SALT LAKE CITY — While losing your sense of taste and smell isn’t the most serious symptom of COVID-19, it certainly can be one of the most annoying. One Salt Lake man has found a way to eat healthy and enjoy some food during his slow recovery.
Matthew Parrish, 51, is playing his upright bass for the first time in months. He is a COVID-19 long hauler after he and his wife first got sick in November.
“We got really sick! We both spent a couple days in the ER the first two weeks,” he said. Parrish has dealt with chest pain, extreme fatigue and blood clots on his lungs.
“It’s kind of scary because you start getting used to having chest pains and you’ve been to the hospital three or four times,” he described. “I had days where just going up and down the stairs, I’d end up in bed for the whole rest of the day.”
But one of the most frustrating symptoms? His ongoing lack of taste and smell.
“It’s really annoying! I guess I’m getting used to it,” he said. “(I) might as well be eating a piece of paper. It was really weird.”
Sometimes it’s not just the absence of his senses, but the presence of even more bizarre tastes and smells.
“I woke up one day thinking somebody’s burning something in the kitchen. I could smell something really strong,” he described, adding that no one else smelled what he did.
Other times, Parrish compares the smell to old grease.
Matthew Parrish says he now buys the habanero salsa he can find since it is one of the few things he can taste and enjoy. (Photo: KSL TV)
“When I smell food, everything smells the same. I can tell I’m smelling something, but it has this strange odor to it,” Parrish said.
He said he and his wife sometimes had to force themselves to eat. “When you can’t taste the food, it’s like a chore to eat,” he said.
Intermountain Healthcare’s Sara Browning, RDN, a dietician at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, recognizes this is a tough challenge.
“So much of what we do every day is around food,” she said. “It can be a really difficult emotional experience to not have that sense of taste and not to be able to enjoy foods that normally brought them comfort.”
Browning encourages people to try to find other ways to enjoy food, like focusing on texture. “Seeking out crunchy foods that are also healthy,” she suggested. “That might be things like apple slices, or it might be celery and crunchy peanut butter or it could be crackers or popcorn.”
It can be tempting for someone without a sense of taste to add more salt or sugar to their meal, but Browning warns against doing so. “Instead of increasing that salt and sugar, it’s a great idea to look to some spices,” she said. “(Such as) those really heightened flavors that we might get from cinnamon and ginger or garlic or cayenne pepper.”
“I’ve been buying the hot, hot habanero salsa!” Parrish said.
Browning says making wise choices is important for recovery. “When we’re trying to support our immune system, healthy foods that have a high fiber content that have a lot of vitamins and minerals are going to support the healing process in your body,” she explained. “If you’re not eating healthfully, your body can’t sustain the healing processes like it normally would.”
She suggests eating whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. She says if meat doesn’t sound appetizing, try instead eating yogurt or edamame. Browning also encourages people to try acidic foods like lemon and vinegar which have strong flavors that can sometimes be tasted even when taste is impaired. Adding a strong vinaigrette to a salad, or lemon to pasta could be an easy way to incorporate those foods, she said.
Parrish and his wife have been trying their best to give their bodies the right nutrients. “We’ve been consciously trying to eat healthier so that we can keep our immune system up, and our energy levels is really what you got to pay attention to,” he said.
For Parrish, that’s looked like more fruit, salads for lunch, and edamame beans for a yummy snack.
“I can’t really tolerate junk food. It kind of brings on the smell and makes you feel tired,” he said. “Your energy just disappears. So if you’re not eating something healthy, you’re gonna end up just laying in bed all the time feeling bad.”
Browning tells people to be patient and try to make at least one healthy choice a day. “Make sure that the majority of your food for the day is as healthy as you can muster when you’re sick,” she added. “Recognizing that no one’s going to be perfect — you’re not feeling well.”
Parrish has noticed his efforts are finally paying off. He says he is starting to feel better than he has in a while the last couple of weeks. “I’m happy that I’m finally starting to feel a little bit more energy,” he said.