Nutrition during cancer treatment: Part 2

This article offers some general guidelines for patients undergoing treatments that help promote good health, even during a health crisis such as cancer.

The majority of calories we consume each day come from proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Therefore, knowing how to choose healthy sources for these nutrients is important, especially during a health crisis like cancer. In general, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that people undergoing cancer treatments follow the USDA nutrition guidelines for consumption of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. 


According to the ACS, “adequate protein intake is essential during all stages of cancer, that is, treatment, recovery, and long-term survival.” This is because proteins provide energy and help build and repair muscle. The best choices are proteins low in saturated fats, such as fish, beans, legumes, lean meats, poultry, eggs, and non-fat/low-fat dairy products.

The table below, taken from the USDA website, provides daily protein recommendations for adults.


19-30 years old
31-50 years old
51+ years old

5 ½ ounce equivalents
5 ounce equivalents
5 ounce equivalents


19-30 years old

31-50 years old

51+ years old

6 ½ ounce equivalents
6 ounce equivalents
5 ½ ounce equivalents

In general, 1 ounce of meat, poultry, or fish; ¼ cup cooked beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon of peanut butter; or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds are considered a 1 ounce-equivalent from the Protein Foods Group.


Although fats are often preceded by a bad reputation, we do need some fat in our diet. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, fat helps with the absorption of some vitamins and minerals, and it is needed for cell growth and repair. It is important, however, to choose your fats wisely and know how much of them to eat.

The USDA and ACS offer the following recommendations for fat consumption based on a standard 2000 calorie/day diet:

Unsaturated Fats

Saturated Fats

Trans Fat

Yes, eat them. Add more fish to your diet, cook with vegetable oils (5-7 teaspoons per day) and eat nuts and seeds as snacks.

Limit your consumption to less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats.

Avoid Trans Fats whenever possible.

Have between 44-78 grams/day

Have less than 22 grams/day

Have less than < 2 grams/day

Sources: fish, vegetable oils, olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds

Sources: butter, coconut oil, fat from meat, and whole milk

Sources: hydrogenated oils, these are often found in commercial baked goods


The ACS recommends a diet rich in healthy carbs to provide adequate energy during cancer treatment and potentially slow cancer progression. Healthy carbohydrates include a wide variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These healthy carbs should provide the majority (45-65 percent) of an adult’s daily caloric intake.

For adults consuming 2000 calories per day, the USDA recommends the following tips for choosing healthy carbohydrates.

  • Consume 5 or more servings (at least 2.5 cups) of a wide variety of vegetables and fruits each day. Focus on making half of your plate fruits and veggies.
  • All forms of vegetables and fruits are acceptable including fresh, frozen, canned, raw, cooked or dried. 
  • When cooking fruits and vegetables; microwaving and steaming are preferred methods (as opposed to boiling) to preserve nutritional value.
  • When choosing foods made from grains (pasta, bread, crackers, etc.) choose whole grains and consume no more than 6 servings per day. To learn more about serving sizes, visit the USDA’s webpage on whole grains.
  • Avoid extra sodium and fats by seasoning foods with herbs and spices rather than salt and butter. 

These simple nutrition tips are meant to provide some generalized health actions steps for patients who are undergoing cancer treatment. You should always check with your health care provider before following any health recommendation. If you would like to learn more about ways to maintain good health during cancer treatment, visit Michigan State University Extension and search for the key words “cancer and nutrition.” To learn more about healthy lifestyles in general, visit USDA’s My Plate page. MSU Extension offers various educational programs for adults, families, and children that focus on lifestyle changes to promote healthy eating.

Related article

Nutrition during cancer treatment: Part 1

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