According to a new study, you might want to try indulging your sense of smell.

By Andrea Beck
Updated February 22, 2019

We’re all guilty of giving in to cravings every now and then. And it doesn’t help when you catch a whiff of unhealthy foods, either. We’ve definitely been tempted to run into a bakery and buy the first sugary treat we see after walking past and catching the scent of freshly baked cookies. But as it turns out, the trick to fighting food cravings might be to go ahead and indulge your sense of smell.

A recent study from the University of South Florida found that smelling indulgent foods for two minutes might be enough to satisfy your cravings and cause you to reach for a healthier option instead. The researchers found that after having participants smell traditionally unhealthy foods (like pizza and cookies) for two minutes, the participants were more likely to reach for a healthy option, like a piece of fruit, instead of the unhealthy one.

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The researchers chose a middle school cafeteria for their first test. They set up scent nebulizers (similar to a diffuser) near the entrance of the cafeteria, then had the line of students pause near it before continuing in the line to pick up their lunch. The first test found that the students who had smelled pizza for a short time before choosing their lunch were less likely to reach for the unhealthy choices on the line (like chips, desserts, fried foods, and hot dogs) than the students who had been exposed to the scent from an apple, or the students who weren’t exposed to either scent (and persuading middle schoolers to make healthier food choices sounds like a win to us!).

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The study had similar results when it was replicated in a grocery store, too. When customers smelled a non-indulgent scent (strawberries) while shopping, an average of over 45 percent of their total purchases were made up of unhealthy foods. When shoppers smelled cookies while they were picking out their groceries, an average of just over 29 percent of their total purchases were unhealthy foods.

In another test, participants in a lab were exposed to two different scents, then asked to choose a snack. Some were exposed to the smell of strawberries, while others smelled cookies. Similar to the first study, the participants who were exposed to the smell of cookies for more than two minutes were more likely to choose strawberries to eat, while those who smelled strawberries were more likely to reach for a cookie.

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So why does this work? It may be because you’re tricking your brain into thinking you’ve already indulged when you smell an unhealthy food for two minutes or more. Your brain considers unhealthy, indulgent foods to be a reward, and eating them induces pleasure. The study proposes that indulgent food smells, like pizza and cookies, also induce similar pleasure in the brain, and that if you’re exposed to the smells long enough (for two minutes or more), your brain believes that its craving for a reward has been satisfied, making it easier to reach for a healthy snack instead. Many healthy foods, like apples, don’t have the same indulgent smells, which is why smelling them doesn’t make you less likely to want a cookie.

We’re not suggesting that you surround yourself with cookie-scented candles, or keep pizza on hand just so you can smell it. But the study is an intriguing look at how our brains experience pleasure from less-than-healthy foods, and might help you have an easier time overcoming your cravings the next time you’re tempted to reach for an unhealthy snack.


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