6 Ways to Pack Plant-Based Protein into Your Diet

By Guest Writer - March 28, 2024

People with cancer face many unique challenges to meeting their daily nutritional needs. Patients undergoing treatment are often surprised to learn their bodies can require 30% to 50% more protein from their diet than they may usually consume to prevent muscle catabolism, a process in which the body’s muscle tissue is broken down and converted to energy. This process might occur when the body is burning more calories than a person is able to consume, particularly during treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. If a person eats a diet that is too low in carbohydrates, muscle catabolism can also occur as an alternate means of producing glucose for energy.

There is plenty of research demonstrating the benefits of diversity in the diet. Eating a variety of foods ensures we consume a greater number of vitamins and minerals that our bodies need for optimal health. Animal proteins are more easily digested and absorbed than plant-based proteins; however, cooking certain products like red meats at high temperatures can produce carcinogenic compounds that increase cancer risk. Including plant-based proteins in the diet offers the addition of fiber and powerful phytochemicals that we don’t get from animal proteins alone. Plant-based foods that are high in protein often contain complex carbohydrates that the body can also use as efficient sources of energy, which means the protein we eat can be used for the functions for which it was intended: maintaining lean body mass, tissue repair, immune system maintenance, fluid balance and much more.

The following are just a few examples of some plant-based proteins and their benefits:

Tempeh – This meat substitute is made from whole, fermented soybeans and is less processed than the better-known tofu. Just 3 ounces of tempeh provides 18 grams of protein. Tempeh is also a great source of iron and fiber.

Quinoa – This tiny whole grain contains all nine essential amino acids that the human body can only get from the diet. One-half cup of (dry) quinoa provides 10 grams of protein; it is also a good source of potassium, magnesium, iron and folate.

Granola – This tasty snack packs a lot of calories and is often made with a variety of whole grains. Add to yogurt and fresh fruit for a well-balanced, satisfying parfait. Protein content will vary by brand, but most will provide at least 10 grams of protein per serving.

Pumpkin seeds – Otherwise known as “pepitas,” pumpkin seeds can be a convenient, portable snack. Pair with a piece of fruit for an easy, on-the-go snack. Just ¼ cup can yield 10 grams of protein. Like other nuts and seeds, these are also a good source of magnesium, zinc, potassium and selenium.

Peanut butter – From the classic comfort “PB&J” to more exotic Thai dishes, peanut butter can wear a variety of hats. Add to toast or waffles, oatmeal, fruit, yogurt, protein shakes, etc. Just two tablespoons yield 8 grams of protein.

Green peas – Often written off as a “starchy vegetable,” peas are getting more credit these days in their more processed forms as non-dairy, pea protein powders. One cup of fresh/cooked peas, however, contains 8 grams of protein. Moreover, these nutrient-dense legumes contain B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and vitamin K.

When facing a chronic condition like cancer, nutrition is especially individualized. Daily energy and protein needs will vary from person to person, considering factors such as age, sex, current nutrition status, body composition and the type of treatment a person is undergoing. While each person has a unique metabolism, research suggests the average person is only able to utilize approximately 25 to 30 grams of protein in one sitting. Any excess protein consumed might be excreted through the urine or stored in the body as fat. Protein intake should also be evenly distributed throughout the day, particularly when a person has already experienced some degree of muscle loss and/or malnutrition. Registered dietitians are available at Moffitt Cancer Center to help you address any food or nutrition related concerns you may have, from learning your body’s specific nutrient needs to setting personal goals before, during or after treatment.

This article was written by Johanna Coutinho, MS, RDN, LD/N

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