Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
For many people, one of the most noticeable lingering effects of being infected with COVID-19 has been a loss of smell or taste.
One study found that 69% of people had changes in their sense of taste or smell immediately after a coronavirus infection. About 14% still hadn’t fully regained it three months later .
Women were slightly more likely than men to lose their taste, according to a study by a postdoctoral fellow in Philadelphia. That same research found that loss of taste was more common in people ages 36-50, though it didn’t provide a clear picture of who was most at risk for those symptoms .
Regardless of age, gender, and other factors, there’s no question that losing your sense of taste or smell is frustrating — particularly when you don’t know if, or when, it will return.
For people who have struggled with eating disorders, that angst can be even more pronounced.
Losing senses can lead to overeating or under eating
In many upper respiratory infections, our senses of taste and smell become briefly altered. An aromatic cup of tea may not stimulate nasal passages in quite the same way, and a flavorful soup may taste bland.
But those senses usually take a very short sabbatical. With COVID-19, health experts believe that the virus can invade the nerve cells, causing inflammation in the surrounding cells that are associated with our senses of taste and smell.
Losing those senses can make chewing feel like a difficult task. Not being able to fully experience the taste and smell of food can cause people to eat considerably less than they normally would or skip meals entirely.
“We rely on all five senses to navigate the world, and our visual sense is the most powerful stimulus,” Tanya Vasunia, a psychologist and published researcher based in Mumbai, told Vogue in May 2021 . “When what you taste and smell doesn’t match up to what you see, it can be extremely disorienting.
“If you suffer from eating disorders or body image issues, the change can be quite triggering. It can spur a further reduction in the intake of food or trigger anxiety about the eating process because it doesn’t taste and feel the same anymore, and it was already uncomfortable to begin with.”
For others, it can be quite the opposite. Looking to do anything possible to regain their taste and smell, some people will exercise every option, trying a bevy of foods with the hope of finding something to satisfy their cravings. That can lead to overeating.
Solutions for those who are struggling
It’s too early to fully understand the relationship between losing smell and taste and disordered eating. Researchers have tried to connect the dots, but sample sizes are small. Anecdotally, it can exacerbate what was already a complicated relationship for those who are in recovery.
There’s also not a clear-cut remedy for expediting the process and regaining these senses. Many people on social media have offered solutions for what helped them, but those are also anecdotal.
Experts seem to agree that olfactory training, a series of sniffing exercises, can provide at least some help for certain people. Dr. Kathleen Kelly, an otolaryngologist at Ohio State University, recommends starting with a group of easily identifiable aromatics, like cinnamon, lemon, and peppermint, and then gradually adding in less discernible smells after a few weeks.
“What you’re trying to do is help damaged nerve endings regenerate and remember what you love so much about a particular flavor,” Kelly told Columbus Monthly Health .
If you’re finding that a temporary loss of taste and smell is complicating your recovery from an eating disorder, the best thing to do is reach out to a trusted source. Whether that’s your physician, dietitian, nutritionist, therapist, or anyone else who has played a positive role in your recovery journey, they’ll be able to offer guidance that’s unique to you and your needs.
They may also be able to provide resources and connect you with others who have experienced a loss of taste or smell — both those who had COVID-19 and those who didn’t — to understand how their experiences with regaining their senses and maintaining their eating disorder recovery are going.
Much like when you first reached out for professional intervention for an eating disorder, help is available. And confiding in those who have provided guidance on your journey is an excellent place to start.
References: Soraas, A., Kalleberg, K., Dahl, J., Soraas, C., Myklebust, T., Axelsen, E., Lind, A., Baevre-Jensen, R., Jorgensen, S., Istre, M., Kjetland, E., & Ursin, G. (Aug. 26, 2021). Persisting symptoms three to eight months after nonhospitalized COVID-19, a prospective cohort study. PLoS One 16(8): e0256142. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0256142.  Hannum, M., Koch, R., Ramirez, V., Marks, S., Toskala, A., Herriman, R., Lin, C., Joseph, P., & Reed, D. (Feb. 16, 2022). Taste loss as a distinct symptom of COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Chemical Senses. Vol. 47. https://doi.org/10.1093/chemse/bjac001.  Khatib, H. (May 18, 2021). How losing my sense of taste and smell due to COVID helped me rebuild my relationship with food. Vogue. https://www.vogue.in/culture-and-living/content/how-losing-my-sense-of-taste-and-smell-due-to-covid-helped-me-rebuild-my-relationship-with-food.  Stallings, B. (Feb. 3, 2022). Olfactory training can help in the recovery from COVID-19 anosmia, loss of smell. Columbus Monthly Health. https://www.columbusmonthly.com/story/lifestyle/features/2022/02/03/how-get-your-sense-smell-back-after-covid/9316673002/.
About Timberline Knolls
Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit www.timberlineknolls.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on March 17, 2022. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on March 17, 2022 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC