How important is protein during cancer?

Sources of protein
Proteins are essential in our diet. They are needed for the body to grow and repair itself and help to keep our muscles and bones healthy. They are found in every cell in our body.

On this page:

> Sources of animal and plant-based proteins
> Example meals
> Should I take protein supplements?

The daily amount of protein your body requires depends on your age, health, and activity level. Living with a disease increases your protein needs.

If you aren’t eating enough energy from carbohydrates and fat, then the body may start to break down muscle as a source of energy. Getting enough protein in your diet is key to maintaining muscle mass.

As a general guide for somebody with cancer, the recommendations are that you consume between 1 and 1.5g of protein a day per kg of body weight. For example, if you weigh 80kg, this would be between 80-120g of protein each day.

However, this is a rough guide only and varies depending on your weight, clinical condition, and any recent weight loss you may have had.

Animal and plant-based proteins

There are both animal and plant-based foods that are rich in protein. Animal-based proteins are found in foods such as meat*, fish, milk, cheese and eggs.

Plant-based proteins are found in foods such as pulses (like beans, peas and lentils), soy-based products (like soya milk), nuts and seeds.

If you don’t eat animal-based protein, it’s important that you eat enough protein from a variety of different plant-based foods. However, the protein sources you choose should be what you most enjoy – or, at the very least – what you can tolerate.

In the table below you can see how much protein different foods contain:

FoodApproximate amount of protein (grams)
100g meat/chicken (weight when raw)*30
100g fish (weight when raw)20-25
100g tempeh20
100g tofu10-12
100g Greek-style yoghurt7
150g low-fat yoghurt7
Cheese (matchbox size piece) (about 30g)7
200ml glass of milk7
1 medium egg6
25g (handful) of nuts5
1 serving spoon pulses4
1 medium slice brown bread4

*Meat is a good source of protein and vitamins and minerals, such as iron, and can contribute to a healthy diet. However, research shows that eating too much red meat and eating processed meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer. For that reason, we recommend eating no more than 500g of red meat per week, and eating little or no processed meat.

You may find that you need higher amounts of protein if you are losing weight or are unwell. Your dietitian can advise on this.

Example meals

The example meals below show you some practical ways to include a range of protein-containing foods.

Example breakfast or lunch:

  • 2 slices of medium bread with butter, margarine or spread – 8 grams
  • Cheese (matchbox size piece) – 7 grams
  • Canned tuna (for one slice of bread) – 10 grams
  • Handful of salad leaves – 0 grams
  • 200ml glass of semi-skimmed milk – 7 grams
  • Cup of tea with a splash of milk – 0 grams
    Total 32 grams of protein

Example breakfast or lunch:

  • 2 slices of medium bread with spread – 8 grams
  • Omelette (2 medium eggs) – 12 grams
  • Herbs – 0 grams
  • Cheese (matchbox size piece) – 7 grams
  • ½ tomato – 0 grams
  • 200ml glass of (soy) milk – 6 grams
    Total 33 grams of protein

Example lunch or dinner:

  • Wholewheat tortilla (size of a dinner plate) – 5 grams
  • Chicken breast (75 grams) – 20 grams
  • ½ avocado – 2 grams
  • Handful of lettuce – 0 grams
  • Creme fraiche (1 tablespoon) – 1 gram
    Total 28 grams of protein

For some high-protein recipe ideas, why not try one of the many recipes we have available for those living with any beyond cancer:

> Salmon with a nut and seed crust
> Banana and peanut butter flapjacks
> Filling fruit smoothie

Protein supplements

Sometimes it’s hard to get enough protein from food alone. After talking with your doctor and/or dietitian, you may be advised to supplement your diet with protein-rich drinks or powder.

It’s best to speak with your doctor or a dietitian if you don’t feel that you’re getting enough protein, rather than buying protein supplements from the internet or health food shops.

> Order a free copy of our Eat well during cancer guide

> Find out more about eating meat if you have cancer, or have had cancer


In association with

NIHR cancer and nutrition collaboration logo


British Dietetic Association logo