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March 24, 2021

I forgot how to feel hungry

Reflections from AbScent member, Navneet Kaur

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Navneet lost her sense of smell following Covid-19. This honest account shares how this has changed her relationship with food.

"You read that right. When you start gagging on plain water, your favourite curry and rice feels nothing more than eating wet rice, the sweetest desserts taste bland and everything else tastes like paper, hunger really loses its pride of place. No flavours bursting in the mouth, no digging in to comfort food, no snacking and no overeating. Enough for anyone to lose the motivation to eat at all.

In the last four and a half months, I have not only lost the ability to taste and smell but also the ability to feel hunger, and lots of weight. The struggle is real, and daily. Standing at 5’8’’ I am now a mere 49 kgs, having dropped nearly 2 dress sizes because food doesn’t tempt me anymore.

My 10-year-old niece commented ‘Massi, it must be wonderful to not be able to taste anything. Now you can eat all the foods you don’t like!’ And while this is true – I will now eat anything without protest – it’s the never being satiated that gets to me. And the endless wait to experience one of the simplest and earliest known joys to humankind – good food. There is, after all, a strong association between food and mood and a lot of our memories are made around the dinner table. What do you want to eat – the question that defines the setting of evenings out with friends, family reunions, dates and office parties. Eating together addresses the most basic of human needs, of being acknowledged, included and accepted. But it is easy to feel left out and alienated when you don’t enjoy food anymore.

Often I forget I am feeling peckish and can easily move my focus away from hunger because my brain-stomach communication system is broken. The way that hunger works is your stomach sends a signal to the brain which immediately starts thinking of where to find a snack and what to eat. This in turn makes you hungrier as you start thinking of enjoying that food item, making yourself crave it more and reach out for food faster. But when my tummy appeals to the brain, it replies with a ‘Meh’ because it has no temptation to go find food. These last few months I have had to teach myself to pay more attention to signals from my body since I don’t truly feel hungry anymore. I discovered that of late my tummy has started growling quite a bit. I am guessing it does so in protest and to stand up against the brain for not giving it what it needs, when it needs. A rumbling tummy is embarrassing and immediately makes me reach out for a bite to quieten it. Smart move. Stomach 1. Brain 0.

From finding it amusing and joking about it to getting frustrated, disappointed and resigning to it, I live with an endless craving of good food and comforting aromas. The smell of books, the first rain, freshly laundered clothes, good old tadka in the kitchen and my favourite people. It also worries me that odours won’t warn me against danger anymore – stale or rotting food, leaking gas and burning smells. Olfactory senses are meant to protect you from imminent threats.

But things stopped making any sense at all when I got sick because my brain fooled me into believing there was a nasty smell about. No joke. I gagged on a non-existent odour because of mind games my own brain played with me. Like bruh.

The condition is called phantosmia. Like phantom, there are no odours around but your brain makes up its own smells, ranging from pleasant to repulsive. One can also start smelling odours that simply aren’t present, eg I sometimes smell smoke when there is none. 

I have poor eyesight and have worn glasses since I was eight. Having lost two more senses, I often joke with my friends that I am eking out on 2.5 senses. By any measure, this is nothing compared to the loss of life as many succumbed to the nasty virus. Even so, if this means that scientists now have more data to play with, more subjects to trial on and are closer to finding treatment of impairments that were off the radar for not being ‘serious’ enough, I will gladly volunteer to be tested on. Give me jabs or pills to pop, just let me enjoy my ramen in peace please."

About the author

Navneet Kaur is a communications expert at a leading international school in New Delhi, India. 

Resources to help

If you’ve been affected by a change of appetite because of smell loss you might find these helpful:

Webinar

When food has lost its joy

Blogs

Experiment with Food Strategies

When water tastes disgusting

When food has lost its joy

Five ways to overcome eating challenges

AbScent works closely with the Altered Eating Network to develop understanding and support for eating with a smell disorder. You can find out more about their work here. https://research.ncl.ac.uk/alteredeating/