In obesity, heightened imagination for smell may drive food cravings, weight gain

Can't you just smell them? If so, you may be more vulnerable to food cravings and weight gain, a new study has found.

Can’t you just smell them? If so, you may be more vulnerable to food cravings and weight gain, a new study has found.

(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

Close your eyes and imagine the smell of baking bread, of a pungent curry dish, of popcorn at the movies or a bouquet of freshly cut tea roses.

If these prompts send you into swoons of olfactory delight, there’s a good chance that upon opening your eyes, an obese person could be staring back at you in the mirror.

New research has found that compared with people of normal weight, obese people conjure up more vivid images of aromas. The ability to experience sensory fantasies so richly, said researchers at Yale School of Medicine, may make some people more vulnerable than others to following food cues, even when they’re not hungry.

In a study being presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Ingestive Behavior, Yale researchers expanded on ongoing research aimed at understanding when and how people choose to eat food when they are not -- or are no longer -- hungry.

In recent published research, some of the same scientists found that a specific pattern of activation in the brain following the first sip of a delicious milkshake can, given certain circumstances, distinguish between people who will go on to gain weight and those whose weight will remain stable.


In the latest study, researchers at Yale’s John B. Pierce Laboratory had participants complete a series of questionnaires that asked them to imagine both visual and odor cues. The subjects then rated the vividness of these cues. Individuals with a higher body mass index reported an ability to more vividly imagine odors associated with food, and to conjure up sensory images of nonfood odors as well.

Research had already established that obese individuals experience more food cravings than those of normal weight. While the latest research needs to be fleshed out with brain scanning and other methods, it appears to suggest that the ability to create vivid mental images stimulates and maintains food cravings triggered by the thought, smell and sight of food.

If efforts to aid individuals’ weight loss are to be successful, said the study’s lead author, Dr. Barkha Patel, researchers will need to tease out the factors that make certain individuals particularly prone to overeating.

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