How to Build Up a Cancer Patient's Appetite

In this blog, Chef Ryan Callahan, who served as primary caregiver for his mother, explains the power behind the sense of smell and how to take advantage of this when cooking for someone going through chemotherapy.

Learning how to use the power of the nose is probably the single most important part of cooking for someone going through chemotherapy, followed by the concept of the palate cleanse (which I discuss in my last post here). While I was a new chef, I had yet to realize that your nose is so powerful that it can govern your entire digestive system. When a person eats food or has a drink, the strongest sense associated with this action is not taste but smell.

Let's use your dog as an example. If you start cooking bacon, where is your dog going to be? Right there next to you with the biggest eyes you've seen in your life! This is because that sense of smell they possess leads them right to the food every time. We as humans like to feel detached from our animalistic senses. But the truth of the matter is that regaining control of those senses becomes very fundamental when we cook for chemotherapy patients. Taste is a very basic sense. It only encompasses a few abilities for range and depth. Some examples include: Salty, Savory, Spicy, Sour/Bitter, and Sweet.

The advantage of targeting your cooking towards the nose is that it gives you a wider breadth of experience while eating, and it allows you to build up the appetite of a person going through chemotherapy without actually putting food in front of them.

For example: When you have pot roast cooking in the oven, you can smell that the meat is slowly roasting. The fat melting and assimilating into the sauce. You can smell all of these things happening through your nose and can begin to feel hungry without ever seeing the food. How we apply this is by using aromatic herbs and spices to trick someone's brain into being hungry. I know that in the case of my mom, I would use slowly sauteing garlic or mushrooms in olive oil or butter to illicit this response.

Tricks to Illicit Hunger During Chemo:

1) Sauteing any of the following in butter or olive oil: Garlic, onions, mushrooms, and green or red peppers

2) Grilling Meats. The smell of grilling meats has a primal effect of the human body. Examples include: Grilled chicken, seared steak, pan fried bacon.

The other thing we need to keep in mind when using the nose is the adverse effect, which we will call pungency. Think about the most disgusting thing you have ever smelled. Maybe it made you feel physically ill or maybe it was so gross that you actually did puke? If you didn't have a sense of smell, that would never happen. With this, we want to think about foods that the person may find smelly, stinky, or pungent to them.During chemotherapy, my mom, who would normally be quite happy to scarf down a tuna salad sandwich, became physically ill if I even opened a can in a different room. Think about that.

Food to Avoid During Chemo:

1) Canned tuna/canned seafood

2) Soft mold ripened cheeses i.e.: brie, roquefort, taleggio, etc.

3) Preserved and pickled foods i.e.: sauerbraten, kimchi, pickled eggs, etc.

4) Stinky vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli.

The smell of these may cause you to lose your appetite entirely. This by all means is not an all inclusive list. Each person is different and will have different items that they love and hate. The sense of smell is so powerful in its governance over the human body that it can make you happy, it can make you sick, it can make you hungry, or it can make you turn green. This is why when we are cooking for chemotherapy, the very first thing we want to consider is the nose.

Do you have any other tips? Share them in the comments below.

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