Nutritious Foods That Fight Taste Changes

Without the right nutrients, it’s hard to recover during cancer treatment. It can be difficult to maintain a healthy diet if you’re experiencing taste changes, but you can ease the symptoms by eating (and avoiding) certain foods. 

One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and immunotherapy is taste change, making it difficult to get all the necessary nutrients.

There’s no way to predict, or prevent, taste changes. The most common taste changes people experience include food that tastes:

  • More metallic
  • More bitter
  • Less flavorful
  • Overly sweet
  • Overly salty

Changes in smell may accompany changes in taste.   Since there’s no way to manipulate the taste buds, you’ll have to work around them a bit. Good oral care is essential, but there are several ways you can adjust what you eat to combat taste changes.

If food tastes metallic:

  • Avoid red meat. Red meats often have a more metallic, mineral-like taste during treatment.
  • Add more non-meat protein to your diet. Since meats can taste more metallic, you’ll need to find another source of protein. Try lentils, eggs, beans, cheese, milkshakes, nuts, quinoa and peanut butter.
  • Eat meat that’s an ingredient to a meal, not a main course. Another option to getting your protein is to eat meats that are added into a dish like lasagna, salads or casseroles.
  • Drink more water. Sipping on water before and during a meal can help reduce metallic tastes.
  • Suck on hard candies. Peppermints and other hard candies can help keep your mouth fresh, while also minimizing the metallic taste.
  • Use plastic utensils. Another way to minimize the metallic taste of food is to use plastic utensils. Cooking in glass or ceramic dishes, rather than metal pans or pots, may also help. 

If food lacks taste or flavor:

  • Add herbs and spices. One of the quickest and easiest ways to make any food more flavorful is by sprinkling on herbs and spices.
  • Marinade meats. Marinades, dressings and fruit juices can be used to give meat more flavor. Make sure to refrigerate the meat while it’s marinating.
  • Eat more tart foods. Tart is just about the strongest of all the tastes. If food lacks flavor and you don’t have any mouth sores, try eating a citrus fruit or using citrus juice as a marinade.
  • Add bacon or ham to vegetables. When you cook vegetables, add bacon or a few pieces of ham to give it extra flavor.
  • Add onions. Onions are another cooking additive that can increase flavor.
  • Add butter. A little butter goes a long way in making food taste rich and flavorful. Be careful not to add too much.  
  • Add extracts and flavorings. While cooking, you can also add extracts or flavorings to increase the taste of food.
  • Use broths in place of water. If a recipe calls for water or broth, opt for the more flavorful broth.
  • Use sauces and condiments. Bland-tasting food can be improved by dipping meats, breads and vegetables in your favorite sauces or condiments.
  • Layer on cheese. Adding cheese to a recipe can make the food taste better, provide a little more protein and add extra calories.

If food tastes too sweet:

  • Cut sweetness with salt. Adding a pinch or two of salt can help balance the sweetness.
  • Add lemon juice. Provided you don’t have any mouth sores, the bitter taste of lemon juice is another way to decrease the sweetness of food.
  • Make shakes with extra milk or plain yogurt. Nutritional shakes are a great addition to your diet. Cut the sweet flavor by adding an extra scoop of plain yogurt or more milk to the mixture.
  • Dilute drinks with water. Sweet drinks like fruit juice, lemonade, ginger ale and Gatorade may taste better if you dilute them with water.
  • Use butter in place of jam, syrup and sugar. Butter is rich and flavorful without being sweet. Add it to oatmeal, pancakes and other foods you’d typically eat with jam or syrup. 

If food tastes too salty:

  • Add a little sugar. Adding a little sugar can help balance out the salty taste.
  • Add natural sweeteners. You can also add natural sweeteners like honey or agave nectar to increase sweetness and flavor.
  • Eat more fresh and dried fruits. The natural sugars in fruit have nutritional value and can help tame a salty palate. Dried fruits can even be added to foods like cereal, oatmeal and salad.
  • Forgo the salt in recipes. If a recipe calls for adding salt, you can usually skip it.
  • Avoid cured meats and salty foods. These foods already taste salty and may be a little too intense.
  • Avoid processed foods. Many processed foods are loaded with salt. Most people are unaware of the extra sodium, but taste changes could make the added salt much more noticeable. Whenever you’re buying processed or canned foods, look for an option labeled “low sodium” or “reduced sodium.”

Recipes to Help You Manage Taste Changes

Now that you have a better idea of the types of food to eat and what to avoid to manage taste changes, you might try these tasty recipes.

Help From Your Healthcare Team

Taste changes are something you can plan for with the help of your healthcare team. If the side effect is starting to impact your diet, let your doctor know. A few things to discuss:

  • The types of taste changes that are occurring.
  • Whether there are other side effects contributing to the problem.
  • Any food triggers.
  • Any other conditions, such as diabetes, that affect your nutrition.

From there, your doctor can make dietary suggestions based on your health needs. Your may be referred a nutritionist or dietician with experience creating meal plans for those in active treatment.  

A certified dietician or nutritionist can help you understand how food fuels your body and ways to help make sure you’re getting the recommended nutrients. They’ll work with you to create daily and weekly meal plans that make eating less complicated. These specialists are a valuable resource, so don’t pass up a chance to work with them if you have the opportunity.