Ruth: When you are going through chemo and your eating habits are changed, it might help to consider the effects of the food’s temperature.

First of all, the temperature of the food you want to eat will depend on how you are feeling. If you are trying to energize yourself, frozen grapes or a chilled smoothie or juice can be just the ticket. But if you want to eat something comforting because you are feeling lethargic, fatigued, and cold, the idea of a warm bowl of soup might be just the thing that encourages you to eat. For everyone, these preferences change with our mood and also with the weather.  

However, in some situations, it might not always be the best approach to go with the temperature of food that you feel you want. This is because the food temperature can actually worsen some side effects of chemotherapy. For example, eating hot food when you have mouth sores can be less comfortable than eating cold or frozen options, which might be more soothing.

Nausea is another significant side effect that is affected by food temperature. Nausea can be very debilitating and can create a real aversion to food. However, what is rarely explained is that it is the smell of food that most commonly causes the nausea, rather than the taste of food. Foods have the strongest smell during cooking; therefore, cooking foods that fill the kitchen and home with smells – even if you would normally consider the smell to be delicious – can turn the stomach of a cancer patient and create nausea.

I once had a client who was renting out a room in her home to try to make ends meet. Due to severe nausea she was having trouble eating anything, so I asked her to explain the kitchen set up and how she and her lodger cooked and shared the space. She told me that her lodger was a lovely guy from India who adored cooking. He would spend hours at the weekend making big pots of curries and spicy dishes and then reheat them during the week, filling the house with spicy indian food smells. Sadly, these strong smells, which never seemed to leave the house, were causing severe nausea and stopping her from being able to eat anything. She didn’t want to ask her lodger to leave, so our solution was for her to go and stay with her daughter for a few weeks where she could eat room temperature foods and get away from the smells – and her nausea quickly disappeared.

So what and how should you cook if you are suffering from nausea?

A good general guideline is to eat foods at room temperature. If possible, have friends cook the food for you at their home so you don’t smell the preparation; you can store the meals in your fridge ready to eat. Or choose foods that don’t need cooking. Although you might associate some dishes with being served warm or hot, it doesn’t mean that they can’t taste good at room temperature. Try taking them out of the fridge and allowing them to come to room temperature; it will help reduce their odors and make them more palatable. 

The selection of foods is important too. For now, avoid strong smelling foods like onions, garlic, coffee, strong fish, cauliflower, fried foods, and spices, all of which smell even stronger when served hot or when being cooked. Even though these might normally be some of your favorites and might be nutritious, do yourself a favor and avoid them for the time being. 

An added difficulty is when you are part of a family and everyone else wants to eat the usual way with hot tasty food. The social part of eating together is important, so see if you can work out an arrangement where you can make one room temperature meal each day that you all eat together. Then when they want hot “smelly” food, you can take that time to rest in another room or go for a walk. Maybe they can open the kitchen door to the outside so that the cooking smells don’t concentrate in the house. Think about how you can figure things out to work with the family’s needs as well as your own, so that you don’t lose their companionship, but can maintain your appetite also.

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