Don’t just survive, thrive at the table

By Heather Knutson, MS, RD, CSO, LD Jun 09, 2017

Are you thriving at the dinner table during your cancer journey? Or just surviving? Food is not only important for the nutrition it provides; it’s also a source of comfort and pleasure. That may change during your cancer treatment. You can lose your taste for food, or perhaps more accurately, food loses its taste for you. You know good nutrition is a powerful tool in your recovery goals — but because nothing tastes good, you struggle to eat. And some foods you have really enjoyed in the past now taste bad!

The American Cancer Society stresses the importance of good nutrition during this time. Both the illness itself and the treatments can change the way you eat and how your body tolerates certain foods. The way your body uses food’s nutrients can also change. Your cancer care team is an important part of helping you identify and maintain nutrition goals. Eating right can help you feel better overall, specifically helping:

  • Maintain energy and strength
  • Sustain weight and nutrient storage
  • Tolerate treatment side effects better
  • Lower the risk of infection
  • Heal and recover faster

These are good reasons to pay attention to what you eat and seek solutions when nothing tastes good or you’re not eating when you know you should. If eating becomes a matter of just surviving, you’re not thriving.

The illness — along with the effects of chemotherapy medications and other treatments — can cause some foods to change in taste.

Problem: Eating isn’t appealing and even repulses me
If this is the case, try the following tips:

  • Clean your mouth often with a rinse consisting of 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon salt mixed well into 1 quart of room temperature water. Before eating, swish the rinse in your mouth and spit it out. Brushing your teeth also helps reduce bad tastes.
  • Try sugar-free lemon drops, gum and mints.
  • Change the terminology. Don’t associate ‘breakfast’ and ‘dinner’ with particular foods. Simply eat the foods you tolerate better. Many people find ‘breakfast’ foods go down better — cereals, fresh fruits, pancakes and eggs become their go-to foods any time of the day.
  • If food odors bother you, avoid the kitchen when food is being prepared. Instead of frying or baking, use a microwave for preparation. Cover beverages and drink through a straw. Consider eating foods that don’t need to be cooked. Cold and room temperature foods have fewer odors. Freeze fruits and eat them as frozen treats. Fruits — like fresh berries, lemon or lime slices — added to water can improve water’s taste and the taste of other foods. Be aware that if you have a sore mouth or throat, tart flavors may cause irritation.
  • Metallic taste in your mouth? Use plastic utensils and glass cookware. Try other protein sources like beans, tofu, yogurt, poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds.
  • Experiment to find appealing flavors and tastes. Tenderize meat with marinades of sauces, wines or dressings. Try different herbs and spices. ‘Cover up’ bitter, unappealing flavors with condiments like ketchup and mustard. Season with tart flavors like lemon, vinegar and pickled foods, keeping in mind to take caution if you have a sore mouth or throat. This may also make meats — especially beef, pork and other red meats — taste less metallic.
  • Avoid eating in overly warm or stuffy rooms. Open a window for fresh air.


Problem: I can’t think of what to eat

Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends stocking your pantry and refrigerator with more palatable room temperature or cold foods, including: tuna salad, egg, salad, chicken salad, pasta salad, deviled eggs, ice cream, milkshakes, pudding, custard, cheese, cottage cheese and yogurt.

If foods taste bitter, try mild options like: vanilla pudding, perogies, hot cereal, rice, milk, plain crackers, mashed potatoes and plain noodles.
If you find red meat difficult to eat or digest, try to increase protein intake with: yogurt, cheese, milk, milkshakes, quiche, cottage cheese, hummus, deviled eggs, egg salad, chicken, turkey, fish, beans, peanut butter, custard and pudding.

Solution: FASS it
Tiny tweaks can make a big difference, says nutrition specialist Rebecca Katz, developer of the FASS Fixes for Troubled Taste Buds system, which utilizes fat, acid, salt and sweet. She is the author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen.
FASS is designed to fight the following issues with fixes provided:

Foods have a metallic taste

  • Add a little sweetener, like maple syrup or agave nectar.
  • Add a squeeze of lemon.
  • Try incorporating fat, such as nut cream or butter.

Foods taste too sweet

  • Start by adding six drops of lemon or lime juice.
  • Keep adding it in small increments until the sweet taste is muted.

Foods taste too salty

  • Add ¼ teaspoon of lemon juice.

Foods taste too bitter

  • Add a little sweetener, like maple syrup or agave nectar.

Foods taste like cardboard

  • Add sea salt until the flavor of the dish moves toward the front of the mouth.
  • A spritz of fresh lemon juice also helps.

I’m having trouble swallowing or dealing with mouth sores

  • Add fat, such as nut cream, to your food.
  • Eat blended or pureed foods such as blended soups, smoothies and granitas.
  • Avoid ginger, curry, red pepper flakes and other strong spices.

Most importantly, hang in there and keep trying. What tastes bad to you this week, may taste good and normal again next week.

Taste change is highly personal. What works for one person, may not work for another. If you are struggling with the way food tastes, please contact a dietitian at your cancer center, who is specially trained to help you navigate through eating struggles during cancer treatment. They can help to create a plan customized to your needs. And remember, there will come a time when you look forward to eating and once again enjoy the pleasures of a good meal!

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