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Combatting Taste and Flavor Changes After Chemo

May 9th, 2016 |
Health & Fitness, Awareness & Education

by chef-ryan-callahan | Supporter: Breast Cancer    Connect


One of the most powerful tools in the cancer fighters arsenal is the ability to identify and compensate for the taste and flavor changes that occur during chemotherapy. In my book, I teach you expert and professional methods to combat these changes. The most profound concept being a series of techniques and ideas that I call Roundness of Flavor.

Roundness of Flavor is best described as a holistic view of the entire eating and tasting sensory experience. Now, when I say holistic, I do not intend to use it in the modern sense of the word which generally refers to vegetarianism, organic process, or alternate medicines. I mean holistic as in taking all factors and treating them as a whole.

When you eat, you perceive food with not just one but with all five senses. You see the food. You hear the sound that the food makes. You smell the food on your plate. You feel the temperature and texture of the food on your mouth and on your lips. And you taste the food when it is inside your mouth. So now, let's explore each sense individually.

1) Taste

What you actually taste when you eat are 5 primal flavors which are: Salty, Savory, Spicy, Sour, and Sweet. Each one of these basic taste sensations lends itself as a piece of the whole sensory experience. Chemotherapy diminishes the perception of these flavors. You have to remember that chemotherapy is like an atomic bomb- it affects every aspect of every system in your body.

Beyond this, chemotherapy's main taste side-effect is an ever present taste of metal in your mouth. (Now, this does not happen to everyone because all people are different and there are uncountable varieties of cancers and treatments.) The best thing we can do is to find which of our 5 taste senses is unbalanced and adjust for them in our cooking. For example: My mom preferred to eat foods that were a little extra sweet and a little extra savory. By adjusting your seasonings for these flavor changes, you can easily overcome these changes.

2) Smell

The true main player in the eating process is not actually taste, but sense of smell. Because your sense of smell can differentiate over trillions of unique scents, you can build richer sensory experiences through smell than you could ever through taste. But because your sense of smell and taste are so interlinked, unless we separate the two, we would never notice their interdependence.

Smell is such a powerful sense that when you think of memories in your mind, you can actually remember the smell that the event had. Think about your grandfathers cologne or the way Thanksgiving dinner smells. If you really concentrate, you will notice that as you think of these memories, you can actually re-smell the events in your mind as if they were happening right now. We want to use this to our advantage when cooking for someone going through chemotherapy.

We can take advantage of the sense of smell by using aromatic herbs and spices in our cooking as well as avoiding pungent odors that your loved one finds offensive.

3) Touch

Another major player during chemotherapy is your tactile sense or sense of touch. This factor comes into play in the guise of heat sensitivity, mouth dryness, and mouth sores. These are all unfortunate but common side-effects of chemotherapy. Considering these side-effects is extremely important as their pain and discomfort can completely overpower the pleasure from the eating experience. This can lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and starvation. So, we must compensate for these effects when we think of a dish or meal as a whole.

Another factor that touch has while eating is a concept that I refer to as the weight of a dish. Weight is the perception of thickness, density, viciousness, or actual physical heaviness from your food in your mouth. When patients eat food, because the taste and smell are diminished as a chemotherapy effect, the major sensation you are left with is your sense of touch. As a result, soft but heavy textures like oatmeal, shepard's pie, or pot roast may feel suspiciously heavy in your mouth and as a result make them unappetizing. When you combine this with the sensitivity caused by mouth sores, you end up with a recipe for disaster.

The two best ways to compensate for these changes are to 1) be conscious of the heat, texture, and roughness of food items as these can exacerbate the problems caused by mouth sores- and 2) we can incorporate a tablespoon or two of red wine vinegar and an equal amount of sugar when cooking to limit the weight of the dish and eliminate the perception of heaviness in your mouth. This will allow you to get more nutrients into you or your loved one when you eat.

4) Sight

Sight is an important factor because it is the only other sense besides smell that will make you disinterested in a meal from a distance. The sight of food can even go so far as to make you nauseous and loose your appetite.

One of the things that I did for my mom while she went through chemotherapy was to make certain that every dish I made had a variety of brightly colored and fresh but cooked vegetables inside the dish whenever possible. Brightly colored vegetables in dishes pre-load your brain with the idea that what you are about to eat is fresh, light, and healthy.

5) Sound

Sound has several uses during eating and cooking. The most important of which is its ability to train people who are going through chemotherapy to experience hunger using classical conditioning theory. When I was my mothers caregiver, before every meal, I would always saute garlic. And based on the location of the kitchen in our house, the sound and smell of sauteing garlic would happily waft its way up the stairs to my mothers room and entice her with the delicious promises of food coming. This conditioned by mom's brain to associate the sound and smell of sauteing garlic with meal time. This subconsciously prepared her mouth and stomach to receive those vital nutrients that chemotherapy patients so often miss. I highly encourage you to use these types of techniques in your cooking so we can get just one more spoonful into your loved one.

By taking all of your senses and understanding their applications as a whole item, you can begin to provide a better standard of living and a better level of care for your loved ones as they go through chemotherapy. As I have shown here, addressing one issue like metallic tastes is not sufficient to compensate for the breadth of side-effects that cancer treatments cause. We must address the body and eating as a holistic concept and not as 5 independent senses that work independent of each other.

For more information on Roundness of Flavor, you can check out my book, Cooking for Chemo...and After! I cover this topic in great detail.

Do you have any cooking tips of your own to help combat these kinds of sensory changes after treatment? Share in the comments below!

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Ryan Callahan is a classically trained as well as self-taught chef who acted as primary caregiver for his mother. During her chemotherapy, Chef Ryan developed the cooking techniques included in his book, Cooking for Chemo...and After!. For more information, you can visit cookingforchemo.org. You can find Chef Ryan on IHC under the username chef-ryan-callahan .

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