How to Utilize Nutritional Supplement Drinks for Cancer Patients

Contributions by: Gabriella Nowicki, RDN, LDN, CNSC


You might be wondering if you or a loved one would benefit from nutritional drinks as a cancer patient. If you are going through cancer treatment, you probably have heard your doctor or dietitian mention how important it is to make sure you are eating enough. If you are having trouble eating foods because of the side effects of treatment, you might have been recommended to try nutritional supplement drinks for cancer patients. In this blog, we will go through everything you need to know about picking a supplement drink, and even some of our favorite brands!

Note: This blog is purely for educational purposes, please consult with your doctor or dietitian to make sure that a nutrition supplement drink is right for you.

nutritional supplement drinks for cancer patients

What are nutritional supplement drinks for cancer patients?

Nutrition supplement drinks are beverages that provide a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat. They can be especially helpful if you have a low appetite, weight loss, problems with chewing or are recovering from surgery or illness. 

When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and/or are undergoing treatment, your energy needs are really high! It can be difficult to get all the calories, protein, carbohydrates and fat that you need to sustain yourself, especially if you are experiencing side effects of treatment. That is why supplement shakes are often recommended to cancer patients, because it is a convenient and compact way to help you get the nutrition you need.

Why is it important to get adequate nutrition during cancer treatment?

Adequate nutrition through cancer treatment is a crucial piece in the puzzle! Some reasons include: 

  1. Helps maintain energy and strength which can help the body withstand the rigors of treatment
  2. Supports our immune system to fend of any unwanted infections (many treatments can weaken our system)
  3. It can enhance the efficacy of treatment
  4. Improves quality of life and overall survivorship rate
  5. Aids in healing and recovery
  6. Can result the severity of treatment side effects 

What are things to keep in mind when choosing nutritional supplement drinks for cancer patients?

Once you start looking for nutrition supplement drinks, you’ll find there are A LOT of options. Here are some things to consider when choosing which one is right for you:

The number of vitamins and minerals added to the drink

Many shakes contain a multivitamin worth of nutrients, which is not a problem if you only drink one shake a day. But, if you drink it multiple times a day, that can be problematic!

It is important to not over-consume vitamins and minerals because some vitamins, such as folate, can interact with certain therapies. Always double-check with your medical team before taking any type of supplement.

The cost of the shake

The supplement industry is worth billions of dollars and this includes nutrition shakes. If you are buying a lot of shakes, the cost can definitely add up! Oftentimes, the infusion center or oncology center will have samples of different protein shakes and you can ask to try some or speak with the dietitian on staff for coupons.  Sometimes the company will provide reimbursement through your insurance to help reduce the cost and your dietitian/oncologist can help fill out a form for this. We also suggest being on the lookout for sales and buying in bulk when possible.

How the shake is consumed

Nutrition shakes are not meant to completely replace your meals, only to supplement when possible. Ask your dietitian for recipes to help you get the most from these shakes and optimize your nutrition. It is also best to try and get our nutrition from food first, and sometimes it can take some trial and error to find foods that taste good during your cancer treatment.

Consistency and taste of the shake

Because each shake has different flavors and nutrition profiles, you want to find the best shake for you, which also includes texture and taste. Some shakes will be too sweet while others might be too chalky. If your shakes are too thick, you can add some water or milk to help thin them out. Check with your infusion center, oncologist or dietitian for samples of shakes so you can try things out before purchasing a large pack!

Brands of nutritional supplement drinks for cancer patients to try:

Abbott Nutritional Supplement Drinks for Cancer Patients

Item Flavors Great for: 
Ensure Compact* Chocolate, Vanilla Low Volume! This drink is only 4 oz compared to others that are 8 oz or more. Great for getting nutrition without getting too full on liquid
Ensure Complete* Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry Best for weight gain/ muscle maintenance, also has fiber which can help keep you regular 
Ensure Plus* Milk & Dark Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry, Butter Pecan Similar to the Ensure complete but it has more flavor options, but not as much protein
Ensure Max Protein* Cafe Mocha, Chocolate, Vanilla, Peach, Cheesecake, Strawberry Good option for those with blood sugar issues/ pancreatic cancer, high protein and has some fiber
Ensure Plant* Chocolate, Vanilla Vegan friendly, has 5 g of fiber and is not as sweet as other options 
Glucerna* Chocolate, Vanilla Designed for people with diabetes or insulin resistance

Of note, all of these shakes are gluten free, lactose-free, halal and kosher.

Nestle Nutritional Supplement Drinks for Cancer Patients

Item Flavors Great for: 
Boost Plus* Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry Low volume for the amount of calories (still 8 oz, so not as low as the Ensure Compact)
Boost High Protein* Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry, Cinnamon Great for people with diabetes or insulin resistance
Boost Soothe* Strawberry-Kiwi, Peach- Mint Best if having altered taste or nausea, has a cooling effect for mouth sores
Boost Very High Calorie* Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry Beneficial for weight gain 
Boost Breeze* Wild Berry, Peach Tastes like juice! Fat free and low sodium, but not intended for those with elevated blood sugar 
Carnation Breakfast Light Start* Chocolate, Vanilla Great for people with diabetes or insulin resistance


Of note, all of these shakes are gluten free, lactose-free, halal and kosher. 

Other Nutritional Supplement Drinks for Cancer Patients

Item Flavors Great for: 
Magic Cup (Hormel)* Butter Pecan, Chocolate, Vanilla, Wild Berry and Vanilla (low sugar) Calorie dense ice cream that melts to a pudding texture, can also be added to a shake for an extra boost of protein and calories 
Orgain Plant Based Chocolate, Vanilla Has fiber and uses fruits and vegetables! No soy, dairy or lactose
Fairlife/ Corepower* Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry Banana Low sugar, easy to digest
Kate Farms* Chocolate, Vanilla, Coffee Plant based, calorie dense with fiber! No soy, dairy or lactose
Bolthouse Farms Protein Plus Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry, Chocolate Banana, Coffee, Nut butter flavors, oat milk flavors  Has a lot of flavors, and is pretty calorie and protein dense

Looking for more tips for eating during cancer treatment?

Klara Knezevic is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Maryland. She has over a decade of experience in the nutrition field and currently serves as the CEO and co-owner of Rebecca Bitzer and Associates, one of the largest nutrition private practices in the country. Klara is passionate about sharing practical nutrition tips to help you feel confident in the choices that you make. Coauthor ofCooking with Food Sensitivities Survival GuideandNourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating.