Sense of Smell: The answer to food craving reductions?

by Ashley Cummings on October 30, 2012

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Growing up, I believed my Dad had a superpower. It’s probably not what you’d typically think — Although he does have the ability to fix anything around the house himself…and could always come to my rescue within 10 minutes of my car breaking down no matter where I was in South East Michigan — Anyway, this superpower was his inability to crave foods…ever! This was something that the rest of my family (including my brother) could just never understand.

Turns out, those of us who occasionally experience food cravings are considered “normal.” A food craving is an intense desire to get your hands on and consume a specific food. Until that happens, the colors, the texture, the smell, and the taste are pictured vividly in your mind. Maybe you’re hungry, maybe you’re not…

Cravings are no longer just used to describe the strong desire for drugs and alcohol, but also applies to food. Most individuals do not crave foods often. However, some do everyday. Food cravings can lead to binge eating and if this is a regular occurrence, it may lead to weight gain or even bulimia nervosa for some individuals. Overindulging in unhealthful foods leaves us feeling guilty, and may affect our mood two days later, as addressed in my previous post Improve Your Food to Better Your Mood.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Possible causes of food cravings:

  • dieting and restraint
  • lack of variety in meal/snack choices
  • feelings of boredom or depression
  • the sight or smell of food (don’t let Pinterest get the best of you!)
  • that time of the month–ladies you know what I’m talking about

An article from the journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science, indicates that food cravings actually distract us from other thoughts by taking up “limited cognitive resources.” Thoughts of food essentially take over. When participants in the study were deprived of chocolate for 24 hours then presented with their favorite chocolate and a task, task performance slowed and those craving chocolate were less able to recall words than the control group. They also took longer to solve math problems.

In an attempt to reduce competing thoughts and ultimately food cravings, participants were instructed to imagine a non-food smell (eucalyptus) or a non-food image (rainbow). Both groups showed temporary reduction in cravings, however, researchers believe that due to the great effort needed from participants, this is not effective for long-term craving reduction.

In a more recent study published the journal, Addictive Behaviors, researchers had 57 women participate in simpler tasks to see if there was a reduction in food cravings. After abstaining from eating for two hours, the women were instructed to view a series of sweet (chocolate cake, ice cream) or savory (pizza, hamburger) foods then smell a neutral and unfamiliar substance (olfactory interference), or listen to a recording of a female reading from a Dutch newspaper (auditory interference). Individuals who smelled the unfamiliar substance reported less cravings compared to the individuals in the listening  and control groups for all foods. Similar results have been seen in reducing cigarette cravings.

Chocolate is the most craved food by Americans.

Since smelling a non-food odor is a simple task, researchers believe this may be a more effective way to reduce food cravings compared to performing more complex tasks like visual imagery. However, these findings are just a start to reducing food cravings in those who chronically overindulge. Additional research must be done to determine how long these reductions last. In the meantime, be aware of the possible causes of food cravings to reduce intense feelings of desire altogether.

And for all those wondering, while researching this post I texted my Dad to see if he’s experienced this well-known feeling that the rest of my family has–Finally he admitted…every so often he gets a strong itch for popcorn.



Kemps, E. & Tiggemann, M. (2010). A Cognitive Experimental Approach to Understanding and Reducing Food Cravings. Current Directions in Cognitive Science, 19(2), 86-90. DOI: 10.1177/0963721410364494

Kemps, E. & Tiggemann, M. (2012). Olfactory stimulation curbs food cravings. Addictive Behaviors, 1-5. DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2012.06.001