Mary Brighton, MS, RDN
Hackensack Meridian Health Integrative Health & Medicine
BIO: Mary Brighton is a Registered Dietitian and French trained Culinary Nutritionist. As an Integrative Nutritionist with Hackensack Meridian Integrative Health & Medicine, she works with the Integrative team on a Five Pillars of Health and Well-Being (Sleep, Activity, Purpose, Nutrition, and Resilience) approach, with the ‘food as medicine’ philosophy as the basis of her nutrition counseling and classes with patients and the community. Mary strives to see every person, young to less young, optimize their health and live a longer more productive life.
I’ve noticed that when I have a cold, food doesn’t taste as good. Can you tell me why?
Smell is the most important sense in how we perceive the flavor of the food we eat. When there is a physical problem with processing odors, the pleasure in relation to our diet is diminished. Taste is mostly odor detection, so if food has lost its flavor, the problem is usually a smell issue. Our taste sense, which is a sensory system, is similar to sight and audio senses. The tongue’s taste buds perceive chemical signals from the food we eat and work together with the aromas in food, our memory, temperature and even the texture of the food to bring the final ‘yum!’ picture to the person eating.
Are there any disorders that affect our sense of smell?
Smell disorders are a common problem with several million Americans suffering either temporarily or chronically from this condition. Half of all diabetic persons have a diminished sense of smell and taste and almost all those with Alzheimer’s disease have lowered smell capacity. Viral infections like colds and flu, certain medications, smoking, alcohol abuse and other brain related disorders are linked with smell disorders. As we age, over a quarter of persons over 55 years old and about two-thirds over 80 years old have a lowered sense of smell.
Why should health professionals know about the taste and smell sense?
Unlike our sense of sight and hearing, which are apparent to the health professional, our loss of smell sensitivity is not detected as well, and this problem can have devastating effects on a person’s lifestyle and food enjoyment. Appetite and food intake can go up or down, and because the flavor of foods is linked to emotion and memory, a person with a smell disorder can feel isolated and even depressed. Genes also play a role in taste perception and certain genetic variations can affect how we perceive flavor. This is why cilantro tastes delicious for some of us but tastes like soap to others! By knowing how important smell is to food pleasure, we can guide a person to the different options available, some of which are related to food preparation and nutrient availability.
If we have a smell disorder, what can we do to help food be more flavorful?
In the aging population we see people trying to make food ‘taste’ better by adding more salt to their meals. Rather than adding table salt, we emphasize textures and temperatures, spices and herbs that help the mouth taste food but don’t involve the olfactory sense.
How can we keep our sense of taste and smell as we get older?
There are certain trace mineral deficiencies that are related to taste and smell, in particular zinc. Good oral hygiene and nutritious diet with adequate zinc are important to support our sense of smell and food enjoyment. In our practice, I talk to people about the taste of food and look for any underlying factors on why their appetite for flavorful food is down.