“Whey-ing” In on Protein Supplementation

Protein: The Building Block for Recovery

Protein, one of the three major macronutrients in our diet, is critical for maintaining health especially during times of stress. Undergoing cancer treatment of any form (radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery) puts are bodies under a great deal of stress. This is not only something that we only feel emotionally, as it can damage your body as well. During this time, it is of utmost importance to consume a proper amount of calories and protein in order to promote healing and recovery, as well as prevent malnutrition [i].


Importance of Maintaining Proper Protein Intake

It is extremely important to maintain proper dietary intake during treatment and recovery. Not only is eating a healthy diet going to support your overall health, but it may also aid in the success of your treatment and keep you out of the hospital. Ample research has found that poor nutrition status is associated with higher rates of hospital admissions or re-admissions, increased length of hospital stay, reduced quality of life, and mortality in adult oncology patients. Poor nutrition status is also associated with decreased tolerance to chemotherapy and radiation treatment in adults [ii].  Ensuring that you are maintaining proper intake of food is important to your health, and will help you tolerate treatment.


How Much Protein Do I Need?

In general, adults are recommended to consume roughly 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day. However, during times of stress, our protein needs increase in order to support healing and recovery. Our very own Jessica Iannotta MS, RD, CSO, CDN recommends that most cancer patients consume between 1.0 – 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. For those patients who may be malnourished or find that they are beginning to lose weight and muscle mass at a high rate, 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram body weight may be beneficial.

To calculate how much protein you should be aiming for, calculate your body weight in kilograms first by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2. Then multiply this value by 1.0 and 1.2 to find your desirable protein range. The majority of cancer patients can aim towards the lower end of the range. However, if you are finding that you are losing weight during treatment, increasing your protein consumption will help increase your overall calorie intake and possibly protect against excess loss of muscle mass.


Should I Consider Taking a Protein Supplement?

If you are consuming a proper diet through oral intake, it is likely that you are meeting your protein needs. In fact, most Americans consume more than enough protein on a daily basis [iii].  However, if you find that you have lost your appetite, or have trouble eating due to side-effects of your treatment, it is possible that your diet is not providing you with the proper protein that your body needs to stay healthy and recover.

If you are unsure of whether or not you are consuming enough protein, evaluate what types of foods you usually eat in your diet. Foods that are high in protein include: meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes such as lentils, beans, and peas. If you typically consume a diet with a wide variety of these foods, it is likely you are consuming an adequate amount of protein each day. In this case, taking a protein supplement would not provide you with any benefits other than that of supplementing additional calories.

To start, you should always try and attempt to provide your body with the nutrients that it needs from whole food products. If you find that you are having trouble consuming enough in the form of solid foods, you may benefit from supplementing your diet with liquids that are high in calories and contain a significant amount of protein. These can include smoothies or milkshakes made with yogurt, milk, or ice cream. However, if you can only handle small portions at a time or are unable to make a smoothie or milkshake for yourself, you may think about trying a protein supplement option.


How to Pick Your Protein Supplements

There are thousands of protein supplements available in the marketplace! From protein drinks to protein bars, there is a never ending variety of options available to you. There are so many options out there in the marketplace, going about finding a healthy option can be difficult. There are a few tips a tricks when looking for a supplement.

  1. Watch Out for Sugars –  Lots of nationwide brands and food companies add a great deal of sugars to their products. The protein energy bars are the biggest offenders in this category. One bar we checked out advertised as “high protein” had nearly 15g of sugar, which accounts for 60 of the 170 calories in the bar. That’s 35% of calories from sugar! Another protein bar advertised that it had 20 grams of protein, but it also contains 20 grams of sugar. When looking for a protein bar, try aiming for a bar that has less than 10 grams of sugar. And don’t be fooled, sugar can hide in many forms. Sugar can also be labeled as: dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin, corn syrup solids, tapioca syrup, brown rice syrup, sucrose, glucose, and cane syrup. Check the label. If one of those ingredients is listed in the top three ingredients, look for a better option.
  2. Keep the Ingredients Simple –  Some protein supplements can be chalk full of ingredients, the company has to shrink the print in order to fit all the ingredients on the label! Look for products that have few ingredients, especially ones that you can pronounce.
  3. No Single Source Is Best – Protein supplements use different sources for proteins. Whey, casein, hemp, soy, or rice, are all different sources that you may have seen in protein supplements on the market. No specific protein is better than the other. Protein molecules are made up of a string of amino acids, which get broken down in the stomach during digestion. Though each protein source may contain a different variety or concentration of certain amino acids, they ultimately serve the same function. You can choose from a variety of options based on your dietary preferences. If you do not have any dietary restrictions, whey protein is a dairy based protein that blends well in liquids. If you are vegan, choose from a plant based option. Many options out there are gluten free as well. Just read the label carefully if you have any special dietary restrictions. 
  4. Look for Organic Options – Many protein supplements contain some form of corn or soy, which is typically from GMO sources unless it is labeled organic or GMO free. Look for organic or non-GMO sources such as Orgain or ENU. These products also keep the ingredients rather simple compared to some other national brands, and are relatively low in sugar. Both products contain 25 grams of protein and each have less than 15% of calories from sugar, all in one small 11 oz bottle. Orgain is available in a vegan formula.
  5. Keep An Eye Out for Quality – Unlike the strict regulations that the FDA requires regarding prescription drugs, supplements are entirely unregulated by the government. These items are not required to be tested for any claims they may make, or for the efficacy or purity of their product. Some companies have implemented quality control measures for their products by third party organizations, however this is completely optional. If you are looking into buying a protein supplement, play it safe. Be sure to buy products that are manufactured by companies you trust.


[i] Claghorn, Katrina. Protein Needs During Cancer Treatment. OncoLink. Published December 23, 2014. Accessed December 16, 2015.
[ii] Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Evidence Analysis Library. “ONC: Nutrition Status and Outcomes in Adult Oncology Patients (2013)”. Accessed 16 December 2015.
[iii] Fulgoni VL III. Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. Am J Clin Nutr 2008:87(5);1554S-1557S.
Katrina Trisko

Katrina Trisko graduated from Boston University in 2013 with a degree in Dietetics and is currently completing her dietetic internship program through Teachers College of Columbia University in NYC, where she has finished coursework for a Masters in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

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