As healthcare providers and scientists accumulate new data about COVID-19, its multifaceted relationship with the human body is becoming clearer. One critical observation in this regard is the intimate two-way relationship between COVID-19 and food. By now, we know that apt nutrition is important to boost immunity and protect ourselves against COVID-19. At the same time, COVID-19 patients face issues related to nutrition and their ability to consume certain foods and drinks. This article focuses on how the dietary preferences of COVID-19 patients change due to their symptoms.
Food-related symptoms of COVID-19
COVID-19 causes a host of symptoms that can directly take a toll on a patient’s normal food habits. These include loss of appetite, upset stomach, sore throat, nausea, loss of smell and taste, difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), and anorexia.1
In fact, reports now claim that loss of taste and smell is among the top three symptoms of COVID-19. A study reported that over 41% of COVID-19 patients suffer from loss of smell or anosmia.2 Another found around 43% of COVID-19 patients reporting a loss of taste.3 Moreover, this symptom is also common in patients who do not show any other symptoms of the infection.4
Shift in dietary preferences due to physical problems related to COVID-19 symptoms
Hospitals have reported that since COVID-19 patients suffer from inflammation and anorexia, they are unable to eat adequately.5 In addition, COVID-19-related dysphagia can further affect food intake in patients.5 This can ultimately lead to malnutrition, which in turn can result in extended hospitalization. Since some patients cannot physically eat many foods adequately, some dietary habits change out of necessity, even if temporarily. For example, for COVID-19 patients who are unable to eat normally, doctors provide liquid foods or use the parenteral route.5
Effects of loss of taste and smell on dietary preferences in COVID-19 patients
The effects of loss of taste and smell on COVID-19 patients vary widely from one patient to the next.1 The suddenness of occurrence of this symptom is perhaps the only common observation. This means that for many patients, dietary preferences change suddenly. Some COVID-19 patients found themselves unable to withstand the smell and taste of eggs in the matter of a day. Others are unable to eat onions, garlic, meat, and fruits, or drink coffee and alcoholic beverages such as wine.1,6
Meanwhile, one patient found that yogurt was one of the only foods they were able to eat without a problem.1 Another mentioned vodka and orange-flavored alcohol as the only alcoholic beverages they could consume.1 Yet another found solace in eating cheese and sugar snap peas.7
So, why do so many COVID-19 patients lose their sense of smell and taste? Studies have hinted at various possible pathways for this. Some suggest that coronavirus may infect sustentacular cells or cells that assist the neurons that enable our sense of smell.2,4 Also, though to a lower extent, coronavirus may infect the olfactory receptor neurons that enable our sense of smell.4 Other reports attribute the loss of smell and taste to the increase in levels of the pro-inflammatory molecule interleukin-6.2
COVID-19 symptoms can drastically affect smell and taste functions in some patients. These symptoms, together with others, can make it difficult for patients to consume certain foods and beverages. The good thing is that we can find ways to expedite healing and recovery. Doctors recommend that an appropriate balance of proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins, probiotics, and water is crucial for a quick recovery.5 Studies also suggest that omega-3 supplements may help recover from the post-COVID-19 smell and taste loss.8 Plus, you can always take help from your provider to create a dietary plan to overcome your COVID-19 symptoms promptly.
At the same time, trial and error may be a good start to make food taste better. Try out new foods or prepare old foods with new recipes to adapt to your new taste and smell preferences. Also, remember that sour foods trigger salivation which lets food particles cover all the taste buds and thus enhances the taste.9 So, drinking lemonade before a meal may help. If you cannot eat meat because of your taste- and smell-related symptoms, ensure that your diet still includes enough protein. Try eating tofu, peanut butter, fish, or chicken to meet your protein requirements.9 You could also season your food with basil, cilantro, and other herbs to improve its taste while preserving nutritional value.9 These methods may help overcome COVID-19-related loss of taste and bring you a step closer to your normal eating habits.
1. Burges Watson D, Campbell M, Hopkins C, Smith B, Kelly C, Deary V. Altered Smell and Taste: anosmia, parosmia and the impact of long Covid-19. medRxiv. 2020. Available at: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.11.26.20239152v1.full.
2. Marshall M. COVID’s toll on smell and taste: what scientists do and don’t know. Nature News Explainer 2021; https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00055-6.
3. Coelho DH, Kons ZA, Costanzo RM, Reiter ER. Subjective changes in smell and taste during the COVID-19 pandemic: a national survey—preliminary results. Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. 2020;163(2):302-306. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0194599820929957.
4. Mullol J, Alobid I, Mariño-Sánchez F, et al. The loss of smell and taste in the COVID-19 outbreak: a tale of many countries. Current allergy and asthma reports. 2020;20(10):1-5. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11882-020-00961-1.
5. Brugliera L, Spina A, Castellazzi P, et al. Nutritional management of COVID-19 patients in a rehabilitation unit. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2020;74(6):860-863. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41430-020-0664-x.
6. Brewer K. Parosmia: ‘Since I had Covid, food makes me want to vomit’. BBC News. January 28, 2021. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-55824567.
7. Moss A. Coronavirus loss of smell: ‘Meat tastes like petrol’. BBC News. August 28, 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-53903804.
8. Vaira LA, Hopkins C, Petrocelli M, et al. Smell and taste recovery in coronavirus disease 2019 patients: a 60-day objective and prospective study. The Journal of Laryngology & Otology. 2020;134(8):703-709.
9. Demarco C. Lost your sense of taste or smell? 8 tips for eating well. 2021; https://www.mdanderson.org/cancerwise/lost-your-sense-of-taste-or-smell-due-to-covid-19-or-cancer-treatment–8-tips-for-eating-well.h00-159458478.html. Accessed April 2, 2021.