Adding energy and protein

Adding energy and protein to your everyday food helps you to get the most calories and energy out of the food that you eat. This can help you to prevent weight loss, and may help you to put weight on if you need to.

Talk to your cancer doctor, specialist nurse or a dietitian if you are still struggling. They may encourage you to eat everyday foods that are high in energy and protein. They may also recommend or prescribe food (nutritional) supplements, such as milkshakes or juices.

You can contact the hospital’s dietetic department for more information. If you are not in hospital, your GP can refer you to a community dietitian. They may visit you at home or see you at your local GP surgery or health centre.

If you have any dietary limitations, such as a lactose intolerance or diabetes, it is important to talk to a dietitian, GP or specialist doctor at the hospital for advice.

Fortified milk

You can add extra energy and protein to your diet without having to eat more. This is called fortifying your food. You can fortify milk by adding 2 to 4 tablespoons of dried milk powder to 570ml (1 pint) of full-fat milk and mixing it together. Keep it in the fridge. Examples of using fortified milk include:

  • using it in drinks or on cereals
  • instead of water when cooking. For example, to make soups, jellies, custards and puddings
  • fortify plant-based milks, such as oat or coconut milk, by mixing in ground nuts or powdered peanut butter.

Many producers of nutritional supplements can give you recipes that use their products. Read the packet or visit the product website for details.

Cereals and porridge

Pour fortified milk or a milk-based supplement in your cereal. Make porridge with full-fat milk or cream. Add golden syrup, maple syrup, honey or sugar to your cereal or porridge. Try adding chopped nuts, mashed banana and stewed or dried fruit too.

Casseroles and soups

Add lentils, beans or noodles to casseroles and soups. Stir a tablespoon of cream into canned soups or add energy and protein supplements. You can also grate some cheese over the heated soup or drizzle some olive oil over the top. Try making packet soups using fortified milk.

Mashed potato

Add butter or cream to mashed potato, and sprinkle grated cheese on top.

Vegetables

Choose vegetables that are rich in protein and energy, such as spinach, sweetcorn, beans and lentils. Melt butter on hot vegetables and top with grated cheese or a chopped, hard-boiled egg. Or add a sauce made with fortified milk or cream.

Sandwiches

Use plenty of butter or spread. Add a dessert spoon of mayonnaise or salad cream to sandwich fillings such as tuna, chicken, avocado, egg or cheese.

Tips to add energy and protein to meals

  • When you are shopping, choose full-fat foods instead of ‘diet’ or ‘light’ foods.
  • Fry your foods in oil, ghee or butter.
  • Add extra butter, margarine or oil to bread, potatoes, pasta and cooked vegetables.
  • Add extra cheese or plant-based cheese to sauces and extra paneer to curries.
  • Add cream, sour cream, plain yoghurt, mascarpone or crème fraiche to sauces, soups and meat dishes. Plant-based alternatives can be used too.
  • Add whole or blended beans, lentils or peas to curries and stews.
  • Add evaporated milk, condensed milk, cream or soya cream to desserts and hot drinks.
  • Have cream, custard, ice cream or dairy-free ice cream with desserts.

If you are vegetarian or vegan

Many foods that help add energy and protein are animal products, such as cream and cheese. It can sometimes be difficult to gain weight if you eat a plant-based diet (for example, if you are vegetarian or vegan). Meat-free sources of energy and protein include:

  • nuts and nut butters
  • avocados, lentils, beans and chickpeas
  • quinoa
  • tahini
  • dried fruits
  • sweet potatoes and rice
  • vegan cheeses, spreads and cream.
  • Add peanut butter (or other nut spreads), chocolate spread, tahini, honey or jam to bread, toast, crackers and biscuits.
  • Add nut butters, avocado, Greek yogurt or plant-based alternatives to smoothies.

If you are a carer

Tips to help build up someone’s diet:

  • Ask the person you are caring for what they would like to eat.
  • Try to talk openly about their weight loss and the different ways you could both manage it. This can help you both feel more in control of the situation.
  • Try to give them smaller meals and snacks, whenever they feel like eating. This might be better than eating at set times of the day.
  • Try not to offer drinks before a meal. This can make them feel too full to eat.
  • Offer their favourite foods at the times when you know their appetite is at its best.
  • Make batches of their favourite meal and freeze some to have as a quick meal at another time.
  • Keep snacks in easy reach so they are ready whenever the person feels hungry. Have a look at the shopping list we suggest and stock up on some items you know they prefer. You can then prepare meals and snacks easily.
  • Avoid low-fat or diet products. For example, choose whole milk rather than skimmed milk.
  • Try offering a small amount of alcohol just before, or with, food. Some people find this helps their appetite. Check with the doctor or specialist nurse that the person can have alcohol.
  • Add extra energy to everyday meals and drinks. For example, you could try adding fortified milk to tea or coffee. We have more information on how to build up your diet with extra energy.
  • Encourage the person to do regular activity, if possible. This can help increase their appetite. Start gently with something that is easy to manage.
  • The person you are caring for may have nausea, vomiting, a sore mouth or changes to their taste or bowel habits. If they do, speak to their doctor or nurse. They can either prescribe something to help, or refer them to a dietitian.
  • Make sure you have support. It is also important that you take time to look after yourself and ensure you are eating well.

We have more information about looking after someone with cancer.

Serving food

  • The person you are caring for may find that some cooking smells make them feel sick. Prepare food in a different room if possible. Serve food in a well-ventilated room.
  • Try to create a comfortable eating environment.
  • Present meals so they look appetising.
  • Keep servings small. Offer extra helpings rather than putting too much food on the plate to begin with. Too much food can be overwhelming and off-putting.
  • The person you are caring for may want to go out to a cafe or restaurant for food. You can call ahead and ask if they can prepare softer, easier-to-eat foods. You can also ask if they can provide smaller portions.
  • Try not to worry if the person you are caring for cannot always eat what you have cooked. Gently encourage them to eat but try not to push them too much.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our building-up diet information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN). ESPEN guidelines on nutrition in cancer patients. February 2017 www.espen.org [accessed Jan 2020] 

    European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN). ESPEN expert group recommendations for action against cancer related malnutrition. June 2017 www.espen.org [accessed Jan 2020] 

    World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). Healthy living after cancer. 2016. www.wcrf-uk.org [accessed Jan 2020]      


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.