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How to enjoy food despite poor sense of smell

Have you ever had a sinus infection or cold that affected your sense of smell to the point where you couldn’t taste your food? New research is showing that as we get older the way we taste food changes, and not in a good way. Our sense of taste enables us to taste the five main tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and astringent or umami, (a savory meaty taste). But it’s our sense of smell that allows us to enjoy the flavors that distinguish one food from another, such as vanilla from chocolate. The sense of smell allows us to distinguish between wine, coffee and the flavors of herbs and spices. If you pinch your nose and sample a taste of ice cream, you would still know that it’s cold, creamy and sweet, but you might not know what flavor you are eating.

food presentation
Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

Elderly people typically experience a slowing down of metabolism, which slows down appetite. According to research by Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center, our ability to smell peaks by age 40. The decline continues, with it increasing after 60. Sixty percent of people between 65 and 80 have major olfactory impairment, and more than 80 percent after 80. The problem of a fading sense of smell is particularly problematic among people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who often want to eat only sweets and ice cream.

Men are more impaired than women, and some medications have a negative effect on the sense of smell and taste. Smoking doesn’t help, and diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are associated with a poor sense of smell. In fact, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have linked a poor sense of smell with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Problems associated with loss of smell
• Lack of appetite leads to unwanted weight loss
• Disinterest in food can lead to less social interaction that involves dining with friends
• Oblivious to smell of burning/smoke and/or gas
• Unaware of eating spoiled food

What can you do?
10 Ways to increase the flavor and enjoyment of food
1. Stop smoking
2. Add spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, thyme, basil, and oregano. Not only are they delicious, but they also contain antioxidants that support your overall health.
3. Eat on a red plate. It supposedly increases appetite.
4. Drink plenty of water! Dehydration or a dry mouth can affect your sense of smell.
5. Use a humidifier if you live in a dry climate, especially during the winter when central heat can dry out your nose and affect your sense of smell and taste.
6. Consider using a neti pot or nasal rinse (Neil Med) to keep your mucous membranes hydrated.
7. Add mashed avocado into other foods. They are rich in essential fatty acids.
8. Replace flavored yogurts, which are high in sugar, with Greek whole milk, plain yogurt. Add pureed fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, peaches, etc. and honey or a pinch of coconut sugar, if desired.
9. Replace table salt with garlic and Parmesan cheese for more flavor.
10. Sprinkle nutritional yeast on salads and popped corn. It’s high in B-vitamins and contains protein.

1. Burling, Stacey. “As We Age, Declining Sense of Smell Affects Appetite. Philly News, 7/20/14
2. Doty, Richard L. et al
PLoS ONE 7(10): e45544. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045544

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