Eating without tasting is doable, if not delightful. But it's not just taste that makes food appealing: Smell plays a major role as well. After all, for so many tantalizing foods — think: buttered popcorn, brewing coffee, bacon on the grill — scent is a big part of the draw.
So it's understandable that when these senses are impaired, eating isn't as interesting.
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"As a result, we might not get the nutrients we need," Heather Wolfe, MPH, RDN, LD, a dietitian at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in New Hampshire, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Or, she points out, it can lead to overcompensating with sweet and salty foods.
Both the ability to smell and taste are tied to cranial nerves in the brain.
It's possible to lose just one of these senses, and the loss can range from minimal to severe and from short- to long-term, Katrina Hartog, MPH, RD, CDN, certified health education specialist and clinical nutrition manager at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
What Causes These Senses to Erode?
“It can happen with common colds and coronavirus, but it's also a common long-term symptom of cancer treatment,” Hartog says.
In fact, anosmia (the medical term for loss of smell) and ageusia (loss of taste) are often early symptoms of COVID-19, per a May 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis in the journal Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery.
Other causes include head trauma, smoking, certain diseases and medications, sinus infections or allergies and simply getting older, per the Mayo Clinic.
Even when eating doesn't have the same appeal, it's still essential — without proper nutrition, your body can't function.
Here, experts share how you can stay fed, and take in the nutrition you need, when your sense of smell and taste aren't as sharp as usual.
1. Brush Your Teeth
Don't neglect your oral hygiene if these senses are impaired.
"Keeping your mouth and tongue really clean is super important," Hartog says.
Aim to brush or clean your mouth after every meal or snack. "That can start you with a good base of being able to taste any foods that you put into your mouth," Hartog says.
2. Reset Your Taste Buds
Sugar-free hard candies can be particularly helpful if your senses are diminished or changed due to cancer treatments. Sucking on these candies removes bad mouth tastes and can act as a bit of a palate cleanser, Hartog says.
Gum can also be helpful, per the American Cancer Society.
3. Experiment With Flavors
"In our mouths, we have a lot of receptors that aren't connected to taste buds," Wolfe points out. The five tastes are sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami.
Try adding spices and bold flavors — such as black pepper, cinnamon, garlic, ginger and so on — to potentially create a more interesting sensory experience, Wolfe says.
Cooking with sauces and marinades can also be helpful, per the Mayo Clinic.
"Having a plan for your meals and your snacks can really save you nutritionally when you're experiencing loss of taste and smell."
4. Track What Tastes Good
Even if your sense of smell and taste are diminished, some foods may still hit the spot.
"Continuously trying different flavors and experimenting is really helpful," Hartog says. Not only can it reveal if your senses are returning, but it's also a way to find new foods that are appealing.
Try keeping a food journal to track which foods taste good, and which do not, Hartog recommends.
5. Add a Bit of Acid
As with spice, acid is a strong, bright flavor that may still taste vivid even if your senses are dulled, Wolfe says.
Try using lemon juice or vinegar to brighten up food, and see if it becomes more tempting.
6. Eat Slower
Instead of scarfing down food because eating has ceased to be joyous, slow down your pace.
"If we slow it down and chew more, more flavors might be released from the food we're eating," Wolfe says.
Savoring helps engage the senses, too, she says. "When we slow it down a little bit more, we're paying more attention to sounds, and touches, and textures, and we're not so focused on the absence of flavor."
7. Set the Stage
Ditch the takeout containers and take a few moments to create an enjoyable ambiance, Wolfe recommends. Set the table, use cloth napkins, light a candle and play some music. It can also be helpful to eat with others. "Then you can shift your focus less on the food, and more on the conversation with family or friends," she says.
Conversely, you may find it helpful to engage in distracted eating, Hartog says. Typically, mindless eating — that is, eating while watching TV or scrolling through phone alerts — isn't something dietitians recommend. But because distracted eating tends to lead to eating more, it can be helpful if a person is struggling to eat enough calories and nutrition, she says.
Sometimes people going through cancer treatment find that food tastes metallic. If that’s the case, try switching to plastic cutlery, per the American Cancer Society.
8. Plan Out Your Meals and Snacks
When you don't have a desire to eat and don't feel rewarded by the act of eating, meal planning is essential, Wolfe says. Without that prep work, it's likely you'll undereat or opt for sweet or salty foods.
"Having a plan for your meals and your snacks can really save you nutritionally when you're experiencing loss of taste and smell," Wolfe says.
9. Take Advantage of Other Senses
Food's texture, temperature and appearance are a big part of the eating experience. (As the old truism goes, "We eat with our eyes first.")
But when your senses of smell or taste are reduced, these elements become even more important and can make a big difference in how much you consume. "Maybe they're more minor players usually, but we can play these up," Wolfe says.
Try these strategies to explore other senses:
- Contrast textures: Mix in something crunchy with something creamy, Wolfe recommends — for example, you can add nuts to a bowl of oatmeal. The crunch of foods (think: popcorn) or even the sound of it (like a sizzling hot dish) can also make food more tempting.
- Play with temperature: Top a bowl of hot butternut squash soup with a cool scoop of yogurt to give yourself a hot/cold sensation in your mouth, Wolfe suggests.
- Pay attention to plating: Make meals that use vibrant colors, use pretty plates and in general strive to make the food look attractive. When food looks good, we're likely to eat more of it, Hartog notes.
When your sense of taste or smell is a bit off — as opposed to being missing completely — you might find cold foods more tolerable, Hartog says. (Hot foods have more of an odor, which could be a factor.) Try eating smoothies, salads, sandwiches and other foods that can be served cold or at room temperature.
- Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery: "The Prevalence of Olfactory and Gustatory Dysfunction in COVID-19 Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis"
- Mayo Clinic: "Is loss of taste and smell normal with aging?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier"
- American Cancer Society: "Taste and Smell Changes"
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