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Science says smelling food may be the same as eating it

Smelling your food may cause you to gain weight Pin It
Photo: Stocksy/Jill Chen

Every week, you make the health-minded decision to bypass the neighborhood macaron shop in favor of the spin studio and juice bar across the street—but not without lingering for a while to inhale the sweet, fresh-outta-the-oven aroma from the bakery as it makes its way onto the sidewalk.

You hold firm to your spin + green juice plan, but hey, a little sniffing never hurt anybody, right?

Smell can influence the brain’s decision to burn fat or store it in the body.

Maybe not. Researchers at University of California, Berkeley say smelling food before eating it could actually cause weight gain. But if you’re not actually chowing down on those dozen macarons, what’s the problem? The research team found that a sense of smell can still influence the brain’s decision to burn fat or store it in the body—or at least that’s how it works with mice.

In a Cell Metabolism article published last week, lead researchers Andrew Dillin and Celine Riera explain how they studied three groups of mice—normal ones, “super-smellers,” and ones without a sense of smell—and saw a direct correlation between their ability to smell and how much weight they gained from a high-fat diet.

Each mouse ate the same amount of food, but the ones with stellar sniffing abilities gained the most weight. The normal mice doubled in size as they worked their way through the “Burger King-style diet,” while the non-smelling mice only put on 10 percent more weight. (And the bigger mice in the study actually lost weight once their sense of smell was taken away—even without changing their diet.)

So what does that mean for you? Well, you’re not going to gain 10 pounds just from walking down the cupcake-scented side of the street. But the researchers say you could use this anti-smelling trick to your advantage if your goal is to lose weight. It may be effective, but it doesn’t sound super fun.

“People that don’t have a sense of smell can get depressed,” Riera tells the  San Francisco Gate. “They lose all pleasure of eating.” Let’s be honest: A life without one of your five senses sounds bleak. And since depression is no small thing—and it’s strongly linked to gut health—going on an olfactory “diet” might just backfire. So keep smelling those roses—and your favorite essential oils—and just sidestep that bakery. (Sorry, macarons.)

If you’re overwhelmed with information about weight loss facts and myths, this cheat sheet might help. And check out one MD’s take on why exercise doesn’t cause weight loss