5 Sources of Protein For Cancer Survivors



Last week on the blog we talked about the benefits of strength training for cancer survivors. The conversation isn’t complete however until we talk about a staple of the human diet - protein. If you want to rebuild muscles and decrease your fatigue, you must have plenty of the building blocks of muscle which are contained in protein foods.

After treatment, many cancer survivors are underweight due to muscle wasting and poor nutrition. It can be a challenge to find sources of protein to rebuild while you are still dealing with decreased appetite and altered taste. A big juicy steak just doesn’t sound good at this time in your life.

Read below to learn exactly what protein is, why we need it, and find a few sources of complete protein that may be more palatable to you as you start restoring your muscle mass and energy.

What is protein?

Proteins are large molecules (organized clumps of matter) made of many amino acids. There are 20 amino acids in all and they’re categorized into essential or non-essential amino acids. The nine essential amino acids are those we must consume in food because we can't produce them ourselves. A dietary protein is complete when it contains all nine essential amino acids:

  • Histidine

  • Isoleucine

  • Leucine

  • Valine

  • Lysine

  • Methionine

  • Phenylalanine

  • Threonine

  • Tryptophan

Protein is important in muscle building, exercise recovery, and maintenance of muscles, bone, and ligaments. Cells use proteins for physical structure and to make hormones, enzymes, and communication molecules that allow far reaching cells to communicate with each other.  Protein comprises your hair, your nails, and the cells of your blood.

The current recommended daily allowance of protein for adults is 45 to 60 grams per day. This requirement may be higher for you - a lot higher - so I recommend you discuss your individual protein requirement with your cancer care team.

Sources of Complete Protein for Cancer Survivors

The foods recommended below are complete proteins and are exactly what your body needs to create and maintain your vital structures and cells. Consuming complete proteins is trickier with a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you don’t eat meat or animal products, it’s highly recommended that you consult with a dietitian to make sure you understand exactly how to give your body complete protein foods.

Complete proteins are advantageous for another reason; they can be more efficient in terms of protein and calories. This means you can consume the required amount of protein in foods with a lower fat to protein ratio and get a bigger bang for your calorie buck, decreasing your risk of obesity. Protein also makes you feel satisfied, which further reduces your risk of overeating.

Here are five great sources of complete protein for cancer survivors:


Quinoa is a seed we treat like a grain in the kitchen. It has a nutty flavor, is a complete protein, and is high in iron, magnesium, and fiber. It’s super healthy and easy to cook - an ancient grain that’s becoming more common in the modern diet. Quinoa contains eight grams of protein per cup.


If you tolerate dairy, there may not be a better source of protein for you. Cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, cheese, and milk are excellent sources of complete proteins and are readily available in any food store. Dairy foods are particularly palatable for cancer survivors with appetite challenges.

As an example of protein content, Greek yogurt contains 11-15 grams of protein per 5 ounces. Dairy also contains calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin, and niacin.


Eggs are one of the most perfect foods on the planet. One egg has 75 calories but 7 grams of high-quality protein, 5 grams of fat, and 1.6 grams of saturated fat, along with iron, vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids. And you can really take it to the next level with organic eggs; happy chickens lay the most nutritious eggs.

Lean Meat: Fish and Chicken

Fish is a low-fat, high quality complete protein filled with omega-3 fatty acids and B and D vitamins. It’s also rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium. There are many types of fish but as an example of protein content: cooked salmon contains about 22 grams of protein and seven grams of total fat in a three ounce portion

Like fish, chicken is high in complete protein - seven grams per ounce - so a four ounce portion provides 28 grams protein!

Smoothies With the Right Stuff

You know how I feel about Smoothies - love them. You can put anything you’d like in there to pump up calories, veggie and antioxidant intake, and of course, protein. You can really get a big hit of protein in your smoothies if you use a whey-based protein powder. And imagine if you add Greek yogurt, too?

There are many brands of whey protein powder on the market and their protein contents vary, but it can be as high as 24 grams per scoop. If you have muscle wasting and poor appetite, this is a fantastic complete protein option.


I hope eating the complete proteins above will make you feel great and send you quickly on your road to vitality after cancer. So try at least one of the ingredients above today, get eating, and build those muscles!

If you really want to take advantage of your protein intake and learn more about building muscles after cancer with strength training, read last week’s blog post HERE. You might want to take it one step further and download Brio’s FREE Survivor Fatigue Solution Exercise Plan and get started with building strength today! Click the button below to download the free plan.

Take care, Survivor.