Katherine Ryan is one of many people who lost their sense of smell and taste after getting Covid – but as a new mum, she was happy to forego nasty nappy smells.
While the Canadian comedy star isn’t complaining about this particular Covid silver lining however, she’s not so pleased about still not being able to smell other, more pleasant scents.
“Covid wasn’t too bad, and I didn’t notice at all that I’d lost my sense of taste and smell – it really crept up on us,” says Ryan, 38, who caught Covid last summer at the same time as her husband, Bobby.
“I’m not complaining too much though, because it’s bad smells that I mostly can’t smell, and with a nine-month-old baby at home, that’s always a plus!”
The couple didn’t realise at first that their senses had been affected – until one dinner time, when Bobby noticed he couldn’t smell the garlic they were preparing.
Ryan then started trying to smell other pungent household items like candles and shampoo, and realised her smell was affected too.
It’s a common issue – a recent poll of 2,000 people who’ve had Covid, by recipe box company Gousto, found 71% had lost their sense of smell (parosmia) and taste.
“It can be disheartening because it catches you by surprise,” says Ryan, who is mum to baby Fred with Bobby, and also has a daughter, Violet, 12, from a previous relationship.
“There are really specific smells that I can’t smell any more, certain candles etc. Smell is linked to a lot of memories, and I do love dinner time and the flavours aren’t as strong. It all goes hand-in-hand.”
Ryan – a regular on TV panel shows like 8 Out Of 10 Cats and Never Mind The Buzzcocks – thinks she now has around 80% of her smell back.
“I think I’m pretty close to getting all my sense of smell back – I describe it now as I can smell ‘quietly’. It has really impacted my whole experience of flavours in the kitchen though,” she adds. “I still enjoy food and I’m really lucky because I can taste, but it isn’t as strong. Things have tasted slightly more bland since Covid.”
Losing your taste and smell can have hygiene implications too, as Ryan’s found with Bobby. “He’d go golfing and say, ‘Do you know, I don’t smell of sweat anymore’, and he just thought he smelled great all the time,” she says wryly.
“Sweat is one of the smells I can’t smell, and even yesterday he had his arm up after golf and I had my face buried in his shirt, and he said, ‘Do I smell?’, and I said, ‘You don’t – there’s something making my eyes water, but I can’t smell a bad smell’.
“Maybe life has seemed a little bit more bland,” she observes. “It’s emotionally impacting people, and the last thing we need right now with all the doom and gloom is to be robbed of what little joy people can count on in their lives, which is delicious, flavoursome smells – smelling the rain, smelling your shower gel, smelling garlic cooking in the kitchen.”
She enjoys cooking but says Bobby cooks more and tends to be “lead chef” in the family. “He likes to have control, and he does a great job.
I tend to freestyle – my mother always said, ‘If you can read, you can cook’ – and I’m not prescriptive, I’ll just chuck things in. My husband really likes to measure everything and cooks it for exactly the length of time a recipe says to cook it, but I cook a bit like jazz music.”
When asked if she’s interested in healthy eating, Ryan firmly declares: “No, not at all!” – but she admits her diet happens to be quite healthy.
“The way I eat is accidentally quite healthful,” she says. “I have a really inclusive diet, so I don’t ever think, ‘I mustn’t have that’, but instead I think, ‘Did I have enough veg today, did I get all the vitamins I need, am I eating enough lean protein, did I eat any fish this week, am I getting enough vitamin C in the damp cold of England during a pandemic?’
“I always think about drinking lots of water and getting lots of lean protein and fruit and veg, and I’m very lucky that I like those things.
I love big colourful salads and naturally really like healthy food. But then I also like cheese and fried onions and potato everything, and buffalo sauce, and I really love wine, and a bit of chocolate and crisps.
But I don’t really eat bread or pasta very often, and I think that makes things easier – I don’t feel as tired as I think I would if I was eating loads of bread.”
The key to a good diet, she believes, is making sure you’re including the right nutrients among whatever else you choose to eat.
“To me, especially as the mother of an impressionable teenage girl, I think the way our mother’s generation thought about food really needs reframing, so the next generation can be thinking about what they’re eating, rather than what they’re not eating,” she says.
“If my daughter and her friends want to have a takeaway once in a while, I never say, ‘That’s bad for you, you can’t have that’. I just say, ‘What did you eat today that’s going to sustain you and is healthy?’ And if they give me a long list, they can go off and have a chocolate milkshake, or whatever they want.”
Does Ryan eat takeaways herself? “No, I really don’t, largely because I moved to an area of North London and we just don’t have great takeaways here.
You don’t know what’s in meals unless you make them yourself, and we’re lucky because we make almost all our food ourselves. Even when I’m at work, I take a little packed lunch with me.”
So does the ‘accidentally healthy’ Ryan do much exercise? “I do no exercise, and I really never have,” she states – although that doesn’t mean she’s sat still all the time.
“I’m on the move all the time, and I’m carrying my son and he’s enormous. My husband and I are taking it in turns throwing our backs out because of this 26lb baby.
“Going for walks and just being active has always been the exercise I take. I don’t go to the gym or run or bike or anything – just being alive in my life is exercise.”
Katherine Ryan is an ambassador for Gousto, which has teamed up with smell loss charity AbScent (abscent.org) to create a limited-edition ‘Flavour Saviour’ kit to stimulate smell receptors that unlock flavour. For a free kit, visit flavour-saviour.co.uk