Patients undergoing treatment for some types of cancer, including chemotherapy or radiation treatment, must grapple with a host of potential side effects as a result of these cancer-fighting therapies. While loss of appetite, nausea, and mouth dryness or sores are most common, and the most detrimental since they can lead to weight loss, muscle wasting, lack of energy, and dehydration or malnutrition, there’s another common side effect that doesn’t get discussed quite as often: changes in the patient’s perception of flavors and smells.
Even when side effects from treatment aren’t necessarily severe or pronounced, this chemical change in the way we taste or smell food can make favorite recipes suddenly unappealing, or may change the way we have to prepare food to make it as delicious as we remember it tasting prior to treatment. For example, some patients with a lifelong love of tomatoes may suddenly find them completely unpalatable; for patients who regularly eat red meat, steaks and chops can begin to have an unappealing, metallic flavor caused by some types of cancer treatment. Some patients report an increased interest in foods they disliked before treatment, or vice versa; others say that their tolerance for salty or sweet foods changes.
Fortunately, these effects are usually only temporary, and should pass as soon as treatment is over. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for adjusting your favorite recipes, to accommodate your changing palate:
If meats or fish taste strange or metallic,
try switching to plastic flatware
and glass cups and plates. Try marinating meats in new flavors to increase tenderness and appeal. Onion, garlic, chili powder, basil, rosemary, or even ketchup or barbecue sauce are all good places to start. If red meat still tastes strange, try switching to other proteins, like chicken or fish, or meat-free alternatives such as beans or peas, tofu, nuts, seeds, eggs or cheese.
If food tastes too sweet,
add some acid or salt. A squeeze of lemon juice or a few shakes of vinegar can cancel out overly sweet flavors., But be careful: If you are experiencing mouth tenderness, dryness or sores, acidic foods can make the condition worse
. Consider less-sweet alternatives to your favorite desserts such as fruit, yogurt or peanut butter, or frozen fresh fruits such as grapes, bananas or strawberries.
If food tastes too salty, try adding a sprinkle of sugar. The extra sweetness from a little white or brown sugar can balance overly salty flavors. You can also add maple syrup or honey to overly salty foods. At the supermarket, shop for low or reduced sodium alternatives to your favorite foods, and avoid processed foods with high salt content.
Take some time to present your meal beautifully. Food that looks appealing, usually tastes more appealing, so put all of that time spent watching cooking competition shows to good use by taking the time to arrange your plate beautifully. Extra garnishes, sauces and serving a variety of colors, textures and temperatures can all help make food more appetizing.
Check with your doctor. Your changes in taste perception may be treatment-related, but they could also be caused by certain prescription medications. Your doctor may be able to make adjustments that will help ease some of these side effects. Explain the changes you are experiencing and ask about treatment options; some mouth rinses or a change in toothpaste may help improve flavor perception. Don’t stop taking any medications unless your doctor tells you to, and tell your cancer care team right away if changes in the way food tastes or smells is causing you to lose weight or become fatigued.