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Six Tips for Managing Taste Changes During Cancer Treatment

By PearlPoint Nutrition Services October 31, 2012Pearls of Wisdom Blog

It is very normal for food and drinks to taste or smell differently than they did before starting cancer treatment. Taste changes can be caused by the type of treatment that is received, the type of cancer that is being treated and possibly dental problems. If there are any suspected dental problems, it is important to take care of these prior to beginning any cancer treatment.

Taste changes that occur will not be permanent and most likely will return to normal after treatment is completed. The time that this will take varies from person to person. Since good nutrition is vital during cancer treatment, it is important not to let these changes get in the way of eating healthy food. Here are some tips and suggestions to help alleviate some of the changes that may occur in taste and smell during cancer treatment:

1. Take note of what tastes and/or smells different.

Any or all of the four tastes that are experienced may be affected. These are salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. It is common for meats to taste especially bitter. Sometimes one taste is specifically more pronounced. For example, everything may taste really salty or sweets may taste so sweet they are not appealing. Pay attention to this to be able to apply the following tips appropriately.

2. Rinse the mouth thoroughly prior to eating.

Using plain water or a baking soda/salt water mixture (1 qt. water, 1 t. baking soda, and t. salt), rinse the mouth thoroughly before eating or drinking. Sometimes medications, chemotherapy drugs, and radiation cause a film to form inside the mouth interfering with the actual taste of food and drinks. Rinsing may help to clean away this film and uncover the taste buds to more accurately taste what is eaten. After meals an alcohol free mouthwash or the baking soda/salt water mixture may be used.

3. If meats taste bitter or are not appealing, opt for alternative protein sources.

If beef tastes bitter, try chicken, turkey, or fish. Marinades that are sweet are often able to counter the bitter flavor of some meats. Other sources of protein to try are eggs, cheese, nuts, or beans. It is important to find high protein foods that are palatable to best meet the body’s protein needs.

4. If smells are particularly bothersome, take some steps to keep odors to a minimum.

Do not cook anything with a lengthy cooking time in the house where the person who is in treatment spends most of his/her time. Instead, prepare foods elsewhere or keep cooking times to a minimum. Use cups that have lids and use straws to limit the odor/taste of any liquids that are not appealing. Hot foods tend to have a stronger smell. Eat foods while they are just warm to cut down on the smell. Cold foods typically have very little odor.

5. A metallic taste in the mouth is a common complaint during treatment. Limit exposure to metal in eating and food preparation.

Use plastic utensils instead of metal. Prepare and store food in glass pans and containers. In between meals, sour flavors such as lemonade or candy may help. Mint candy or gum may also give some relief. Tart and astringent flavors may be more palatable. Try citrus and vinegar based foods. Seasoning food differently and more heavily may help to mask the metallic flavor. Here are some condiments, spices, and flavors to try: barbeque sauce, salad dressings, ketchup, mustard, relish, onion, garlic, rosemary, ginger, chili powder, basil, oregano, tarragon, curry, and cumin.

6. Don’t be afraid to try some new foods.

Sometimes foods that were not liked prior to cancer treatment become more appealing as tastes are changed. In the same manner, do not be surprised if favorite foods do not taste the same as they did before. Be patient as these changes are only temporary. Try to make good nutrition a priority and stock your home with a variety of healthy foods.

If you have specific questions regarding any of the guidelines, please contact the registered dietitians at The Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation. We provide one-on-one nutrition guidance and will make more specific recommendations based on cancer type and current nutrition status.

Katherine T. Fowler, MS, RDN, CEDRD, LDN
PearlPoint Cancer Support Staff

Author PearlPoint Cancer Support Staff

PearlPoint Nutrition Services is a program of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

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