Strategies for Dealing with Taste Changes during Cancer Treatment

Tuesday, October 3, 2006 - 2:44pm

By Dena McDowell, MS, RD

It is common for chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy to alter the taste buds of cancer patients. The severity of taste alteration varies widely. While some foods may taste slightly off or bland, others may taste horribly metallic, impalpably bitter, or overly sweet. If you are experiencing any of these side effects, modifications in your diet may alleviate some of your symptoms. Everyone is different when it comes to changes in taste. Thinking about how foods taste to you is the first step in improving their flavor. Here are some suggestions for making eating and drinking easier.

When food tastes bad

When food tastes off, it is important to practice good mouth hygiene. A simple way to remove bad tastes in your mouth is to brush your teach with a soft toothbrush. To clean your palate before eating, swish salt water in your mouth and spit it out. Some cancer patients carry a bottle of salt water so they can swish and spit throughout the day.

A helpful way to get rid of both bad tastes and excess saliva, common treatment side effects, is to use a baking soda or baking powder rinse. To make it, dissolve 1 teaspoon of baking soda or powder in 1 cup of water. Take a sip, swish it in your mouth, and spit. Tea, ginger ale, and sports drinks also rid the mouth of bad tastes.

When food tastes too sweet

If foods taste too sweet, try eating more acidic foods. Adding lemon, lime, or orange wedges to juice and ice cream can improve their flavor. Using vinegar and marinades when cooking meats may also make them less sweet. You may also consider eating pickled foods with meals.

Season foods with onion, garlic, chili powder, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup, or mint to help with the flavor. Avoid eating baked goods, candy, soda, and juice because these foods will taste too sugary no matter what you add to them.

When food tastes bitter or metallic

If food tastes bitter or leaves a metallic taste in your mouth, try adding sweeter foods to your diet. In this case, it is usually best to avoid meat, as its iron content makes it taste very metallic. If avoiding meat and protein products, you can meet your protein requirements other ways by choosing foods such as yogurt, cheese, eggs, nuts, and legumes.

Supplements may also help you meet your calorie and protein needs. Liquid supplements are best when they are served cold, covered, and with a straw. These preparation methods increase tolerance by decreasing both the flavor and smell. If supplements taste off, add fruit or ice cream to improve their flavor.

Sugar or sugar substitutes can reduce bitter and metallic tastes. As a result, some people sprinkle sugar on their meals. Using a fruit based marinade with vegetables and meats may also help improve their flavor. For example, try chicken with a honey glaze or fish with lemons and oranges. You may be pleasantly surprised that adding fruit can drastically improve the flavor. Modifying a food's temperature, either by serving it at room temperature or cold, also decreases unpleasant flavors.

Substitute and experiment with your food!

When foods do not taste right, try other foods instead. Do not give up and do not limit your food choices. If you do this, you will limit your calorie intake, which in turn may cause unwanted weight loss. Because your taste buds may change from day to day, make sure to keep a variety of foods in your pantry and refrigerator. If something does not taste right, then try another food of similar nutritional content. For example, if meat offends the palate, try cottage cheese with peaches to get the needed protein.

Taste changes are a common side effect of cancer treatment and will usually subside once the treatment has ended. However, if your mouth or tongue has been burned by radiation therapy, you may not fully recover your sense of taste. Practicing good oral hygiene and being open to trying new foods will make eating a more enjoyable experience.