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Smell and Weight Loss: The Science

Summarized from an article originally published by Susan Lark, MD

Specific aromas can deprogram overweight people whose normal response to the smell of rich, unhealthy foods like chocolate, doughnuts and pizza was to become hungry and overeat. Scientists tested the benefits of food odors to suppress appetite rather than stimulate appetite, and found that there seemed to be certain smells that caused overweight individuals to reduce their cravings, and therefore eat less.           

In scientific research, people preferred sweet smells, and strongly sweet scents such as chocolate often triggered feelings of hunger and led to overeating or binge eating, while “neutral” sweet smells actually curbed appetite. To test this theory, researchers asked 3,193 overweight people (mostly women) aged 18-64 to inhale a variety of “neutral” sweet smells, including banana, green apple, vanilla, and peppermint, three times in each nostril whenever they were hungry. After six months, the participants in his study lost an average of five pounds a month, or 30 pounds in total. Source: J. Neurol. Orthop. Med. Surg., 1995; 16:28-31.           

Similar research has been done at the Human Neuro-Sensory Laboratory in Washington, D.C. and this research fully supports earlier findings. Researchers there studied eighty people who were given one of two inhalation devices. One contained a combination of specially selected scents; the other was a placebo (neutral un-detectable scent). All of these subjects were asked to inhale the scents three times five to six minutes before and after eating a meal. At the end of the six-month trial, those participants who used the selected scents lost an average of 19 pounds, while the placebo group only lost an average of 4 pounds.

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While it is healthy to avoid high-fat dairy products and artificially sweetened soft drinks if you are trying to lose weight, here are additional tips for weight loss that can be used safely by virtually anyone.

-      Smell the food before you eat it.

-      Take small bites and chew each bite well (eat slowly).

-      Limit your food choices at any one meal. In other words, skip the buffet.

-      Choose fresh food rather than processed, pre-packaged, or canned food.

-      Eat hot or warm food rather than cold, since the natural aroma of foods are more efficiently released when food is warm, helping satisfy your appetite.

-      Choose the most aromatic food like garlic, onions, and foods cooked with herbs and spices since these satisfy your appetite more completely. Research studies have shown that people tend to lose weight more quickly and are less likely to feel deprived if they avoid bland foods, and choose foods that are highly aromatic and flavorful.

-      Avoid dairy products. Milk is so bland that your satiety center doesn’t respond to it the same way is does to other foods. As a result, people tend to over eat rich, highly caloric dairy-based foods.

-      Avoid diet sodas and artificial sweeteners (especially aspartame). They trick your body into thinking you are eating sugar, and actually result in increased release of insulin into your bloodstream! This in turn causes your blood sugar levels to drop, which then triggers your appetite, tricking you into feeling hungry and resulting in overeating.         


Women are better suited to utilizing this approach than men since a woman’s sense of smell is more acute. Researchers have postulated that a women’s sensitive olfactory system actually provides her with two survival mechanisms:

1. Her sense of smell helps her detect the pheromones of her mate and enhances her sexual desire, especially during ovulation; and

2. Her sense of smell helps her identify her offspring through scent.

The science behind why aromatherapy works meshes your sense of smell with your satiety level. When you inhale through your nose, odor molecules enter your nasal cavity, and eventually reach the olfactory bulb (smell center) located at the top of your nasal cavity (inside your nose).  A separate mechanism within your brain controls satiety, or your “fullness” level.  A portion of the hypothalamus which is called the “satiety center” helps you know whether or not you are full. But how does smell (rather than eating) effect our perception of being “full”?

Airborne odor molecules are filtered through the olfactory bulb, which is connected to the satiety center in your hypothalamus (in your brain).  This satiety center interprets these odor molecules to inform your brain that you have eaten enough and that you are full…and this response is completely separate from responses which are actually driven by eating foods (and which surprisingly take longer).  Additionally, the odor molecule receptors are located in the limbic region of our brain, which is the center of our emotions, and this may help to explain why so many scents can trigger our emotions and memories. The limbic lobe in turn directly activates the hypothalamus, which houses and controls our satiety center. In other words, our nose dictates our hunger level more quickly and more efficiently than our stomach!



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