How to Combat Loss of Appetite

Now that we have metallic tastes understood, I would like to point out that combating metallic tastes has to take into consideration that an appetite is present already. Metallic tastes are generally found at the finish line of the eating experience. In this lesson, we are going to learn how to build an appetite from a distance so that we can get our loved ones to be hungry and interested in eating all on their own. This is important because appetites are built or diminished from a distance. Metallic tastes only come into the equation once that spoon is inside your loved ones mouth. But, what if your loved one has no interest in food whatsoever? That is the subject of this lesson.

Appetites, very basically, are built on your sense of smell. You do not need to be anywhere close to cooking food to start experiencing it. Your nose is constantly detecting scents and aromas all around you all the time. Think about the smell of a barbeque (bbq)restaurant as you drive down the road. A couple sniffs in the proximity of a bbq restaurant and you are suddenly hungry. You do not have to see the bbq, taste the bbq, touch the bbq, or even hear the bbq cooking to know that there is food near by. The same concept is true when we are cooking for cancer patients. These aromas that we smell build or diminish an appetite from a distance. 

Learning how to use the power of smell when cooking is probably the single most important part of cooking for any cancer patient going through chemotherapy, followed by the concept of the palate cleanse. When a person eats food, drinks wine, or ingests any kind of substance, the strongest sense associated with this action is not taste, but smell.

When I was learning how to cook, I worked for a chef. Let’s call him “Big Chef.” Big Chef and I worked at a golf course. We always had trouble getting customers to come eat in the morning. So to get people interested in our food, Big Chef would always have me cook up bacon in the morning. One day, I asked him why we did it. To me, it seemed like a waste to cook all that bacon if no one was going to eat it. What he explained to me was that the smell of the bacon would come out of the kitchen, go into the club house, up through the exhaust vents, and then finally out to the golf course itself. “You see. When people smell bacon, they can’t help but get hungry. Somethin’ about that bacon that makes people come a runnin’!” What I had yet to realize at the time was that your nose is so powerful it can govern your entire digestive system and ability to reason.

Let’s use your dog as an example. If you start cooking bacon, where is your dog going to be? Right there next to you with the biggest set of eyes you’ve ever seen in your entire life! This is because that sense of smell they possess leads them right to the food every single time. We, as humans, like to feel detached from our animalistic senses. But, the truth of the matter is that regaining control of those senses becomes a very fundamental building block when we cook for cancer patients, especially chemotherapy patients. Remember your sense of taste only processes 5 flavors, whereas your sense of smell can process over a trillion unique scents.

Taste is a very basic sense. It only encompasses a few abilities for range and depth. For example: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet. When you experience any other sensation besides these basic flavor and taste perceptions, it is smell or the nose of your food.

The advantage of using smell and targeting your cooking towards the nose is that:

For example, when you have pot roast cooking in the oven, you can smell that the meat is slowly roasting. The fat melting and assimilating into the sauce and the muscle tissue. You can smell all of these things happening through your nose. You can begin to feel hungry without ever seeing the food in person. In dogs, the smell of food can be such a powerful sensation that a dog will salivate without ever seeing the food put in front of them.

How we use the power of smell is by using aromatic herbs and spices to trick someone’s brain into being hungry. I know that in the case of my mom, I would use slowly sautéing garlic or mushrooms in olive oil or butter to illicit a hunger response.

  • It gives you a wider breadth of experience while eating.
  • It allows you toe build up the appetite of the cancer patient going through chemotherapy, gently and from a distance, without actually putting food in front of them.

The other thing we need to keep in mind when using smell is the adverse effect. You will remember this idea from earlier articles. It is called pungency.

Think about the most disgusting thing or food you have ever smelled. Maybe it made you feel physically ill. Maybe it was so gross that you actually did vomit? If you didn’t have a sense of smell, that would never happen. On this point, we want to think about foods that the person you are cooking for will find smelly, stinky, or pungent and remove them when we are cooking. You will know what these scents are because the two of you will have experimented as I had instructed you in the previous lessons to identify these scents. Remember to write it all down in a food journal or tasting journal. This is another place where your tasting journal notes start to come into play.

During chemotherapy, my mom, who would normally be quite happy to scarf down a tuna salad sandwich, became physically ill if I even opened a can in a different room. Think about that. Your sense of smell is so powerful that a person can loose their appetite with out ever actually physically coming in contact with the item that causes the loss of appetite or nausea. She was about 50 feet away, up a flight of stairs, and behind a closed door. This is why being conscious of smells is so important. To drive this point home even further, what you eat and cook for yourself, can have a direct effect on the hunger and ability to eat of a person who is fighting cancer. 

Here are some suggestions of food items that may smell delicious and illicit hunger in a cancer patient during chemotherapy. Remember, everyone is different. What builds appetite for one person, may not build an appetite for another. So, keep a tasting journal and experiment. 

1. Sautéing any of the following in butter or olive oil:

green or red peppers.

2. Grilling Meats:

The smell of grilling meat has a primal effect on the human body. Examples of this would be grilled chicken, seared steak, pan fried bacon.

Think about the kinds of foods that you and your family eat. What are the ones that your family gets excited about? If you can answer this question, you will be on the right path to re-building your loved one’s appetite.

The following are food items that I would avoid during chemotherapy. Not because of the nutritional value of these food items, but because of the smell. The smell of these food items may cause you to lose your appetite entirely.

1. canned tuna/canned seafood.
2. soft mold ripened cheeses like Brie, Roquefort, Taleggio, etc.
3. preserved and pickled foods like sourbraten, kimchi, pickled eggs, etc.
4. stinky vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli.

This by all means is not an all-inclusive food list. Each person is different and will have different foods that they love and hate. Like I have said before in these articles, each person is unique and as such will have unique reactions to every food. This list is better complied through experimentation than by simply just taking this list as gospel. In your tasting journal, write down and track what smells help make you hungry and what smells make you nauseous.

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

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