Ability to Vividly Imagine the Smell of Food Connected to Obesity

Close your eyes and try to imagine the smell of freshly made french fries. If that conjured scent is particularly vivid, you might be at higher-than-normal risk for obesity, a new study says. Thierry Roge/Reuters

The scent of certain foods makes them difficult to resist. Anyone who smells but refuses chocolate chip cookies or pizza just out of the oven has to be at least a little crazy.

What's more surprising, though, is that even odors conjured up in the imagination can give you insatiable cravings. A new study from researchers at the John B. Pierce Laboratory and the Yale School of Medicine suggests that people who can vividly imagine the smell of foods have a greater risk of obesity. Since a sense of smell is essential to the pleasures of eating, a heightened ability to imagine the scent of food may play a significant role in overeating.

Prior research has suggested that a vivid food imagination is linked to overeating, but this is the first study to examine the role of imaginative olfactory cues. The researchers presented their findings this week at the annual meeting for the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior; they will also be published in the August issue of Appetite.

The researchers applied D.J. Kavanagh's elaborated intrusion theory of desire, which finds that a sudden mental image of chocolate cake may trigger a craving that's difficult to ignore. In some cases, even thinking about the food (and when you might get to eat it) is enough to compel a person to find the food fast. This is why for some people the desire to plunge into a tub of popcorn enters the mind even before they buy their movie theater tickets.

For the study, participants completed several questionnaires to evaluate their ability to imagine the sight and smell of foods and other objects. The researchers found those with heightened abilities to fully create the experience of eating a meal or snack in their mind had a higher body mass index. But a stronger sense of imaginary smell was the greatest indicator for obesity. This study could be used to develop cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that address the power of the brain's nose to help curb food cravings.