When facing a cancer diagnosis, whether for yourself or a loved one, you know that cooking healthful, delicious food is not always easy. The body goes through various changes from the side effects of cancer and treatment that can affect taste buds, including a diminished appetite, limited foods that are appealing and changes to your taste and smell. Although the goal of cancer treatment is to destroy the cancer cells, normal cells can be damaged in the process, affecting how you feel. When going through treatment, each hour, each day and each week you can feel differently. As a person experiences these side effects, it is important to know the foods that are better tolerated and help to ease the symptoms.
The most common side effect of chemotherapy is loss of appetite, or anorexia, which can be a result of radiation, stress, depression and the cancer itself. Taste changes may also be an issue caused by treatment, resulting in flavor changes and or no taste at all.
• Eat by the clock at regularly scheduled times. Your appetite signal may not be intact.
• Eat between meals with high calorie, high-protein diet snacks and supplements, like cheese or peanut butter and crackers, hard boiled eggs or a nutritional energy drink supplement.
• Add cream or butter to soups, cooked cereals and vegetables to increase calories. Add gravies and sauces to vegetables, meat, poultry and fish until weight loss is no longer a problem.
• Try things to enhance smell, appearance and texture of food. Be creative with desserts.
• Tart flavors such as lemon wedges and tart candies, peppermint or lemon drops may reduce the sensations of bitter or sour taste. Try choosing sugarless kinds. Try drinking lemonade. (If you have a sore mouth or throat, do not use this tip.)
• If you experience that "metallic" taste in meat, try marinating it in a reduced sodium soy sauce or fat free Italian dressing to intensify the flavor. If red meat doesn't work, try eating chicken, seafood or beans for protein.
• Add extra seasonings to give the food more flavor such as onion, garlic, chili powder, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup or mint. The rule of thumb is to add a little at a time to see if you can perk up those taste buds.
• Rinse your mouth with tea, ginger ale, salted water or water with baking soda before eating to help clear your taste buds.
• Use plastic utensils if you're bothered by a bitter or metallic taste.
• Marinate meats or cook them with sauces or tomatoes to help improve the flavor. Meats that are cold or at room temperature may be more palatable.
Neutropenia, or low white blood cell count, occurs after chemotherapy treatments for most patients. Neutropenia normally lasts for three to seven days. As soon as your counts have returned to normal, you can return to a regular diet.
• To decrease your risk of infection, avoid fresh fruits, vegetables, raw meat or fish during the time your blood counts are low.
• Avoid crowds and anyone who is ill until your blood counts are normal.
• Always wash cooking utensils and surfaces that contact food well with soap and hot water.
• Avoid uncooked herbs and spices and honey -- use molasses.
• Processed cheese, canned or cooked fruits, cooked or baked goods, jello, syrup, ice cream and sherbet made from pasteurized products are acceptable.
A dry or sore mouth, caused by chemotherapy or radiation, can get sore seven to 10 days following certain chemotherapy treatments. Precaution and care in choosing foods must be taken to sooth this sensitive side effect. Practicing good oral hygiene can help tremendously. Soft foods should be readily available, while avoiding rough textured, spicy, pain inducing foods.
• With a sore mouth, avoid spicy, coarse textured foods, very hot or cold foods and beverages, citric juices or foods containing citric acid (tomatoes, oranges, lemon, etc.)
• Limit alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, as they can dry out your mouth and throat and promote further irritation.
• Cut food into small pieces.
• Softer and easy to swallow foods include soft, creamy foods such as cream soups, cheeses, mashed potatoes, pastas, yogurt, eggs, custards, puddings, cooked cereals, ice cream, casseroles, gravies, syrups, milkshakes and nutritional liquid food supplements.
The gastrointestinal tract is often affected by cancer treatments, which can bring nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation along with it. Healthy well-tolerated high fiber foods are important for alleviating constipation, while low fiber foods are helpful for vomiting and diarrhea relief.
• Try eating foods that don't have strong odors to reduce feeling nauseous.
• When stomach is upset, eat foods at room temperature. This can decrease the food tastes and smells.
• Save your favorite foods for times when you feel well. Try not to eat one to two hours before treatment or therapy. If you no longer enjoy beef or pork, you may find chicken, fish, eggs, milk products or legumes more appealing.
• Eat high-fiber foods, such as whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables (raw and cooked with skins and peels on), popcorn and dried beans.
• Try adding shredded veggies into other casseroles or recipes.
• Bran (such as wheat bran) may be added to baked goods or casseroles. By consuming two tablespoons of wheat bran, your stools will be softer and easier to pass.
• Remember when you increase bran intake; increase your water intake also.
• Eat smaller mini meals throughout the day to see what you can tolerate.
• Avoid raw vegetables and fruits, and high fiber foods, nuts, onions, garlic
• Avoid spicy food and greasy, fatty or fried foods.
• Limit caffeine intake and milk.
• Ginger can be soothing to the stomach: gingersnaps, ginger candy
• Drink and eat high-potassium foods, such as fruit juices and nectars, sports drinks, potatoes without the skin and bananas.
• Be sure to sip fluids throughout the day to prevent dehydration
• Soluble fiber can be used to relieve mild to moderate diarrhea. Soluble fiber soaks up a significant amount of water in the digestive tract causing stool to be more firm and pass slower.
• Soluble fiber sources include: Legumes, oats, bananas, apples, berries, broccoli, carrots, potatoes and yams (without skins).
Maintaining adequate calories and nutrition during this time can be a difficult task, however it is very important to keep nutrition a priority for optimal health and strength, while incorporating nutrition therapy to help ease the side effects of your treatment.
Holly Clegg, author of the "trim&TERRIFIC®" cookbook series and specialized diabetic and cancer cookbooks, has been writing about the relationship between food and health for two decades. Holly is a national spokesperson for AmMed Direct, mail order diabetes supplies, and has created videos for affordable healthy recipes for Walmart.com. Check out Holly's latest book, Too Hot in the Kitchen, on Red Room, where you can read her blog.