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


PF Anderson October 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

Very nice! Lovely intro, nice personal touch, really hooked me, made me want to read more. Images well selected and displayed. Was the chocolate ball photo one of yours?

Since you’re doing so well with the core blogging skills, perhaps let’s look at this more from the science communication and health literacy POV. Where you talk about the research articles, perhaps simplify a bit? The reading level shifted from the beginning to the middle. For example, is “limited cognitive resources” a useful tag that is likely to be reused? What would be other ways to say that?

I ran a little comparison with the SMOG tool. The first four paragraphs (through the bulleted section) scored a reading level of 13.3, a sophomore in college. The next four paragraph, where you discuss the research articles, scored a reading level of 15.63, a senior in college. So think about your target audience. For communicating essential public health information to the general public, the recommended reading level is 5th grade. I am NOT saying that 5th grade is an appropriate reading level for this blog. I am suggesting that you might want to think about your hoped for audience, their usual reading level, and keeping a consistent reading level throughout the post. It isn’t easy, but you are writing well enough that I believe you are up to the challenge.

SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook):
– About:
– Calculator 1:
– Calculator 2:

Caitlin October 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm

I definitely agree that it is easier to simply smell a non-food odor rather than imagining one. I will need to keep this is mind when pinteresting…it gets me every time!

Ashley Cummings October 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Thank you for commenting, Caitlin! I agree, Pinterest foods get me every time as well! Hopefully long-term craving reductions will be discovered soon!

azmanam October 31, 2012 at 9:08 am

I’m a chemist, and although I can’t prove causation… the longer I’ve worked in lab the worse my sense of smell has gotten.

Fortunately, I’m still really good at detecting smoke at low concentrations. But food smells… not so much anymore.

Ashley Cummings October 31, 2012 at 9:51 am

I’m curious to know, have you noticed that having a worse sense of smell makes you crave foods less?

azmanam November 1, 2012 at 8:01 am

No, I haven’t noticed a decrease in cravings, but I also haven’t been monitoring.

My most frequent cravings are chocolate and McDonald’s fish sandwiches (don’t judge me!) :)

PF Anderson October 31, 2012 at 9:51 am

Evidently my comment from yesterday was eaten by the ethersphere even though it was assigned #comment-9449. Briefly replicating core concepts.

Great post! (I had several points why.) Time to move on to the next level! Target audience and reading level. Used SMOG tools to assess reading level. You start out at 13 (sophomore in college) and end at almost 16 (college graduate). For communications with the general public, recommended reading level for USA is 5th grade. So, who are you trying to talk with? I think you are a good enough writer to handle the challenge of trying to communicate ideas more simply.

Ashley Cummings October 31, 2012 at 10:01 am

I wish I was able to see your first comment!

Thank you for reminding me about the importance of reading level. To be honest, I have lost track of this goal a bit. My target audience is anyone who knows what it is like to crave foods, and especially those who often binge eat due to their cravings. Since this could be anyone, I should have simplified the message.

Thank you for your feedback!

Andrew Maynard November 1, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Found you in the spam! (sorry). Original comment is now up.

Rebecca November 1, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Interesting article! I definitely end up craving foods (especially chocolate) a lot and give in.

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