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WTH? Just the Smell of Food Can Make You Gain Weight?!

WTH? Just the Smell of Food Can Make You Gain Weight?!
iStock/chabybucko

Can smelling food make you fat? A new study may have just discovered the answer.

You’ve likely heard the phrase ‘a moment on the lips, forever on the hips’, but it looks like now you don’t even need that brief moment of actual contact to gain weight. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered that the sense of smell impacts metabolic health and obesity.

The Study

Berkeley researchers concede something we can all attest to: our sense of smell helps us to make food choices and appreciate the deliciousness (or not!) of what we eat. As you chew, air is forced through your nasal passages, carrying the smell of the food along with it. A lot of what you “taste” actually relies on what you smell. Without that interplay of taste and smell, you would not be able to experience complex flavors. Imagine biting into your favorite warm, gooey, fatty comfort dish and pinching your nose closed while you do it. Not the same, right?

However, the study’s results, which were published in the journal Cell Metabolism this past July, unravel a new function for the olfactory system: “to control energy homeostasis in response to sensory and hormonal signals.” Researchers found that obese mice that lost their sense of smell shed weight on a high-fat diet even though they ate the same diet as mice that retained their sense of smell but gained twice their body weight. The mice with the best sense of smell gained the most weight. So, what gives?

Andrew Dillin, the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Distinguished Chair in Stem Cell Research, professor of molecular and cell biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, told Berkeley News what the study’s outcome suggests. “Sensory systems play a role in metabolism. Weight gain isn’t purely a measure of the calories taken in; it’s also related to how those calories are perceived.”

The Takeaway

These findings imply that smelling food can affect how the body processes calories, indicating a crucial connection between the olfactory system and regions of the brain that regulate metabolism.

So, how do we use this information to our advantage? Maybe not at all. First, it is important to note that simply smelling food (and not consuming it) isn’t going to lead to weight gain – according to the study, the two go hand-in-hand in realizing that outcome (for now, at least). Then, there is the fact that the study was conducted on already obese mice, not humans. Trials on humans, and already obese ones at that, could lead to different, or less significant, implications.

Even so, the results of the study point in a promising direction. Andrew Dillon imagines the future: “If we can validate this in humans, perhaps we can actually make a drug that doesn’t interfere with smell but still blocks that metabolic circuitry. That would be amazing.”

For now, it’s hard to make a conclusive argument for refraining from smelling your food if you’re trying to lose weight. Plus, who would want to? Smelling your food is half the fun, especially when it comes to indulging in high-fat options! I’ll sit this one out. Pass the pizza.

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