23/02/2024

Care Health

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High Calorie Drinks and Weight Gain Goals – Ginger Hultin MS, RD, CSO

High Calorie Drinks and Weight Gain Goals – Ginger Hultin MS, RD, CSO

If you or someone you know have been through (or are going through) cancer treatment, then maintaining your weight – or gaining back what’s been lost – is likely top of mind. I work tirelessly with my clients to stabilize their weight even with side effects like loss of appetite, nausea, or diarrhea so that they can gain their weight back, stay in treatment, and feel strong and healthy during it. High calorie drinks and weight gain go hand in hand and it’s a major nutritional intervention of mine so I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you here if you need some ideas or advice. 

In this piece, we’re going to talk about different types of high calorie drinks and the pros and cons of specific brands within them. In the end it’s all about what works best for you, but having some guidelines can help make shopping for powders and drinks less overwhelming. I’ll also be mentioning some of my easy recipes throughout to help you on your weight maintenance during your treatment journey, so be sure to keep an eye out for those. 

Protein Drinks and Weight Gain

Store bought protein drinks are great because they are available in almost any grocery store and are shelf stable; totally ready to go. If you’re feeling poorly or have long treatment days, these can be incredibly helpful. However, many of my clients have found that protein drinks are high in sugar or ultra processed ingredients that don’t fit their values.

There are quite a few kinds and brands that I recommend and they have some pros and cons. Be sure to speak with your dietitian or doctor about what kinds of high calorie protein drinks may be best for you because there are a lot of options. Remember this is a post that provides general advice, but when I’m working with my patients, we discuss together which may be best for them at any given time in treatment. I believe deeply in personalized nutrition care and so if you need that support, please find a time to connect with me here.

Ensure: This is probably the first drink that your doctor will suggest when discussing weight gain. These are the go-to in the medical field – especially the hospital setting – when it comes to ease and affordability. A downside is that there are limited flavors (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry), and many people find it to be a chalky texture. It also has lower quality ingredients compared to other brands (but also, it’s more affordable because of that).

Kate Farms: One of my most highly recommended drinks, Kate Farms is a  plant-based protein drink that is certified organic. It covers a wide variety of products ranging from pediatric nutrition to specific medical nutrition and also has a tube feeding line which is wonderful for people who need it. Although it is more expensive than generic brands, it is often covered by insurance and you can also get free samples to try it first. 

Orgain: The founder of Orgain was actually founded by a cancer survivor, making this brand perfect for those undergoing treatment! This brand prioritizes both quality and flavor when creating shakes, and is committed to offering good nutrition to their clients. I recommend both Orgain pre-made shakes as well as their protein powder if you’re in the mood for making your own (lots of advice on that below).  

Owyn: Owyn is sugar-free (sweetened with monk fruit) and a wonderful option for people with blood sugar issues. It is 100% plant-based and eliminates most potential food allergens from its formula ingredients. Neither regular sugar or sugar substitutes are perfect for everyone but I’ve had a lot of success with Owyn for my folks with diabetes or blood sugar issues from treatment and I also hear a lot of positives about the flavors. 

Yogurt Drinks and Weight Gain

Store-bought high calorie yogurt drinks are a great choice because they are high in calcium and vitamins as well as protein. They can help keep you full and feeling energized through your day.
However, yogurt-based drinks are often high in added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends 36g of added sugar a day for men and 25g for women, so be wary of how much sugar you are adding to your diet when purchasing these drinks. Of course, another downside is that this is not an option for people avoiding dairy so if that’s the case for you, be sure to look for a non-dairy option with a coconut, almond, oat, or soy base. 

Here are some great options out there for you to try:

Chobani: A well-known regular in the dairy aisle, Chobani is easily accessible as well as affordable. Chobani Zero Sugar is the most highly recommended choice of the Chobani family, as it is packed with 20g of protein, has no added sugars (it is sweetened by stevia), and is lactose-free. However, some people think it has a thick and chalky taste so you’ll have to try it out. 

Lifeway Kefir: Kefir is a fermented milk drink similar to a thin yogurt that is made from kefir grains, a specific type of culture (a type of fermented bacteria similar to what is found in kombucha). It is packed with healthy gut cultures, protein, and vitamin D. Lifeway Kefir is unique in that it offers a wide variety of flavors, such as matcha, blood orange, and coconut honey. There are some studies that show that kefir can cause bloating and constipation, particularly when first started. Many clients report that it goes away once the body is used to the probiotics. 

Stonyfield Organic: This well-established company offers smoothie drinks that are great for kids and adults alike. Certified organic and packed with probiotics, they have a good quality product.. Stonyfield particularly prides itself for being organic, and even specifically references data from the National Cancer Institute and the International Agency for Research and Cancer when discussing the cancer-causing effects of pesticides and herbicides on their website. A downside is that these drinks include 8g of added sugar, which definitely adds to your daily intake levels. However the protein offered in drinks such as the Wild Berry Protein Smoothie is 10g, making it a great way to get a gut healthy, protein, and nutrient rich snack. 

I have my own yogurt recipe here with my Frozen Green Tea Yogurt Cups, which include the benefit of being frozen so that they can soothe mouth sores as well. These are great to make ahead and freeze for a quick snack if you need something cool and soothing.

Plant-based and Dairy Milks

When it comes to pros vs. cons of plant-based vs. animal milk, it truly comes down to personal needs, tolerance, and preferences. Myself and many of my integrative oncology colleagues may advise limiting dairy for some reasons in some cases, but it’s got undeniable benefits nutritionally-speaking. The good thing is that many non-dairy milks (hello soy) are equal in nutrients so you have options. If you’re dairy-intolerant or vegan, plant milk is the way to go. If you prefer a more high-calorie and high-protein option, regular higher fat milk may be your best bet. 

Remember that what’s best for you can actually change during treatment; my advice changes with my patients’ experiences during cancer (sometimes many times!). For the sake of consistency, we will list pros and cons, but it is truly about what works best for you – and having a dietitian on your team can help you understand what that is.

Plant Milk: There are really no downsides in drinking plant-based milk; it just depends what nutrient profile you need, personally. Plant milk offers a wide variety of bases such as soy, nut, and grain, so there is never a shortage of options. Unlike animal milk, plant milk is free of natural hormones like IGF-1 and can be much lower in saturated fat (often none at all). Furthermore, studies show that calcium fortification is very well absorbed in the body. One of the few downsides is that plant milk is often also lower in calories and fat, so if you are aiming for weight gain, it can be less effective than animal milk. Be sure to watch for added sugars as well; that’s easy by reading labels and choosing “unsweetened”. 

Plant-based milks can  also be more environmentally friendly. My recipes below are great example of how to use of plant-based milk as a base for delicious, anti-cancer recipes:

Cow Milk: One of the main benefits of animal milk is that it is high in protein and naturally includes lots of great vitamins and nutrients like Vitamin D and B12. In terms of weight gain, some milks are naturally higher in fat and calories, making it more efficient in adding the much-needed weight during treatment. Below is a list of milks comparing calories, fat, and proteins:

Skim/Fat-Free: 0g fat, 80g calories, 8g protein

1% Fat: 2.5g fat, 100g calories, 8g protein

2% Fat: 5g fat, 120 calories, 8g protein

Whole: 8g fat, 150 calories, 8g protein

When it comes to gaining weight, whole milk is often the way to go because it’s highest in fat. Of course, longer term for cancer recurrence risk reduction, you should be on a lower saturated fat diet. But during treatment, higher fat options can be helpful if your intake is limited. There are some great recipes on the blog that you can easily sub in regular dairy milk if you’d like – here are some that it would work well with:

High Calorie Drinks and Weight Gain During Treatment

Drinking high calorie drinks is a great way to gain or stabilize weight and fuel your body when the last thing you feel like doing is eating a large meal. Make sure your drinks are filled with healthy nutrients like vitamins and antioxidants instead of added sugar and empty calories. Be sure to always check the sugar and protein content, and other nutritional facts on the back of your drinks. 

Although they are a wonderful way to add nutrition when you aren’t craving solid foods, high calorie drinks should be seen as a nutritious addition to your diet, not a full meal replacement. You should still try to eat healthy and wholesome foods for your full meals whenever possible.

When you do turn to high calorie drinks, consider whether to have something store-bought or made at home. Some people do not have access to blenders and freezers all the time (read: college students, people who travel a lot, or those in small apartments), or may not have the time or the energy to meal prep due to side effects of treatment, and/or fatigue. Making your own smoothie gives you more control of what you want in your drink. You can avoid added sugars, add additional ingredients (chia seed, hemp seed, agave, etc.) and flavor it however you please. If making your own smoothie isn’t a possibility (and you frankly don’t have the energy to make it yourself), going with the brands listed above is a great alternative. Be sure to always work with your dietitian to ensure that your meal plan is right for you.

I’d really love to hear what you think about this post and if you’ve used any of these tips to help gain back weight during treatment or an illness. Drop me a comment below and if you have specific questions, be sure to book a call with me and we can discuss working together 1:1.