Our desire to eat is not always due a deep, physiological drive for hunger. We easily respond to cues from food, such as how they look, sound, and smell. Our emotions also play an important role in what, when, and how much we eat – especially when considering certain high sugar, high fat foods can provide 'comfort' in times of need, such as boredom, shame, or guilt. Why? Because, such foods can be related to feelings of enjoyment, amusement, desire, love, and hope.2
'Cravings' are a motivational state where we feel compelled to seek and eat a particular substance, such as food. Cravings for food can be powerful, stimulating the same parts of the brain that are activated during drug cravings.12,13 Most of the time, the culprits are proccessed foods, especially those high in sodium, sugar, or fat that are the most likely foods to trigger substance dependence (food addiction).
Scents: How Do They Work?
Our brains appear to only have limited resources to dedicate to cravings. The theory is actually called the 'elaborated intrusion theory of desire', and suggests that odors can interfere with or intrude on our brain's limited processing of other odors and subsequent cravings.5,10
Imagine your favorite high fat, sugary food - such as the creamy brownie shown here.
Imagining food, such as this brownie, can increase our desire for it. However, when we intrude on this imagery with odors – or even other thoughts – we do not allow the brain to 'elaborate' on the imagery of the food – thus reducing the cravings.
What Does the Research Say?
In studies where participants smell a neutral unfamiliar odor, food cravings decrease – even in chocolate.7-9 Even imagining an odor can interfere with the brain, subsequently reducing cravings of food and smoking!6,15
One popular study, presented female participants with eight fragrances: cinnamon, vanilla, green apple, banana, gardenia, sandalwood, jasmine, and lavender. After seeing several images of chocolate, participants were asked to smell each of the fragrances or water (non-odor condition). Take a look at what they found:9
Notice that Jasmine was the only scent (a non-food scent) that reduced cravings. Water had the highest cravings, as expected, with green apple (a food scent) close by.
A study back in 1999 used marker pens (like those used for writing) with undisclosed, specifically-formulated scents versus unscented pens. Participants were presented with a picture of a slice of pizza, and rated their cravings after smelling the scented or unscented pens (3 inhalations in each nostril, repeated 3 times).
Compared to the unscented pen, the group that smelled the pen had 35-50% reduction in perceived cravings up to 5 minutes after seeing the picture of the pizza slice.11
This study, and others, have also suggested that using such scents can be an additionally effective adjunct to healthy weight loss efforts.4 As a result, products, such as SlimScents® were inspired.
Everyone does not experience this reduction in cravings, but it does appear to work in some – such as chronic dieters (restrained eaters), who have an unhealthy desire for forbidden foods.3
Also, the reported reductions across studies is only about 20-25%, and do not eliminate cravings all together. In the study mentioned above with jasmine, green apple, and water – jasmine reduced cravings by only about 13%, as compared to water.9
Both smelling and imagining odors are suggested as a craving control techniques. There appears to be some evidence that non-food odors can work to intrude on our brain's ability to elaborate on the thoughts of particular food, thus reducing the craving. You can also intrude on cravings with other thoughts, prayer, and other visual stimuli.
However, everyone does not experience a reduction in cravings from smelling other odors, and the cravings for the food is not completely eliminated – generally, a 20-25% reduction in cravings.
If you are struggling with cravings, you might try to keep a non-food odor around to help you out – such as, jasmine. You could try other scents, such as dog poo or rotten fish (currently untested scents, but I think would work well). However, do not expect a miracle – and DO NOT use as a replacement for healthy eating, physical activity, and better sleep.
If you are not into being the person in the corner sniffing specialty marker pens, you can occupy your brain with other positive thoughts, prayer, and imagining or focusing attention on other positive things. In other words, you do not have to smell something – you can focus on other positive thoughts, thus limiting your cravings.
Also, it always a good option to remove the cues for cravings in the first place. Clearly, if you do not keep the junk food in the house, then you might be less likely to have insatiable cravings for it. This might be a great first step.
Disclaimer: DO NOT endorse sniffing or 'huffing' anything toxic.
- Andrade, J., Pears, S., May, J., & Kavanagh, D. J. (2012). Use of a clay modeling task to reduce chocolate craving. Appetite, 58(3), 955-963.
- Desmet, P. M., & Schifferstein, H. N. (2008). Sources of positive and negative emotions in food experience. Appetite, 50(2), 290-301.
- Fletcher, B. C., Pine, K. J., Woodbridge, Z., & Nash, A. (2007). How visual images of chocolate affect the craving and guilt of female dieters. Appetite, 48(2), 211-217.
- Hirsch, A. R., & Gomez, R. (1995). Weight reduction through inhalation of odorants. Journal of Neurological and Orthopaedic Medicine and Surgery, 16, 28-28.
- Kavanagh, D. J., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2005). Imaginary relish and exquisite torture: The elaborated intrusion theory of desire. Psychological Review, 12(2), 446-467.
- Kemps, E., & Tiggemann, M. (2007). Modality-specific imagery reduces cravings for food: An application of the elaborated intrusion theory of desire to food craving. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 13, 95–104.
- Kemps, E., & Tiggemann, M. (2013). Olfactory stimulation curbs food cravings. Addictive behaviors, 38(2), 1550-1554.
- Kemps, E., & Tiggemann, M. (2014). A role for mental imagery in the experience and reduction of food cravings. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5.
- Kemps, E., Tiggemann, M., & Bettany, S. (2012). Non-food odorants reduce chocolate cravings. Appetite, 58(3), 1087-1090.
- May, J., Kavanagh, D. J., & Andrade, J. (2015). The Elaborated Intrusion Theory of Desire: A 10-year retrospective and implications for addiction treatments. Addictive Behaviors, 44, 29-35.
- Mayer, S. N., Davidson, R. S., & Hensley, C. B. (1999). The role of specific olfactory stimulation in appetite suppression and weight loss. Journal of Advancement in Medicine, 12(1), 13-21.
- Pelchat, M. L., Johnson, A., Chan, R., Valdez, J., & Ragland, J. D. (2004). Images of desire: food-craving activation during fMRI. Neuroimage, 23(4), 1486-1493.
- Pursey, K. M., Stanwell, P., Callister, R. J., Brain, K., Collins, C. E., & Burrows, T. L. (2014). Neural responses to visual food cues according to weight status: A systematic review of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. Frontiers in Nutrition, 1, 7.
- Stirling, L. J., & Yeomans, M. R. (2004). Effect of exposure to a forbidden food on eating in restrained and unrestrained women. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 35(1), 59-68.
- Versland, A., & Rosenberg, H. (2007). Effect of brief imagery interventions on craving in college students smokers. Addiction Research and Theory, 15, 177–187.