Understanding Food Experiences

For my second blog post, I want to lay the foundation of what Cooking for Chemo is and what makes it unique.

The temptation with everything medical or scientific is that we, in our present day and age and possibly always, seek the comfort of a bulleted solution list without proper understanding of the mechanisms that allow the system to work. In my experience, this has been a constant problem with cancer side-effects. This leads to a culture of do this, not that. Radical ideas that are not actually supported by evidence, and the constant search for a quick fix to explain why something is happening. Have lung cancer? Blame cigarettes. Obese? Blame McDonald’s. Unhappy? Take these pills. As a result, we have lost the ability for introspection. And when we are cooking for someone going through chemotherapy, introspection is the single most valuable tool that you can use.

Let’s begin with understanding what introspection is. Introspection is where you look into yourself (intro) and inspect (spection) those items you find. I am sure all the readers of this blog have taken a high school science class and understand the basics of the scientific method. What we are going to do is apply a little bit of scientific searching into ourselves. We are going to look at our patterns, our behaviors, our preferences, and our habits. Then we are going to take a step back from ourselves and our personal feelings towards these items and try to understand them as a 3rd party observer would. When we do these actions, we want to keep a written journal and log so that we have tangible, written proof of patterns.

So, with that little bit of background information and now that the class is all on the same page. (We are all on page 327 right?) I am going to ask for a little bit of patience from you the reader. I am also going to explain how you perceive the eating and tasting experience, how this comes into play with chemotherapy and why you need to know this. My current working hypothesis is that chemotherapy changes the way you perceive food and flavors during the eating experience. This change in perception causes a dis-alignment between expected stimulus, actual stimulus, and the memory association expectation that you have for each food and flavor. What does this even mean!?!

To break it down simply, all of your food related experiences before cancer treatment are different than your food experiences during and after cancer treatments. Let’s use a simple example. Think about a grilled cheese sandwich. You know that the bread is crunchy and sweet. The butter is salty. And the cheese is savory. You know the smell of the sandwich as you chew it. But what if when you bit into a grilled cheese sandwich, you remembered what it was suppose to taste like, set your expectations for that grilled cheese sandwich, but the taste you got was clam chowder. You would be a little freaked out, right?!

This is a very simple explanation of what is happening to many chemotherapy patients around the world. The first lesson I need to teach you is not how to combat specific side-effects, but to understand the eating and tasting experience so that when I teach you how to combat the specific side-effects, you understand WHY they work and HOW to adjust them for your unique circumstance. Sorry friends, there is no get rich quick scheme here!


When we all think about food, the very first thing we think about is taste. We often use taste as a common blanket term to cover the entire eating experience. But in reality, taste is an extremely limited sense that only allows you to perceive 5 distinct flavors. You can only perceive these flavors when the food physically comes in contact with your tongue. This is an incredibly important aspect to remember because some senses are activated by contact and others perceive an object from a distance. Please keep that in mind as we go forward.

You only perceive 5 flavors. They are salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet. This is really everything that your tongue perceives. The interesting part of this is that each person is unique and perceives each one of these flavors in greater and lesser intensity than other people.


Your second sense that you perceive food with is your sense of smell. While the receptors on your tongue and in your nose are very similar, your sense of smell can perceive over a trillion unique scents. It is the most powerful sense when tied to memory and a single sniff of a scent can transport you back to a memory of a long forgotten time. While scents have to physically touch the receptors in your nose, this sense has the capacity to detect things from a distance. Think about when you drive by a BBQ restaurant and you smell that wood smoke. You smell that smoke and you almost instantaneously get excited about eating. This is how powerful your sense of smell is. It pretty much has a direct line to your brain, kind of like how commissioner Gordon had a direct line to the bat phone. Your sense of smell is extremely useful at building appetites, but it can also be your greatest enemy. We will be exploring this idea in an upcoming article.


Your sense of sight is your third sense that you use during the eating experience. You see the food. You think about the food. We like pictures of food on instagram. Through our sense of sight, we understand the food. Never underestimate the power of human eye sight. We make many decisions based on sight alone. How can you tell the guy in the movie is a bad guy? Because he looks like a bad guy! (Usually he has a goatee or a mustache.) We look at art. We go to the beach and mountains for their views. See where I’m getting at here? McDonald’s doesn’t put pictures of their food on their digital menu board because they thought it would be fun. It’s because humans make purchasing decisions based on visual appearance. If we didn’t make these decisions, there would be no such thing as fashion, hair products, make up, or trophy wives. What would be the point? Are you seeing what I am getting at here?! Because we make so many choices based on our sense of sight, you cannot discredit the role that it plays in the eating experience. Pretty plating, compelling colors, and intrigue really do play a part in compelling someone to eat.


The fourth sense is your sense of touch. You touch the food with your hands. You perceive the feeling of the food on your lips. You sense the heat or the coolness of the food. And you feel it in your mouth as you chew it. Touch is also associated with textures. Is it soft and soupy? Is it hard and crunchy? These textures help you decide how to feel about a food. Crunchy textures invite comparisons of fun and freshness. Soft textures make you think of comfort and love. The issues inside of texture really present themselves in the form of mouth sores, which we will have an entire article about coming up in the near future.


Your fifth sense is your ability to perceive sound or hearing. You hear the knife on the plate, the clinking of glasses, the sound of sizzling garlic, and so much more. Sound plays an important role in the association of stimulus and expectations. I hear mariachi music. I think of eating at a Mexican restaurant. I hear Dean Martin crooning, “That’s Amore.” I am thinking Italian restaurants. Your sense of hearing can help you to set expectations on what’s to come.

Memory Association

Your last sense isn’t a proper sense. So maybe I should say the sixth party that becomes involved in the eating process, is your memories and associations. You smell steaks cooking on the grill. You remember the taste of the last time you ate a steak. You see a turkey and you remember Thanksgiving dinner. You taste ice cream and you remember getting ice cream with your friends in high school. You hear steel drum music and you’re transported to your honey moon in Jamaica. These memories and associations are powerful! They are what make you, YOU! This is where much of the difficulty with chemotherapy side-effects comes into play. We expect our food to taste or smell like one thing, but it tastes or smells like another. We’ve been starving, so our body tells us it’s craving a juicy cheeseburger. But when we bite into it, instead of it tasting savory and delicious, the fat tastes metallic and heavy. We become disheartened, frustrated, and loose our appetite.

How do we overcome this? We overcome this, like I had suggested in the beginning of this article, through introspection. We taste, smell, and experience foods with an open mind and re-learn these memory associations. As we re-learn these, we write them down on paper in a tasting journal to keep a paper log of what we have experienced, how we reacted, and most importantly, how they made us feel. Like I said in the beginning of this article, there are no get rich quick schemes here. Just a lot of hard work. But I assure you that if you put in the hard work, it will be worth it.

Now that you have an understanding of how you perceive food and flavor, we will be taking this information and applying it to practical solutions for eating related side-effects. Stay tuned for my upcoming articles that teach you how to combat loss of appetite, metallic tastes, nausea, disinterest in food and more.

About the author:

Chef Ryan Callahan is a 2x Gourmand World Cookbook Award Winning Chef. Author of Cooking for Chemo …and After; Cooking for Kids with Cancer; and Chef Ryan’s How-to-Cook Cookbook. He is also the founder of CookingForChemo.org

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