Fact Sheet

Overweight? Blame your sensitive nose

New research suggests that a key difference between obese people and thinner folk may come down to a person's sense of smell

According to a new British study, the more you weigh, the more adept you are at smelling food — for better or worse. Psychologist Lorenzo Stafford and his team at the University of Portsmouth found that overweight people are better at smelling food-related odors than thinner people, and that everyone has a keener nose for food just after eating. What does this mean for the obesity crisis in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere?

How was the study carried out?
Actually, the study was focused more on hunger than weight. To determine if hunger had an impact on people's ability to smell different kinds of odors, Stafford's team had 64 volunteers — some overweight and others not, as measured by their body mass index (BMI) — smell different strengths of cooking herbs and a non-food smell. The researchers' findings, published in the journal Chemical Senses, are counterintuitive: People are better at smelling food after a full meal, and better at smelling other things when they are hungry.

Do obese people have a stronger sense of smell?
They don't, generally — just when it comes to food.

So how is smell tied to weight?
The researchers speculate that an overweight person with heightened food-smelling prowess may keep eating after he or she is full. "It makes a certain amount of sense," says Anna North in Jezebel. "Smell is intimately related to taste, and people who are better able to smell food might have greater appetites."

Does this study have any practical uses?
"Hopefully this research will stimulate more work in this area," Stafford says, and "help those who struggle with their weight and those who treat people with weight problems." In other words, says the Daily Mail's Fiona Macrae, drugmakers could come up with a drug that dulls the sense of smell; alternatively, being aware of the role smell plays may help overweight people avoid the overeating trap. But like most obesity-related studies, says Jezebel's North, the big takeaway is "how little we still understand."

Sources: BBC News, Daily Telegraph, Jezebel, Daily Mail

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