Ways to Help Make Food More Palatable During Cancer Treatment

Nutrition Therapy

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At a time when cancer patients need nutrition the most, chemotherapy and radiation can alter taste and smell perception and may make eating unpleasant. UW Carbone Cancer Center’s outpatient clinical nutritionist, Darcy Stagman, MS, RD, CD, says the reasons for these changes can include physical damage to taste buds, chemotherapy drugs passing into the saliva, dry mouth from reduced saliva production or direct radiation to areas of the head or neck. Here, she offers some tips on how to cope with taste changes during cancer treatment.

Cooking Strategies

Marinating meats or drizzling acidic sauces on them is one strategy to help make foods more flavorful.There are many strategies to try when preparing food to make it more pleasing. These include:

  • Marinate meats in citrus like orange, lime or lemon. Or, drizzle acidic sauces made with citrus juice, balsamic or apple cider vinegar, white wine on meats or vegetables.
  • If meat is offensive, try alternative protein sources like eggs, beans, tofu, cheese, yogurt, etc.
  • Use healthy fats such as avocado, nuts or nut butters, olive oil or coconut butter. Fats naturally carry flavor around the mouth. If someone has damaged taste receptors in one area of the mouth, fats may help bring flavor to undamaged areas.
  • Add flavorings such as herbs or spices.
  • Simple tweaks may be all that is needed:
    • If food tastes metallic, try adding sweeteners like honey or agave nectar, a squeeze of lemon, or a bit of olive oil
    • If food is too sweet, add drops of lemon or lime juice until the taste is muted
    • If food is too salty, add a few drops of lemon juice
    • If food is too bitter, try adding a sweetener like honey, fruit or fruit juice, maple syrup
    • If food is dry or flavorless, try adding a pinch of salt, or lemon juice

Non-Cooking Strategies

We talk about non-cooking strategies with patients in the clinic as ways they can cleanse their palette before eating. These strategies include:

  • A salt water and baking soda rinse; rinse and spit as many times as needed, especially before eating
  • Sucking on lemon drops or mints, or chewing citrus flavored gum

Fluid Intake

Hydration is such a key part of treatment, so it is important to find ways to make fluids taste more palatable. There are ways to alter beverages to keep fluid intake at a needed level:

  • Try beverages flavored with lemon, lime or orange such as lemonade, hot or cold citrus flavored tea, orange juice
  • Add a few slices of lemon, lime or orange to water plus a squeeze of juice
  • Try carbonated or non-carbonated water infused with fruit flavors
  • Dilute sweet drinks with water, seltzer water, club soda or ice
  • Carbonation may help remove strange tastes, so mix beverages with club soda, seltzer water or a clear soda.

Stagman explains that coping with taste changes is not one-shoe-fits-all and the strategies to manage those differences will be different for everybody. She emphasizes that any patient at the Cancer Center can ask for a dietitian consultation during their treatment.