Managing Treatments

Why Taste Is Affected With Food for Cancer Patients Going Through Chemotherapy

Taste issues make finding food for cancer patients going through chemotherapy sometimes tricky. Learn more about how to combat this side effect.

A potential side effect of chemotherapy treatment is issues with taste — either food not tasting like anything or you have a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth. Food for cancer patients going through chemotherapy is important, because you need to keep up your strength and maintain weight. So why does this happen, and what can you, as a patient, do to cope?

Why Does Food Taste Differently?

During chemotherapy, many patients experience a change in taste, and fortunately it’s usually temporary. The chemotherapy agents in the blood stream get into the saliva, giving it a metallic flavor. As chemotherapy kills cancerous cells, it kills other types of cells too, including taste cells, according to NPR. Changes in taste can also be affected by other medications, so talk to your oncologist if you’re experiencing this issue.

Food Ideas for Patients Undergoing Chemo

Even if it’s normal, it’s not easy to deal with. Here are some tips for specific taste-related issues.

  • If foods taste flavorless: Try adding sauces, condiments, spices, chopped onions, cured meats, maple syrup, bacon bits, tart citrus fruits, pickled foods, garlic or sharp or flavorful cheeses (think aged cheddar or blue cheese) to your food.
  • If foods taste salty: Cut back on the salt you add to foods, including no salt in the water when boiling pasta. Skip prepared foods and crackers, which are notoriously high in sodium. If you do get processed foods, choose low-sodium versions.
  • If foods taste too sweet: Mix in acids or salts to the food, like lemon juice, table salt or plain yogurt. If you still want dessert, add in some toppings, like cottage cheese onto fruit or crumbled pretzels onto ice cream. Swap out traditional dessert for cheese and crackers, or make your own rice pudding using less sugar than normal. (Here’s a Taste of Home recipe to try.) Avoid syrups and jams at breakfast, adding butter or fresh fruit instead. If you want juice or soda, dilute it with water first.
  • If smells bother you: Your sense of smell affects taste and can also be altered during chemotherapy. If something smells bad, you won’t want to eat it. Try eating foods at room temperature. When cooking, keep the ventilation going and consider plugging your nose with tissues. Use straws and cups with lids, if drink smells bother you, and add lemon or cucumber slices to water if it tastes metallic.

Whatever issue you experience, always listen to your body. It’s OK to skip certain foods or drinks you used to love, whether that’s meat, fish or coffee, for example. This is a great opportunity to try out new foods or cuisines.

How to Combat Bad Tastes in Your Mouth

There are a few other ways to combat bad tastes in your mouth from cancer treatment. You want to drink more liquids and keep sugar-free gum, candies or mints handy to eliminate the taste temporarily. Also, switch to plastic utensils if the metal ones affect your sense of taste.

Make sure your dental care is up-to-date, so there aren’t any dental issues affecting your sense of taste. Use a mouth rinse before eating or when your mouth tastes funny. You can make your own rinse, with a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of baking soda mixed with a quart of water. And, of course, brush your teeth more often to keep your mouth fresh.

What are the best kinds of food for cancer patients going through chemotherapy? The answer is foods you’ll actually eat. Figure out what works for you and know the sensation you’re experiencing is normal. Even with food tasting differently, it’s important to eat a high quality diet, so talk to your oncologist, a registered dietitian and others who have been through chemotherapy to get their advice.

If you're having trouble figuring out what to eat during treatment, a dietitian can help you.

Learn More
Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan