A Food Fight Against Cancer

Luis Pineda: Alumni Profile

By Susannah Felts

Med-Sum12-Pineda

Luis Pineda conducts cooking workshops for UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center patients and families.

Luis Pineda, M.D., wears two white coats: physician and chef. As an oncologist and hematologist for more than two decades, Pineda saw many cancer patients lose interest in food, refusing hospital trays and meal replacement shakes. He also knew why: Many people receiving cancer treatment suffer appetite loss, which can lead to poor nutrition and poor outcomes. “They end up with a tube,” he says.

Pineda, a lifelong food lover who completed a UAB fellowship in 2000, wanted his patients to enjoy the pleasures of eating, especially at a time when food could be a powerful part of their recovery. So he enrolled in Birmingham’s Culinard school, attending every weekend for two years. Then he created Cooking with Cancer, a cookbook, Web site, and DVD packed with recipes designed to appeal to cancer patients while fulfilling their special nutritional needs. The flavors may seem exotic, but Pineda notes that the dishes are affordable and simple to prepare, with easily obtainable ingredients.

Cool Comfort 

“I’m using ingredients that may be part of a normal diet, but using them in an expression that translates to a better quality of life,” Pineda says. As an example, he explains that chemotherapy and radiation often wreak havoc on taste, smell, and digestion, and many patients have difficulty in consuming meats and hot or crunchy foods. Both treatments damage salivary glands and taste receptors in the mouth and nose, while the full spectrum of gastrointestinal problems, as well as mouth inflammation, ulcers, and dryness are common and debilitating side effects. For those patients, a plantain ice cream provides a sweet, comforting treat. The ice cream contains very finely ground charcoal, which is often prescribed in pill or liquid form to absorb stomach acid. Together with the fiber-rich plantains, it can help regulate bowel function, while the dessert’s cool, creamy texture appeals to patients with mouth inflammation.

Ice creams, cold soups, and other cool, smooth, easy-to-swallow concoctions can be a boon to cancer patients, Pineda says. “The milk contains a lot of protein and calories, which the patient uses as nutritional support,” he explains. But spicy foods also play a role. The capsaicin in hot peppers—used in Pineda’s jalapeño soup, among other dishes—can help combat nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Spicy foods in general, or those with strong flavor contrasts, such as a mango-cilantro sorbet, can refresh, or repolarize radiation-damaged taste receptors.

Kitchen Creativity

Pineda notes that his recipes’ effectiveness isn’t backed by statistical proof. But his patients report positive results. He also encourages patients and their families to tweak his recipes and submit their own at cookingwithcancer.org. 

Meanwhile, Pineda’s own kitchen remains “an experiment in the making”—a laboratory full of equipment like a vacuum machine and an ultrasonic blender that enable him to take a creative approach to food. Lately, he’s been preparing meat in a multistep process, slow-cooking it to melt away the collagen. “When you bite into it, it’s almost like a gelatin,” he says. “The meat has precisely the same flavor, but chewing is not critical.”

Pineda offers the Cooking with Cancer e-book for free online. “I’m hoping that one day the American Cancer Society will say that everyone diagnosed with cancer will get a copy,” he says.