When you’re struggling to eat because you can’t smell or taste, or what you can smell is disgusting, eating well can be a real challenge. Dr Duika Burges Watson, founder of the Altered Eating Network, offers some tried and tested advice:
All five of our senses are used when we eat: taste, sight, sound, feel and of course, smell. It’s the sensory experience that can make eating so pleasurable. If you’re missing smell or taste, make an effort to focus on the other senses to compensate for the gap. Use the Sensory Star to guide your eating experience.
Focus on how your food looks, sounds and feels. Really notice what you can taste: salt? sweetness?
People with smell disorders, particularly parosmia, can react very strongly to the smallest whiff of something. Bland foods are often easier to consume in this heightened state. Tofu and mushrooms are frequently reported to be palatable when other things may have you retching.
Take the heat out of what you eat. Aroma molecules are stimulated by heat so cool it down and you will have less molecules reaching your olfactory receptors. A cold jacket potato may be much more appealing than eating it hot. Salads are also easier for many to manage.
It’s agreed that there is no one set of food that everyone can tolerate, you have to experiment to find what works for you. Include palate cleansers in your experiments, they can sometimes help clear or settle things when the smell becomes too much. Lemon juice, citrus sorbet, mint and cinnamon can help. Other people have found cucumber, rosemary, bay leaf or olives can calm things down. Water is also helpful, but you won’t agree if you are one of the unlucky 15 percent that find the smell of water intolerable. See our item on When Water is Disgusting for more information.
Don’t be shy when it comes to experimenting. Channel the genius of chefs like Heston Blumenthal or Grant Achatz and do something differently. Shavings of frozen salad might be your new signature dish.
When you don’t have the aroma to satisfy you, different textures might fill the gap. Try and get a variety of crunch, snap, silk and chomp into your menu. When you start to think about the mouth feel, some of those familiar or pleasurable sensations can hit the spot.
For some people, there are days when eating seems impossible. However the consequences of not eating are serious and the resulting lack of energy will make it even harder to cope. When things are really bad, consider something like Huel, a nutritionally complete food. Protein and meal replacement shakes are another alternative. They don’t always have to be liquid: frozen shakes can be a comfort.
There is no getting around it, learning to live with altered eating is tough. Experimenting is time-consuming and tiring, the anxiety around what to eat next and fears it will always be this way take their toll. Take time to take a break and be kind to yourself. Recovery may be slow and it is likely that you won’t smell and taste things in the same way you did before, but you won’t always feel like this. The experience of countless people shows that in smell recovery, time really is the greatest healer.
If you find yourself unable to eat for more than a few days, please consult your doctor or nutritionist.