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Dear Iris: Nothing Tastes Good

Dear Iris,

Food tastes “off,” no matter what I try. Some things taste bland, and others taste sickeningly sweet. It’s disappointing when things I normally enjoy taste so different than it did before treatment. What can I do to make food more appealing? P.S. I can’t stand drinking nutrition shakes so I’m hoping for ideas that aren’t sugary liquids.


Dear R,

I can understand how absolutely frustrating this must be! Changes in how food tastes can be a side effect during cancer treatment, but nutrition drinks aren’t the only way to deal with this challenge.

Some people have luck adding fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon or lime, or various condiments and sauces to foods. But in addition to those, I’d like to offer you another way to approach this problem.

The advice I have may sound a bit strange, but it stems from knowing the difference between “flavor” and “taste.”

Taste, or rather tasting, is something your mouth, tongue, and taste buds do while you eat, but taste is only one of several factors that give you a sense of “flavor” from food. The flavor of food comes from many components including smell, texture, and temperature. The reason it’s worth knowing this is that you may be able to pick up aspects of texture, temperature, and smell as you eat, which can enhance your experience of food even when your, “taste is off.”

Here's an example of how to use this information in real life...

Let’s say you’ve got a slice of cantaloupe, but it doesn’t taste “good,” or how you remember cantaloupe to be. You might try taking bites of a different texture or temperature food, like warm oatmeal with cinnamon on top or crispy crackers with a slice of cheese.

The idea is that you can alternate bites of food with different textures, smells, or temperatures with bites of cantaloupe. Any combination of things can work here — and it’s okay to end up eating two or three different foods you never would’ve imagined could be palatable together.

Exploring what textures, temperatures and smells still come through for you and then using that information to create meals that are less off-putting can be one new way to approach the challenge of food tasting “off.”

For more help with this and to get specific and individually tailored ideas schedule a time with an Iris Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist.

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Stephanie Meyers, MS, RD, LDN

Senior Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist

Iris Oncology

Stephanie Meyers is a Senior Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist at Iris Oncology with 25 years of experience delivering compassionate and evidence-based nutrition care to those affected by cancer. She’s the former Nutrition Manager at The Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and presents seminars worldwide on mindful eating, family nutrition, and cancer survivorship. Stephanie is also the author of, End the Mealtime Meltdown: Using The Table Talk Method to Free Your Family From Daily Food Struggles and Picky Eating and the founder of Families Eating Well, a nutrition practice helping parents coach healthy eating skills in kids. 

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.