Fact: 70-75% of how you experience flavor is due to your sense of smell.
Anecdote: A friend told me about a friend (isn’t this how all good anecdotes start?) who had lost his sense of smell in an accident and consequently lost 20 pounds easy-peasey because, in my friend’s words, “Everything pretty much tasted the same. Brownies tasted like whole wheat bread so why not just eat the bread then?”
At the time my eating disorder – one of several, is there such a thing as multiple personality disorder for EDs? – was in full swing and I fantasized about losing my sense of smell. Wouldn’t that be awesome?! I’d never have to struggle with my weight again! Of course I’d never be able to luxuriate in the smell of my baby’s hair fresh out of a bath or inhale a lilac so hard the petals shoot up my nose. And what’s Christmas without my homemade orange-cinnamon potpourri? Then I realized that while I really wouldn’t miss brownies much – they’re just kind of meh for me – I’d definitely miss being able to appreciate a fragrant curry or an almond sugar cookie.
As anyone who has ever had a really wicked head cold knows, your nose is integral to both the function and pleasure of eating. And understanding how taste and smell interact can help you use them to your advantage says several new research studies. Two main opposing theories have emerged.
Calories Without Flavor
I was first intrigued by this idea when I came across The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan (aff) by Seth Roberts. While I’m not looking to diet or lose weight right now (I promise! No worries!), I am fascinated by the principle behind it, mostly because it is exactly the opposite of everything diet gurus normally advise. And if I learned anything from being an angsty goth teen it’s that I really love it when people buck conventional wisdom. You know, like how I was totally into The Cure and Depeche Mode because I really, like, got them you know, and not, like, all those poseurs who went to The Cure concert and could only sing along to “Friday I’m in Love.” Sure we all bought our mass-merch t-shirts at the same stands in the same huge arena but at least I made sure to buy the one that the least people got. Losers.
Where was I? Yes, it all goes back to smell. Not only is smell a huge part of taste but apparently it’s also “the most powerful of all the five senses” (although how they measure that I’m not sure and also, there are way more than five senses). Roberts contends through a theory of evolutionary biology that I won’t totally go into here that one way our bodies recognize a time of consistent access to food is by taking in a certain amount of flavorless calories. Research has long shown us that people who yo-yo diet tend to end up weighing more than people who don’t diet at all and it’s supposed that this is because the body experiences the diets as famines and therefore feels compelled to inhale everything in sight when not dieting to prepare for the next famine.
And yet to lose weight, one must reduce their caloric intake without triggering these eat-or-die hormonal landmines. Roberts’ solution to this dilemma is to ingest a certain number of calories – twice your body weight – in flavorless calories per day. The flavorless calories are supposed to emulate the diet that people would eat in a time of neither feast nor famine, just plain-jane eating. Which sounds oddly cannibalistic now that I type that out. Anyhow, the body lowers its internal set point for body weight when it realizes it has plenty of calories and doesn’t need to store a great excess. To achieve this he recommends using extra light (not extra virgin) olive oil and taking it in the middle of a “flavor-free” two-hour window. Although he says you can use any oil as long as you can’t smell it. A lot of Shangri-La dieters practice “nose clipping” which is simply eating a certain amount of your daily calories with your nose clipped shut so that you can’t smell them and therefore your body essentially experiences them as flavorless.
In a world where every diet recommends eating as few calories with as much taste as possible – the whole idea behind artificial sweeteners, yes? – this is a completely novel approach. And based on the few blog reports I’ve read and people on his message boards it works very well for quite a lot of people. As much as I love me some anecdotal evidence, I’d have to see some actual research to back up Roberts’ theory to be sold on this idea.
Flavor Without Calories
On the other hand, we have the more traditional approach of trying to get the most flavor for your caloric buck. When Vaportrim e-mailed me about trying their flavor sticks – scent-filled plastic sticks that look like cigarettes as imagined by Zebra gum – I’ll admit I agreed to try them mostly for the entertainment factor. How hilarious would it be, I thought, to “smoke” my cravings for sweets away? Unfortunately the smoking aspect got unfunny really fast when I watched my kids sucking on my sample sticks and practicing blowing smoke rings (you exhale water vapor that looks like smoke) at each other. I ripped them out of their tiny hands and took up puffing them while hiding out on my back deck, reminding me uncomfortably of my grandmother in her two-pack days. (Not to be confused with Nana’s Tupac days because those were sheer awesome.)
Still, the idea of sniffing a scent to trick your brain into feeling sated intrigued me. There is a lot of research showing that people who smell certain scents feel a lessening of cravings and therefore lose weight. One study even showed that people who lose their sense of smell generally gain weight from eating too much in an effort to find the satiety they experienced when they could smell (which I suppose blows my friend-of-a-friend anecdote to pieces).
I tried out the peppermint and pina colada “flavors”. I can’t say they did much for me. I think the first problem was that they didn’t smell how I expected them to smell. Specifically, the pina colada one smelled like a Strawberry Shortcake doll I had growing up and therefore reminded me of chewing on plastic hair and picking my nose instead of a delicious dessert. Although we’ve already established that I’m probably hypersensitive to smell compared to other people. Second, I couldn’t get past the whole smoking feel of it. The models on the site even hold the sticks like one would normally hold a cigarette (albeit someone in the Lollipop Guild). Third, the reviews on the site are… suspect, at best. As far as I could tell they didn’t reduce my cravings at all although perhaps since I’m not trying to lose weight, I was a bad test subject? Or perhaps this particular method just doesn’t work for my body – I tried Sensa, a product based on similar principles, twice (years ago) and it never worked for me either.
Which Way Works?
Does smell make you crave more food or does it make you feel full? Does the type of smell matter? Does the type of food being eaten matter? Do you eat less when you have a head cold because you can’t smell your food or because you feel sick? Does puffing on a Vaportrim stick help some people lose weight because of the scent or because it distracts them from their craving? Does Schrodinger’s cat nose-clip?? I have no idea. So many questions left but I find the research and theories behind each way very interesting and they both make sense in their own way.
What have you noticed about your sense of smell as related to your taste? Any of you have experience with either of these theories and/or products? Anyone else super sensitive to smells? I worked at Bath & Body Works for a while in college and would get so overwhelmed by all the heavy scents that I’d have breathe into my sleeve to get a break.