Health & Medicine

There are ways to manage changing tastes during cancer treatment

With Kentucky ranking first in the nation for cancer incidence, chances are good that you know someone affected by cancer. For some, the side effects of cancer treatment may be a temporary inconvenience, but for others, it’s a lifelong quality of life issue.

Changes in taste and/or smell are two of the most specific problems that may arise during treatment, seriously affecting a patient’s ability to enjoy food or even eat at all. As a result, many find it difficult to get adequate nutrition, which is essential for maintaining energy levels during treatment.

One of the most common problems I help patients deal with is the change in taste — many foods they previously enjoyed may suddenly taste metallic or bitter. While we may not be able to completely reverse this problem, there are several steps we can take to try to manage this side effect and improve taste quality.

Adding extra flavor. This is achieved in a variety of ways. Meats often have a bitter taste during treatment, and marinating your meat before cooking will help infuse it with a bit more flavor. Use strong, fresh herbs (when possible) and sauces to enhance both meats and vegetables instead of cooking them plain or using only salt or pepper.

Increasing tartness. Adding citrus flavor to your food or drinks — such as squeezing a lemon wedge over your food — can help improve taste quality, as can using vinegar-based condiments. Be forewarned, however — because citrus has a higher level of acid, it may cause pain if you have soreness in your mouth and throat.

Boosting sweetness. A spoonful of honey or maple syrup can help counteract salty, bitter or acidic tastes, and can sooth soreness in the mouth or throat. Additionally, try using sugarless hard candy in between meals to deal with any unpleasant tastes in your mouth.

Change your cutlery. Using metal forks and spoons can make a metallic taste in the mouth even worse. Try using plastic cutlery instead.

Be wary of extra spicy foods. Frequently, patients will say that the only thing they can taste are extra-spicy foods, and they may add sauces derived from chili peppers to add that extra heat. However, the “taste” sensation they are experiencing is actually pain receptors lighting up, and heavy use of spicy sauces can irritate the stomach in people who may already have some digestive issues.

Reduce unwanted smells. Smell and taste are closely tied together — try closing your eyes and holding your nose while tasting some of your favorite foods and you’ll notice remarkable difference in the flavor you’re perceiving.

For patients, foods that used to smell amazing may become unpleasant or even cause nausea. The best way to manage this issue is to try and reduce the smell of the food itself. Keep foods covered, drink through a straw, cook outside or use a kitchen fan to keep air circulating away if you’re cooking indoors.

Rachel Miller is a registered dietitian for the UK Markey Cancer Center.