would circumvent that issue.

      Best of luck!

      Dr. Annelie

      1. Generally, the same would apply, however, there are caveats depending on where you are in the cancer continuum and how you tolerate eventual treatment, so always check with your healthcare provider for individual circumstances. Nevertheless, a plant-based protein powder without additives such as Vega Protein Made Simple (affiliate link) or Naked Nutrition Pea or Rice Protein (affiliate link) might be a prudent choice in most cases.


        Dr. Annelie

  3. As an oncology Dietitian I am struggling to understand what you mean by controversy using whey protein powder. I haven’t seen an evidence on this from the world cancer research fund/ AIRC or any international evidence based guidelines. Can you explain where your evidence comes from? Thanks

    1. Hi Veronica,

      Thank you for your comment. I understand your concern. The controversy relates to branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, and their role in carcinogenesis. There is quite a lot written on this, but it usually takes a while for associations such as the ones you mentioned to write reviews and guidelines. The quote in question referenced this article, and here is a newer written piece.


      Dr. Annelie

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