Boosting energy and protein in everyday foods

There are ways to boost energy (calories) and protein in everyday foods or drinks. This can help with weight loss due to cancer or its treatment.

Cancer and weight loss

Eating or drinking more calories gives you energy. This is helpful if:

  • you have lost weight
  • you have higher nutritional needs due to cancer treatment

Protein is essential for growth and repair of tissues and the immune function. Eating or drinking more protein will also help you to put on weight.

Suggesting a high calorie and protein diet may seem to go against healthy eating messages. This is because healthy eating advice aims to help with the weight gain problem of the general population. For most people with cancer, the need for high energy and protein will only be temporary. You can return to a lower energy diet once your appetite and weight have recovered.

You will also feel better and have more energy if you can get back to a healthy weight for your height and build.

Get advice on how to put weight back on

There are different ways of putting weight on. You can try to eat a diet that is higher in energy and protein. And you can drink nourishing fluids to supplement your diet.

Get help from a dietitian. Every hospital and most GPs have a dietitian who can tell you what to do. You can ask your hospital doctor or nurse to refer you.

It is usually better to eat foods that are rich in nutrients, rather than trying to eat larger portions. This is easier to manage if you have a reduced appetite.

Remember that fat is the best way to get concentrated calories. But after surgery to your stomach, pancreas or bowel, you may find it difficult to cope with high fat foods. In these cases, you will need help and advice from a dietitian.

The Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust have a video with tips for when you have lost weight during your cancer treatment and do not know what to eat.

Eating regularly

Try to eat ‘little and often’. That means regular, smaller meals and snacks every 2 hours or so. Do this by the clock rather than waiting until you feel hungry. Try to include protein at each meal, including breakfast.

It is better to eat something regularly than to try to eat one big meal and only manage a few mouthfuls. Sometimes a distraction like watching TV or reading a book while you're eating will help you eat more.

Try not to drink too much before eating so you avoid feeling too full to eat.

Tips to boost energy and protein in everyday foods

There are various ways of adding calories and protein to your meals and snacks. Remember to choose full fat and high calorie options whenever you can.

Below are some ways you can boost your diet.

Use full fat and fortified milk and butter
  • Use full cream milk instead of semi skimmed.
  • Put 2 to 4 tablespoons of milk powder or vegan powder into a pint of full cream milk to make fortified milk. Use it instead of regular milk.
  • Always use plenty of butter or margarine where you can.
  • Make milky coffee (or use fortified milk).
  • Add fortified milk to tea, coffee, or bedtime drinks such as Horlicks, Ovaltine or drinking chocolate.
  • Try buttermilk as a drink.
  • Soak porridge oats with added sugar overnight in full cream milk. This softens them and makes them easier to eat. About 75g (or 3oz) of oats treated this way will give you about 500 calories.
  • Add dried fruit or seeds to boost nutrients and calories in your cereal.
  • Add toppings to toast like cheddar or full fat cream cheese, baked beans, kippers or scrambled eggs with extra butter.
  • Make a vegan cooked breakfast with scrambled tofu, baked beans and mashed avocado on toast with plenty of dairy free spread or olive oil.
  • Add honey to full fat Greek yogurt and granola.
  • Keep snacks handy to nibble at. This includes samosas, bhajis, pork pies, sausage rolls, scotch eggs, cocktail sausages, nuts, pasteurised cheese, fresh and dried fruit, biscuits, crackers, dairy or dairy alternative yoghurts and fromage frais.
  • Make sure you buy full fat fromage frais and yoghurt.
  • Spread fillings thickly in sandwiches. Don’t eat the crusts on sandwiches if you find they stop you finishing the more nutritious part with the filling.
  • Try adding fried vegetables like aubergine and peppers to cheese, meat or fish sandwich fillings.
  • Add a dessertspoon of mayonnaise to sandwich fillings such as hard boiled eggs or tinned fish.
  • Dip snacks like quiche, hard boiled eggs or chicken pieces into mayonnaise.
  • For vegan and vegetarian protein rich snacks try falafel, marinated tofu pieces, houmous, quorn slices, vegetarian sausages, baked beans or nut butter.
Sauces and soups
  • Make packet sauces or soups with milk (or fortified milk) or unsweetened soya milk instead of water.
  • Make sauces with milk or unsweetened soya milk instead of water. Or use fortified milk instead of standard milk.
  • Stir a tablespoon of cream or full fat yogurt into canned soups. For non dairy alternatives add soya cream or coconut cream.
  • Add plenty of pulses or meat to stews and casseroles.
  • Peanut or cashew nuts and silken tofu can be blended into sauces and soups.
  • Mix grated cheese or cream with mashed potato.
  • Melt butter on top of hot vegetables or garnish with grated cheese or a chopped hard boiled egg.
  • Serve vegetables with a sauce made with fortified milk.
  • Fry or roast vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, peppers or onions in olive oil.
  • Use full fat or olive oil based dressings
  • Add coconut cream, soya cream, ice cream, cream or evaporated milk to cold puddings.
  • Add custard made with fortified milk to hot puddings.
  • Add sugar, glucose powder, honey or syrup to desserts.
  • Try lassi made with fortified milk or full fat coconut yogurt.

Try to eat 2 to 3 portions of high protein foods every day. Foods that contain protein are:

  • red meat like pork, lamb and beef
  • white meat like turkey and chicken
  • meat alternatives like tofu, Quorn, seitan and soya
  • fish and shell fish
  • eggs
  • beans, lentils, chickpeas and other pulses or legumes
  • milk, yogurt and cheese

Drinking nourishing fluids

Have nourishing drinks such as milky drinks and smoothies. Drinking only water, squash or tea can fill you up without giving you many calories or any protein. Any milk or yoghurt based drink gives you calories and protein.

Cow’s milk is the richest source of energy and protein. Soya milk is the best dairy free alternative in terms of nutrients. Oat milk contains less protein than soya milk. Almond, hemp, rice and coconut milk have the lowest energy and protein content. 

Your dietitian may suggest high energy supplement drinks to have between meals.

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