When you lose your ability to taste or smell, does that help or hinder your diet? And how could it impact weight-loss efforts?

Brierley Horton, M.S., RD
February 11, 2021
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Credit: PeopleImages / Getty Images / Graphics by Julian Birchman

I've lost my ability to smell before—usually thanks to a gnarly cold. I bet you have, too. I've also hindered my sense of taste after scorching my tongue on something I was too eager to drink or eat that needed more time to cool off. I'm guessing you've done that as well. But I've never lost both at the same time—nor have I lost taste and smell in what felt like complete entirety.

Enter COVID-19. On Day 6 of having COVID symptoms (and around Day 4 or 5 after my official diagnosis), I woke up and immediately knew something was off. I grabbed a scented candle on my bedside table and held it under my nose. Nothing. I then stuck my nose way down into the candle. Still nothing.

I'm not alone. You know this: losing taste and smell is something that comes with COVID-19 for some. Luckily, even though it's annoying—it's one of the milder symptoms of what can be a very serious, and sometimes deadly, disease. I was grateful my symptoms had been mild, and hoped that would remain the case.

After recovering, I wanted to understand how common—or uncommon—it was for people to lose their sense of taste and smell. Well, according to a September 2020 review study, published in the journal OTO Open, losing taste or smell or both is a fairly common symptom of COVID-19. Researchers pulled data from 32 studies and calculated out just how many people who have had COVID lost taste, smell, and taste and smell. Here's what they found:

  • 48% lose their sense of smell
  • 41% lose taste
  • 35% lose both smell and taste

But, those statistics are global estimates. What I found even more interesting is that among people in North America who get COVID, 66% lose both taste and smell. That's a pretty big jump from the global average of 35%!

About 10% of the time, virus-induced chemosensory (aka smell and taste) dysfunction is the first COVID symptom. Rarely, however, is it the only symptom," says Starr Steinhilber, M.D., an internist and professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Even when someone reports their smell or taste is gone, when objectively tested, a smaller proportion actually had a full loss of smell or taste," she adds. Whether or not I fell into the category of "full loss" is something I'll never know.

"The current understanding of why COVID affects your smell is related to the lining of the nose, which has specific proteins that allow the virus to enter," adds Steinhilber. Similar to how there are variations in COVID, there are also genetic variations in your nose, and both lead to the variability of who gets their senses affected. Another way to put it, she says: "The doors in your nose may be slightly different than the doors in your neighbor's nose, and the COVID virus you contracted may have slightly different keys to open those doors than your neighbor's COVID keys."

At first, the lack of taste or smell wasn't so bad. My kids joked that they wanted me to try eating kibble from the dog food bin. (I couldn't bring myself to do it.) I only ate when I was truly hungry because my appetite wasn't revved by anything. I tried to take a positive view: the lack of taste and smell was my post-holiday diet.

But by Day 3, it started to take a toll on my mental health. Some folks in this world eat just to live. I am not just an eat-to-live person. My morning coffee brings me great joy. Planning dinner is typically enjoyable (minus the nights my kids seem to be the pickiest eaters on the planet). When I need a pick-me-up, I turn to a cozy matcha latte or baking a quick bread. See? Live to eat over here.

I began reaching out to anyone I knew who had recovered from COVID, and asked for a detailed report on whether they lost taste or smell or both and when it started to return.

Turns out I wasn't alone in my view that losing these senses was like an unwelcome weight-loss diet. One good friend of mine who also lost her taste and smell lost 10 pounds. Another with the same symptoms lost 8 pounds. I couldn't help it—that line from The Devil Wears Prada kept running through my head: "I'm one stomach flu away from my goal weight."

(Disclaimer: I am certainly not recommending you get COVID to fuel your weight-loss efforts— or the stomach flu or any illness for that matter. Weight lost that quickly is typically regained shortly after you return to your usual eating habits. And, anecdotally, I know a couple of folks who had that exact regain experience with COVID-related weight loss.)

However, not everyone will lose their appetite. I heard differently from others. "I lost my taste and smell for five days and gained a little weight," says Chaney, a hair stylist in Alabama that I spoke with. "Comfort foods were important (and I stopped my exercise routine and I allowed myself to rest) because the surprise effect was that the memory of taste took over. So, comfort foods like chicken noodle soup, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes, and spaghetti were what I ate because I remembered how they made me feel and how they tasted."

How exactly your smell gets lost has different possible mechanisms, but this key analogy is the most likely explanation. "Once the COVID key opens your nose door, it kills a specific type of cell in your nose lining. That cell then regenerates after about 10 days, which is why we see an acute loss of smell and a quick recovery," says Steinhilber.

One month later, my taste has returned in full force and most of my smell has. But it wasn't as if a switch flipped one day and returned my senses in the same way the virus removed my senses with such immediacy. I craved strong flavors—sweets, carbs, salty items. Wine was disgusting, but beer was delicious. And with time (and a whole lot of patience) my usual plant-forward way of eating—anointed with a glass or so of wine—returned.

Here's the big picture takeaway, though: if you lose your taste, smell or both after contracting COVID-19 (and are lucky enough to fully recover), know that it's likely going to be short-lived, as will the impact on your waistline. Continue to heed the advice of the CDC and your local public health department to reduce your risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.