It doesn't happen to everyone who contracts the virus (one study found that 41 percent of people with COVID-19 lost their sense of smell) and the timeframe of how long it can last varies. Infectious disease specialists are still trying to figure out how the virus can lead to sensory loss in the first place. According to Harvard Health, one theory is that the virus damages sustentacular cells, a type of cell that helps assist olfactory neurons.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people regain their senses in about four weeks, according to Mayo Clinic. But for the 10 percent who don't regain it after a month, it can be devastating. Stephanie Hunter, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Monell Center, an organization with the mission to improve health and well-being by advancing the scientific understanding of taste, smell, and related senses. Even before the pandemic, she studied how senses influence dietary preferences. COVID-19 has made her work even more pertinent and she has been focusing on understanding the impact of COVID-19 on taste and smell, and how lack of taste or smell influences food choice and eating patterns.
"What many people don't realize is that a lost sense of smell, which is called anosmia, wasn't uncommon even before COVID-19. It affects up to 20 percent of the population," Dr. Hunter says. She says anosmia hasn't been taken as seriously as losing other senses, like vision or hearing, but it truly impacts the people who experience it in major ways. "A lot of people with anosmia have a really hard time with it," she says. "They aren't able to get any enjoyment out of food anymore, and food is such a big part of people's cultures."
With a loss of senses due to COVID-19, Dr. Hunter says she's found that typically people can't smell, but they can still taste, a difference that can be difficult to determine. "Your sense of smell is what actually brings flavor to the food, but with taste, you can still get a sense that something is sweet, savory, or salty, for example," she explains. While some people with anosmia may skip meals completely because they no longer find it enjoyable, Dr. Hunter says others may overeat as a way to overcompensate for the lack of smell and play up their sense of taste. Below, she shares tips that are more effective to try.
5 food rules to follow if you lost your sense of smell from COVID-19
1. Establish a support system.
It's perfectly normal to feel sad or depressed because you lost your sense of smell. Just like someone who can no longer see or hear needs extra support as they navigate their new normal, so do you. Dr. Hunter says there are Facebook groups solely dedicated to people who've lost their sense of smell because of COVID-19. Consider joining one as a way to remind yourself that you're not going through this alone. Plus, it's a helpful place to share tips to make eating more enjoyable.
It may also be helpful to talk to a therapist and if eating has become especially anxiety-provoking, consider seeking out a registered dietitian or eating disorder specialist who can give tips on how to maintain a healthy relationship with food and also still get the nutrients your body needs.
2. Bring the heat.
Dr. Hunter says one tip she recommends is finding ways to add more heat to your food. Hot sauce, chili peppers, cumin, and ginger can all come in handy here. She explains that a lot of people who lose their sense of smell tend to add a lot of salt to their food, but using spices is a way to amp up the flavor without increasing the amount of sodium in your dish.
3. Be mindful of how much sugar you're adding.
Similarly with adding a lot of salt to food, Dr. Hunter says many people also add a lot of sugar. After all, if you still have your sense of taste, you can still tell that something is sweet. Instead of sugar, try incorporating cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice to more of your cooking as a way to cut back on sugar.
4. Incorporate different textures into your meals.
Okay, so you can't taste food as well as before, but you can still appreciate texture! "Many people who have lost their sense of smell because of COVID-19 find crunchy food enjoyable, so think of ways to add a layer of crunch," Dr. Hunter says. Adding nuts to your salad, granola in your oatmeal or yogurt, pumpkin seeds in stir-fry dishes...there's no shortage of ways to get creative.
5. Choose foods that are really hot or really cold.
Just like with texture, Dr. Hunter says you can play up the temperature of your food, too. For example, instead of a smoothie for breakfast, enjoy a smoothie ice-pop. (Here are nine easy recipes to try.) On the other extreme, enjoy piping hot ramen or bone broth. Just make sure you don't accidentally burn your tongue!
It's worth remembering that the vast majority of people who lose their sense of smell because of COVID-19 do regain it after a short period of time. But even if it's a temporary issue, it's still important to find ways to enjoy mealtime. Putting these tips to practice is a great way to start. You may find that some of the habits you develop now, like adding more texture to food, will stick with you even when your sense of smell returns. And don't forget to share what works for you with others who are struggling; no one should have to go through this alone.
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