Navigating Dinner When the Food Tastes Worse Than the Plate

By Shayne Robinson, R.D., C.S.O, C.D.N

Food photo_Cancer Taste ChangesSweet, salty, savory and sour are words we often use to describe different flavors in the foods we eat, but cancer and its treatments can turn your sense of taste upside down. It is normal to experience taste changes as a result of cancer and cancer treatment. Some people report a bitter or metallic taste in their mouth, while others find that their overall sense of taste has diminished.

How foods taste and smell can change from day to day, and these changes may affect your appetite. To find foods that are appealing, try experimenting with new foods or cuisines, marinades and spices. It can even help to try new ways of preparing the foods you typically eat. Good oral care is also important.

Here are some tips to help combat common cancer-related taste changes:

Loss of Taste

  • Choose foods with strong and/or tart flavors, such as citrus fruits, vinegar and pickled foods. Marinate meats, chicken and fish to infuse flavor. Try strong flavored greens such as arugula or mizuna greens. Caution: avoid acidic foods if you have a sore mouth or throat.
  • Zinc deficiency can decrease your sense of taste. Discuss testing your zinc level and/or supplementing zinc with your health care provider.

Unpleasant Salty, Bitter, Acidic or Metallic Tastes

  • Add a sweet flavor to foods such as topping salad with fruit. Try topping meats, chicken and fish with a fruit chutney.
  • Use plastic utensils or chopsticks if metal forks and spoons taste unpleasant.
  • Add lemon juice, cucumber slices, cranberries or other flavorings to water.
  • Suck on slices of Granny Smith Apples or frozen chunks of pineapple.

Meat Tastes Strange

  • Choose other protein-rich foods (such as poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, tofu or soy milk) instead of meat.
  • Marinate and cook meats, poultry and fish in sweet juices, soy sauce, acidic dressings or wine.

Overwhelming Food Odors

  • Choose foods that are served cold, such as sandwiches, crackers and cheese, yogurt and fruit, or cold cereal and milk. Foods served hot often have stronger odors.
  • Carry a handkerchief dabbed with oil that has a pleasant odor such as mint or lavender.
  • Eat in cool, well-ventilated rooms that don’t have any food or cooking odors.
  • Drink oral supplements in a covered cup and with a straw to reduce the odor of the supplement.

Oral Care Tips

  • To keep your mouth clean and healthy, rinse and brush your teeth after meals and before bed (or every four hours during the day).
  • Before eating, rinse your mouth with a solution of 1 quart water, ¾ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon baking soda. This rinse can help keep your mouth clean and improve your sense of taste.

While taste changes can be common during cancer treatment, eating well during treatment can decrease side effects. Good nutrition will help you maintain your weight, your strength, and maximize your quality of life.

If you are struggling with taste changes or any treatment side effects that affect your ability to eat, consult with a Registered Dietitian (RD). Nothing replaces the individualized counseling you will receive from working with an RD on a one-on-one basis. To see a dietitian at the NewYork-Presbyterian Outpatient Nutrition Practice call (212) 746-0838 (physician referral required).

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