It’s that holly, jolly time of the year. The festive decorations are here as are the food celebrations and traditions we enjoy. Much of the winter holidays revolve around food, beverages, and sharing meals with those we love. What if your taste buds aren’t celebrating with you? The holidays may not be as merry and bright.
With cancer, your tastes may be very different this year from years past. Some of the culprits for your taste challenges may be cancer treatments, oral or dental issues, decreased sense of smell, poor nutrition, or other health problems. Flavors and tastes that you loved at last year’s holiday may not taste the same or even be a turnoff now. Taste changes like these can lead to a decline in appetite and make it difficult to enjoy food. Let’s look at some ways you can put the joy back into holiday eating.
How does taste actually work? Taste is a joint effort of the mouth, nose, and the brain. You have nerve cells inside each taste bud on your tongue and inside your nose that recognize the foods you eat. These nerves send messages to the brain where the taste is analyzed. Your brain then tells you what flavors you taste. Your body starts producing digestive juices and enzymes to break down food and help in healthy digestion. (That’s why your mouth waters when you think about your favorite foods!)
Are your taste buds the same today as they were when you were a child? Children have about 10,000 taste buds. Adults have 2,000 to 5,000 taste buds. The quantity of taste buds declines as we age, so your taste buds are different than when you were a child which explains why you may enjoy different foods.
Can you make new taste buds? Yes, we make new taste buds every two weeks or so. Taste buds are continually regenerating which helps people with cancer have hope that once treatment ends their sense of taste may improve!
How can you improve your sense of taste?
- Look at visual images of food
- Enjoy food aromas if you are able
- Practice good oral hygiene
- Treat nutrient deficiencies like zinc- or niacin-deficient anemia
- Ask for a medication review with your healthcare team as some drugs cause a decline in your ability to taste
- Associate food with happy occasions like the holidays and good memories
- Tell yourself that you like the flavor of specific foods
- Avoid exposure to the foods, flavors, and odors that you cannot tolerate, often called food aversions
What decreases your sense of taste?
- Filling full
- Nasal congestion and sinus polyps
- Oral infections
- Smells that conflict with food aromas
- Lifestyle choices such as tobacco and alcohol use
For this holiday season, be good to your taste buds. Eat small meals with foods you like. Share food with people you enjoy. Take delight in the visual presentation of foods at special events. Take good care of your teeth and mouth by rinsing your mouth before and after meals, and of course, brush and floss often. Swap alcoholic beverages for sparkling waters or ginger ale. Limit your exposure to tobacco and second-hand smoke. Create new pleasant memories during the holidays with flavorful meals, snacks, and beverages. Your taste buds will love you for it!
For more tips, check out Nutrition Tips for Managing Change in Taste and Smell.