Losing your sense of smell or taste after COVID is not only distressing, it could also lead to further health problems, especially if it causes you to alter your diet. Although there are no proven treatments to bring back your taste or smell, and research into this symptom of COVID is still in its early days, making some small changes to your diet may help reset your senses and keep you healthy while you fully recover from the virus.

Recent estimates reveal that a loss of smell affects 48 percent of COVID-19 patients globally while another 41 percent experience a loss of taste. These common symptoms can persist in some people for weeks and even months, as part of what doctors call "long covid."

The impact of changes to smell and taste

Some people experience an altered sense of taste or smell, which not only puts them off the usual foods that they previously enjoyed, but can have unexpected consequences and be dangerous. A few of the potential hazards are not being able to smell smoke during a fire or to detect gas if there is a leak. More commonly, they are unable to detect spoiled milk or food that's gone bad, resulting in food poisoning.

Not being able to smell the special scent of a newborn baby can lead to missing an olfactory connection with your infant, and alterations in smell can lead to someone going off their partner – since scent is a big part of attraction. These are distressing outcomes.

One study concluded that this alteration in senses due to COVID led to "severe disruption to daily living" impacting on mental and physical health, intimacy and social bonding, and a reduced desire and ability to eat and prepare food.

Why does COVID cause changes to smell and taste?

Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes these symptoms, which they refer to as anosmia (loss of smell) and ageusia (loss of taste). Some research indicates that the virus affects the sensory neurons in the nose that affect someone's smell while other studies suggest COVID causes inflammation and cell death in the gustatory system, which is responsible for the perception of state and flavor.

There's more research to be done before we understand how this issue occurs and what doctors can do to treat it.

Can loss of smell and taste be cured?

Some people will recover their sense of smell or taste naturally, and fully, according to a review study that indicates that after two months 54 percent of patients got their smell and taste back and were 100 percent normal, while another study showed that after four weeks, 90 percent of patients experienced an improvement in taste and smell.

Because research into cures for smell and taste dysfunction is in its infancy, there is very little that doctors can prescribe. Corticosteroids that suppress inflammation have been used effectively in some cases,  but experts advise that these types of medications have side effects including fluid retention, high blood pressure, and mood swings.

Smell training

Smell training involves sniffing at least four different odors twice a day for several weeks and has emerged as a cheap, easy, and side-effect-free treatment option. Smell training existed long before the pandemic for people who had lost their smell due to other disorders, but it has recently gained more popularity.  People should choose scents that represent the four smell categories — floral, citrus, spice, and resin – to help stimulate their sense of smell, according to an article in the British Medical Journal. The researchers suggested that any smell that's available to you can work, as long as you feel comfortable with it –such as coffee, pepper, or fresh herbs. The exercise involves sniffing it for ten seconds in the morning and evening to try to trigger your olfactory senses to kick back in.

What to eat if you lose your taste

A healthy diet is important for COVID recovery and adding more plant-based foods to your diet – full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals – gives your body the nutrients it needs to function optimally. By fueling energy reserves, boosting the immune system, and supporting mental wellbeing.

Some people may go off eating healthy foods due to lack of taste, and start adding more salt, fat, or sugar to meals for flavor. Experts warn that over months, this can lead to worsening of conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease. Loss of taste may cause some people to lose weight, while others to gain weight, and in severe cases, people may develop depression since they lose their enjoyment around food.

Making small changes can help you to eat a balanced diet while avoiding adverse health effects or weight gain or loss. Some foods may actually help you to normalize your senses.

Eat the "rainbow" of vegetables and fruits

Aim to include as many different colored vegetables and fruit in your everyday diet as possible, since a 2021 review suggested that adoption of a plant-based diet could be a strategy to tackle long COVID symptoms The pigments in plant foods contain different beneficial compounds called phytonutrients, so including an array of colorful fruits and vegetables gives your body the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it needs to recover from the virus. The study authors suggest a plant-based approach is beneficial for supporting sleep, mental health, and musculoskeletal pain post-COVID, and speeds recovery.

Eat your fruit and vegetables individually, as taste disorder experts advise that combining ingredients in single dishes such as casseroles or one-pot meals can mask the individual food flavors and dilute taste further, causing you to eat more. To further stimulate your senses, go heavy into Vitamin-C-rich fruits and vegetables with stronger flavors such as grapefruit, lemons, limes, kiwi, tomato sauce, peppers, fall squash, and leafy greens like tart arugula.

Add herbs and spices

Using aromatic herbs and hot spices to add more flavor can help someone avoid adding more sugar or salt (which can be detrimental to weight and overall health). Many natural herbs and spices contain beneficial compounds and anti-inflammatory agents as well as nutrients such as vitamin C and magnesium, so not only do you improve flavor when you add them to dishes, it may actually help your recovery too.

Odor molecules enter through both the nose and mouth, stimulating smell and taste.  Research indicates the volatile compounds in herbal plants are beneficial for bumping up the impact of these foods. Include ginger, turmeric, cayenne, thyme, mint, parsley, and oregano in both meals and herbal teas to stimulate your smell and taste buds to the max.

Eat zinc-rich foods

Zinc is an essential mineral that is important for immune function and our sense of smell and taste. Because zinc helps regenerate the cells in the parts of the body involved in smell and taste its has historically been used to treat dysfunctions.

According to a recent review study, altered smell and taste in viral infections such as COVID may be linked to zinc deficiency. One recent study found that supplementing zinc may be a treatment for loss of smell and taste, but the effectiveness and dosages need to be further studied.

The recommended daily amount of zinc for adults is 8 milligrams for females and 11 milligrams for males. Animal proteins contain zinc, and some experts believe that phytates in certain plant foods may prevent zinc from being absorbed. If you are eating plant-based or are avoiding meat and seafood, you can still get zinc by including the following foods on a regular basis:

  • seeds such as pumpkin, chia, hemp, and linseed
  • beans, chickpeas, and lentils
  • nuts including cashew, walnut, and almond
  • oatmeal
  • whole-grain bread
  • quinoa

Tryptophan rich foods

A diet deficient in the amino acid tryptophan could be linked to loss of taste and smell in COVID patients, according to another recent study. Tryptophan is converted in the body to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which modulates the neurons (nerve cells) involved in smell and taste. You can consume tryptophan in a plant-based diet by eating the following foods:

  • leafy green vegetables
  • broccoli
  • watercress
  • soybeans
  • pumpkin seeds
  •  mushrooms
  • green peas

The Bottom Line: A plant-based diet can help stimulate your senses and keep you healthy while you recover

Be sure to include a rainbow of different colors, zinc and tryptophan foods, and fragrant herbs and spices for optimum nutrients and plenty of flavor. Additionally, try smell training with whatever strong-smelling foods or essential oils that you have at home.

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