COVID Updates: Due to the increased spread of COVID, visitor restrictions have changed and medical-grade masks are now required in all Scripps facilities. See FAQs for details.

Adjusting Your Diet After a Cancer Diagnosis

Tips to offset temporary changes in appetite, taste and smell

A cancer patient who is watching his diet checks for food options in his refrigerator.

Tips to offset temporary changes in appetite, taste and smell

Following a cancer diagnosis, it’s common to notice changes in your appetite. You may not feel as hungry as usual, and some foods may even seem to have a different taste or smell than normal.


There are many potential reasons for this, including the emotional effects of knowing you have cancer, certain medications, side effects from treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation, as well as the cancer itself.

 

“Such changes can be frustrating, especially since getting enough vitamins and nutrients is so important when you’re fighting cancer,” says Mohammed Jaloudi, MD, an oncologist and hematologist at Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic. “Not eating enough can result in weight loss and decreased muscle mass, both of which may lead to fatigue, make treatment more difficult to tolerate and possibly lead to poor outcomes.”

 

If you’re finding it challenging to get the nutrition your body needs due to changes in appetite, or you want to eat but your favorite foods are no longer appealing, read on for tips that may help make it easier to maintain a healthy diet during cancer treatment.

Changes to taste

“Certain foods may now taste bitter, metallic, too sweet or salty – or not have much taste at all,” says Alison Meagher, a registered oncology nutritionist with Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center. “If your sense of smell is affected, this also may change the way food tastes.”

 

Fortunately, these common side effects of cancer treatment are usually temporary. These tips can help offset changes:

If food tastes bitter

  • Eat foods at room temperature or cold instead or heated
  • Sweeten food with jam, honey, syrup, agave or other natural sweeteners
  • Marinate foods in sweet or tangy flavors, such as pineapple, lemon, lime, orange, vinegars, mustard, honey, teriyaki and soy sauce


Instead of meat, try other proteins such as:


  • Bland chicken, turkey, fish or tofu
  • Peanut or nut butter
  • Beans and lentils
  • Mild cheese
  • Eggs
  • Milk and dairy products (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese)

If food tastes metallic

  • Use plastic or bamboo utensils instead of metal
  • Avoid canned foods and beverages
  • Avoid storing food in aluminum foil
  • Use glass cookware

If food tastes “off”

  • Try sugar-free gum or have mints and hard candies to suck on, such as lemon drops or peppermints
  • Eat plain, starchy foods like bread, rice, potatoes and pasta without butter
  • Choose bland foods such as mild cheese, eggs, creamy soups, oatmeal and nut butters
  • Breakfast foods may be a better option, such as waffles, pancakes, eggs and toast

If food tastes too sweet

  • Replace sweet fruits with vegetables
  • Add water and/or ice to dilute sweet beverages
  • Add something sour or tangy to food and/or drinks such as lemon, lime, vinegar, pickled foods or plain Greek yogurt (Note: If you have mouth sores, this is not recommended.)

If food is too salty

  • Sweeten food with jam, honey, syrup, agave or other natural sweeteners
  • Use products that are low-sodium or have no added salt
  • Do not cook with salt

If food is too bland

  • Add an acid to food such as vinegar, lemon, lime, and pickles (Note: If you have mouth sores, this is not recommended.)
  • Try using herbs, spices, seasonings and condiments such as cilantro, basil, rosemary, garlic, onion, mint, chili powder, cinnamon, ketchup, mustard or ranch dressing
  • Marinate foods in sweet or tangy flavors, such as pineapple, lemon, lime, orange, vinegars, mustard, honey, teriyaki and soy sauce
  • Slowly chew your foods to allow more contact with your taste buds
  • Try different food textures, such as crunchy, crispy, soft and chewy

If food smells too much

If increased sensitivity to smell is making it difficult to enjoy foods, try these tips:


  • Eat foods cold or at room temperature
  • Avoid using slow cookers
  • Try sipping through a straw or use a cup with a cover for soups and beverages
  • Let someone else prepare your food while you are in another area
  • Eat outside or in a well-ventilated area
  • Avoid cafeterias or restaurants with strong odors

When to contact your care team

It may help to avoid eating your favorite foods the day you receive chemotherapy or other treatment to avoid developing food aversions. If you can’t tolerate solid food, try a liquid nutritional supplement or smoothie instead. Using a straw can help decrease contact with your taste buds.

 

“If you experience persistent loss of appetite or feel nauseated and can’t eat for more than a day, contact your care team,” says Meagher. “A registered dietitian can help you develop a diet plan to get the nutrients and calories you need.”