For people struggling with cancer and many other long-term medical conditions, a changed relationship with food can be one of the most troubling outcomes. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment, in particular, wreak havoc on taste, smell, and digestion.
Both treatments damage salivary glands and taste receptors in the mouth and nose. They also create a wide range of gastrointestinal problems, along with mouth inflammation, ulcers, and dryness.
In his Birmingham oncology practice, Luis Pineda, M.D., observed many patients turning down meals and meal-replacement shakes. Those skipped meals ultimately translate to “poor nutrition and, eventually, poor outcomes,” notes Pineda, who completed a fellowship at the UAB School of Medicine in 1982 and was one of the original members of UAB’s bone marrow transplant program.
A lifelong food-lover, Pineda decided to address the problem. So he enrolled in Birmingham’s Culinard cooking school to explore how to make food that was more palatable for cancer patients.
After two years of weekend classes at Culinard, Pineda unveiled Cooking with Cancer in 2005 as a cookbook, Web site, and DVD. In each format, Pineda offers recipes designed to appeal to cancer patients while fulfilling their special nutritional needs (some of his creations are shown at right). Take, for example, a plantain ice cream that contains very finely ground charcoal, which is often prescribed in pill or liquid form to absorb stomach acid. The charcoal, in combination with the fiber-rich plantains, may help regulate bowel function, a common problem for cancer patients, while the cool, creamy texture works well for patients with mouth inflammation.
Story continues after slideshow
Pineda’s recipes may seem exotic at first glance, but he stresses that they are simple and affordable to prepare. “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 for cancer patients,” he says.
The capsaicin in hot peppers, for example—used by Pineda in a jalapeño soup and ice cream—can help combat the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Spicy dishes in general, and those with strong flavor contrasts, such as a mango-cilantro sorbet, can refresh, or repolarize, taste receptors damaged by radiation, Pineda explains.
Pineda is still hard at work creating new dishes in his home kitchen, which is packed with special equipment such as a vacuum machine and an ultrasonic blender. Lately, he’s been working on a method of slow-cooking meats so they can be enjoyed by people who find chewing difficult. “When you bite into it, it’s almost like biting into a gelatin,” Pineda says. “The meat has precisely the same flavor, but chewing is not critical.”