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What I learnt from losing my sense of taste

Food is more than “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”

What if this tasted of... nothing? 

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I just ate a scone for breakfast. I didn’t want a scone. I was planning to have a muffin, but when I got to the cafe I go to every Wednesday morning to write this newsletter, they were all out of muffins. So in the battle between scones and tea cakes (and porridge - noooo), the scone won.

I’m sharing this mundane breakfast-related fact because, when I sat down to write, I came across an article called “I miss eating” about a weight loss drug called Ozempic, which is the hot new thing amongst LAs rich, fabulous and thin. Apparently. Its USP? It makes food taste disgusting by triggering a chemical repugnance to food. (I’m over-simplifying massively, obviously. If you'd like more scientific detail, you can read the full article here (Opens in a new window). If you do, you will see that one of the case studies is a 53-year-old perimenopausal woman for whom Ozempic succeeded – I use the word loosely – when all else failed. Each to their own is my usual refrain, but I have to be honest and say I'm struggling to really mean that here. Seriously, WTF?!)

But before you all rush at once, let's really think about what it means: it doesn’t just make you indifferent to food, to be able to take or leave that bar of chocolate on those occasions when you know it's your mind that wants it, your body isn't particularly bothered; no, it makes your body physically rebel. Your favourite Friday night curry? That delicious Sunday roast? A beloved (to me) bowl of crumble and custard? No way. Your body is not having it. Literally, not having it, according to anecdotal evidence. Of course you lose weight, you're not bloody eating! (Are you still secretly Googling? I see you.)

Seriously though, I know it’s only a couple of weeks since I was raving about the almost-instant energy-giving properties of a vitamin B12 jab (Opens in a new window), so I'm far from adverse to a quick fix, but this sounds more like bulimia in a bottle. Even I – with my chequered relationship with food (Opens in a new window) – don’t need telling that this is NOT GOOD. (And not just because Ozempic is not a weight loss drug at all, but actually intended to treat diabetes and, presumably, there are people who genuinely need it who are being pushed to the back of the queue.)

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But the sense of taste is an interesting concept and not something I have paid very much attention to in the past. In fact, I've taken it for granted. Sure, I like food, but I’m not one of those massive foodies who'll try anything and can wax lyrical about flavour pairings. My idea of a flavour pairing is salt and vinegar.

Until I got covid and it decided to hang around for several months (yes, that again), I confess I thought losing interest in food was the holy grail. I have never been a person who can genuinely take or leave food, who sees it as fuel not fun. I have a friend who is. She is funny, smart, successful, insanely busy and genuinely not interested in what she puts in her mouth. She eats because she has to, to stay alive. Occasionally because the people around her are, to be polite, but only occasionally. To say she is slight would be a massive understatement. In all honesty, I used to aspire to that. (If only I could eat less, I'd be skinny like her, so the warped thought process went...) Because I had no grip on the role food really played in my life and zero concept of how important taste was to me. How much I looked forward to it at the end of the day. Then I lost my sense of taste and smell. For months. And months. You could burn toast right under my nose and I wouldn’t notice until the smoke alarm went off in my ear. I have never been able to stand the smell of fish and for the first time in our three-decade relationship J could have cooked it everyday if he wanted, without me making vomiting noises and ostentatiously throwing open the windows. 

I couldn’t taste and I couldn’t smell and thus I simply wasn’t interested. 

Who was this? And what had they done with Sam?

I'm aware of the irony. I’d tried every different method of eating less (or not at all) over the years. But actively not wanting to? A first. Things I had previously eaten almost everyday, like boiled eggs (I know, says the woman who hates the smell of fish…) became as revolting to me as they presumably are to everyone else. Can you imagine the consistency minus the taste? It was like eating a tyre. My relationship with chicken has permanently ended. Chicken without any taste, is just carpet. 

Now you might imagine this resulted in the magic 7-10lbs weight loss and dropping a jeans size. Silver lining and all that. But you'd be wrong. Because whether or not I could taste, I still ate. Because that’s what you do. (Or it's what I do.) But I genuinely had no interest. To my surprise, this long desired side effect – can’t taste, not interested therefore not hungry – was not just no fun, it didn't result in some twisted sense of achievement. It quickly became deeply unpleasant to respond to “do you fancy a takeaway?”with “up to you” and mean it, rather than my old people-pleasing noncommittalness. And then to shrug indifferently when it arrived and eat it anyway.

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Losing my sense of taste affected everything in a way I could never have anticipated: sitting down to supper at the end of a day's work, the once-treaty occasional breakfast in bed, going out for a meal, staying in with a takeaway, having dinner with friends... Now, I know the emotional eating brigade will have a few things to say about this. And they'd probably be right. Of course, we should eat when our body needs to not when our heart (or head or both) wants to. I'm not disputing that. But what my months in taste purgatory made me question is, what sort of life is that? A life I had spent most of mine in search of.

After four or five months my sense of smell began to return and slowly my taste followed. First to re-emerge were a handful of foods with divisively strong flavours. For quite some time, life consisted of curry, marmite and salt and vinegar crisps. Not exactly a healthy diet, but definitely a happier one.

Once when I interviewed Nigella Lawson (yeah yeah I have interviewed her more than once, showing off I know) she told me about her Stanislavski method of eating. (If you were never a drama student or lived with one – as I did – it’s what’s commonly called method acting and basically means really inhabiting the character). In terms of food, it loosely translates as “what do I really want to eat?” and then you only eat that, nothing else. If you don't want it, you don't eat it. In our house this has been distilled to “what does Stan want for dinner?” Or “Stan really fancies a bacon sandwich!” (What can I tell you? Maybe you have to be there...!) Anyway, that worked pretty well before the aforementioned long covid when neither Stan nor I gave much of a toss about food. It was only then it really dawned on me, that despite a lifetime at odds with food, how much I liked it. How much I valued it in my life. And what a difference it made to my mood. (I know, emotional eating red flag, but there you have it.)

Which is why when I saw the headline “I miss food” I immediately clicked on it. Because after decades of wishing it didn't matter in my life, I've realised it does. I like eating out. I look forward to a Friday night take away. Suddenly having that taken away taught me just how wrong that insidious phrase “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” is. Because, as if it needed saying, we are more than the size of our hips and a curry (for instance) shared with friends, salty fish and chips eaten by the sea, a sneaky spoonful stolen from a bubbling pan of chilli while the cook has turned the other way (sorry J), the comfort of a bowl of beans on toast when you’re feeling ropey (a habit picked up as a toddler and never lost), those are the moments that make up a life.

• What does food mean to you? If you could take a magic pill that made food taste repulsive, would you? 

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