A “novel” study published last week by researchers at UC Berkeley is here to ruin your day: apparently, just smelling food can make you gain weight. Needless to say we’ll be taking the long way home to avoid any possible pizza shops or cupcake vendors.
Your brain can be influenced to either store or burn off fat entirely by your sense of smell, at least in lab mice, according to the study published in Cell Metabolism. Here’s what the researchers did to come to that conclusion: three groups of mice were fed a “high-fat Burger King” diet. The normal mice nearly doubled in size on the diet, while the mice with no sense of smell only put on 10 percent more weight. There was a third group of mice who had their sense of smell temporarily disabled. When it was turned off, the fatty mice shrunk in size even while eating the same exact diet—and almost all the weight they lost was from fat alone. “The data presented here show that even relatively short-term loss of smell improves metabolic health and weight loss, despite the negative consequences of being on a [high-fat diet],” writes the researchers.
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It’s essentially scientifically proving what anyone with a stuffy nose already knows: eating without smelling or tasting is a joyless, utilitarian task. But there are clearly other factors at play when it comes to smelling food, your appetite, and your metabolic health that can influence how your body burns calories. One of the researchers, Celine Riera, told SFGate that the study could be applied to humans. Our sense of smell decreases after a meal, so if we can trick the brain into thinking it’s already been fed, the body could burn fat and calories instead of storing them, notes Riera. The SFGate article concludes that “people struggling with obesity could have their sense of smell wiped out or temporarily reduced to help them control cravings and burn calories and fat faster.”
There are risks associated with shutting off your sense of smell, however. The mice in the study showed an increase in the hormone noradrenaline when their noses were shut off. If your noradrenaline gets too high, you’re at an increased risk for a heart attack. Plus, there’s the whole food being delicious thing. “People that don’t have a sense of smell can get depressed, because the sense of smell is very important for behavior,” Riera told SFGATE. “They lose all pleasure of eating.”