COVID-19 Related Taste and Smell Loss: Impacts on Eating


Mallory Robertson, UNH Extension Intern, Nutrition Connections
  • cheerful coworkers tasting and smelling food in restaurant

The five basic human senses of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste allow us to experience and navigate the world around us. They have the power to influence us physically, socially, mentally, and emotionally. The COVID-19 pandemic has had enormous impacts on people all over the world in a variety of ways. One of these unique impacts has been the loss of taste and smell for many individuals diagnosed with COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, the CDC listed “new loss of taste and smell” as one of the major symptoms of the virus.1 80% of those who have contracted COVID-19 have experienced a decreased ability or complete loss of taste and smell.2 Current research has not explained the exact cause of this loss nor has it found a solution for regaining these senses.3 Long-term smell loss is likely linked to damage to sensory neurons which are responsible for detecting smells.2 Due to the strong connection between smelling and tasting, the damage to these sensory nerves can also have a significant impact on taste.

Studies have shown that 98% of individuals regain their senses within 3 weeks of symptom development, but the remainder of individuals are experiencing long-term sensory impacts.4 Although the remaining 2% does not seem like a large number, this is equivalent to over 1.6 million people in the United States living with impacted senses of smell and taste. Due to the serious nature of many other COVID-19 related complications, a limited ability to smell or taste may seem like a minor issue. However, this condition could be having much broader impacts, specifically on dietary intake.

Short-Term Impacts2-5

The number one driver of food choices in the United States is taste.6 Food is necessary for survival, but food is also a source of enjoyment in our lives. If taste is removed from the eating experience, some of that joy may also be removed. For someone who experiences loss of smell and taste during the period of COVID-19 illness, their diet may only be impacted for that short span of time. However, during this time, nourishing their bodies with food is essential to fighting off the virus and preventing further complications. Some of the common short-term impacts that sensory loss is having on eating include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Development of food aversions
  • More sensitivity to food textures
  • Decreased enjoyment of eating
  • Changes in taste or smells of certain foods
  • Decreased sensitivity to salt, sugar, and spice
  • Decreased ability to detect rotten food leading to increased foodborne illness risk

Long-Term Impacts

If these short-term effects are carried out for an extended period, taste loss could cause dietary impacts that decrease peoples’ overall well-being and happiness. Losing the joy in eating has increased depression and anxiety in some individuals.5 This has led to experiences of feeling socially isolated from interactions involving food, in addition to decreases in physical health.

Unintended weight changes have also been commonly associated with long-term smell and taste loss.3 Many individuals experience a decrease in food consumption due to their loss of appetite or enjoyment of food and eating. This overall disinterest in food has caused many individuals to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, which puts them at an increased risk for malnutrition.

In contrast, long-term loss of smell and taste has led to increased weight gain in some individuals. Many people are experiencing a partial loss of taste meaning that it takes more powerful flavors to satisfy a craving. These more flavorful foods tend to be higher in sugar, salt, and saturated fat, all which are associated with weight gain if eaten in excess. Similarly, others have reported the need to consume foods with unique textures to improve their eating experience. Many of which have stated that high calorie foods like chips, chocolate, and ice cream all gave them a small amount of enjoyment due to their textures.3

Tips If You Are Experiencing Lost of Taste

While there are a variety of challenges introduced by COVID-related taste and smell loss, many people have discovered a new style of eating that helps them to feel satisfied and provide their body with the energy it needs.

  1. Experiment with different textured foods to see what satisfies you
  2. For those experiencing a lack of appetite, try consuming smaller meals and snacks throughout the day to increase your intake
  3. Avoid adding too much salt or sugar to food. Instead try adding flavorful and low-sodium herbs and spices such as black pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, curry powder, garlic powder, or onion powder.
  4. Experiment with foods of different temperatures
  5. Add more acidity to food such as squeezing a lemon on top of your meal
  6. Step out of your comfort zone: try new nutritious foods that you may not have previously enjoyed. Maybe your altered taste could allow you to enjoy them now!

Resources:

1.   Symptoms of COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html. Published February 22, 2021. Accessed February 25, 2022.

2. Cooper KW, Brann DH, Farruggia MC, et al. COVID-19 and the Chemical Senses: Supporting Players Take Center Stage. Neuron. 2020;107(2):219-233. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2020.06.032

3.. Burges Watson DL, Campbell M, Hopkins C, Smith B, Kelly C, Deary V. Altered smell and taste: Anosmia, parosmia and the impact of long Covid-19. Andaloro C, ed. PLOS ONE. 2021;16(9):e0256998. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0256998

4.   Mastrangelo A, Bonato M, Cinque P. Smell and taste disorders in COVID-19: From pathogenesis to clinical features and outcomes. Neurosci Lett. 2021;748:135694. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2021.135694

5.   Risso D, Drayna D, Morini G. Alteration, Reduction and Taste Loss: Main Causes and Potential Implications on Dietary Habits. Nutrients. 2020;12(11):3284. doi:10.3390/nu12113284

6.   Liem DG, Russell CG. The influence of taste liking on the consumption of nutrient rich and nutrient poor foods. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2019;6. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00174

Mallory Robertson, UNH Extension Intern, Nutrition Connections

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