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The Sweet Smell of Diet Success

Can the aroma from special flavor crystals help you eat less and drop weight permanently?
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WebMD Feature

After cooking over a hot stove for a few hours, stewing tomatoes or sautéing onions and garlic, do you ever find that despite the delicious aromas wafting through the house you just aren't very hungry at dinnertime? You're probably thinking it's because you need a break after working so hard, and that may be the case, but is it possible that the smells curbed your appetite, acting as a natural suppressant?

That's the theory Alan Hirsch, MD, is employing in his latest weight loss research at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. He is developing flavor crystals to intensify the flavors in foods, which may make people eat less.

The idea started when Hirsh noticed that patients often gained weight immediately after losing their ability to smell. Hirsch wondered if the opposite might be true -- if intensifying scents and taste could lead to weight loss and a decreased appetite.

Smell and taste are closely linked, Hirsch tells WebMD. In fact, he says 90% of what people consider taste is really smell. If you find that hard to swallow, try holding your nose shut while eating something -- what people do on the television show Fear Factor when asked to eat things like worms and roaches -- and you'll find it difficult to taste the flavors in foods.

"It made some anatomical sense," Hirsch says, because of a connection between the nose and the brain. The reason people feel full, he says, is because it's usually our brains, not our stomachs, that interpret whether we've had enough food. This is based on how much food enters our mouth, as well as how much we smell and taste.

But don't delicious scents provoke hunger, at least initially? When Hirsch gave candy bars to medical students, for example, he told them to sniff the bars 10 times when hungry and then put the bars back in their desks. The whiffs of chocolate didn't suffice, and at the end of the day there weren't any candy bars left.

That's why he developed odors contained in plastic tubes that can't be ingested. After studying more than 3,100 dieters, he found that people using the tubes lost an average of 30 pounds in six months, while the traditional dieters lost only 6 pounds.

Hirsch can't say why exactly the odor tubes worked. Originally he thought that the aromas made you feel fuller faster by tricking the brain. Now he's not so sure.

"It may have nothing to do with that at all. It may have just acted as a displacement mechanism, so instead of grabbing the doughnut you grab the inhaler," he says. Also, aroma might help satisfy cravings, or the sniffing might remind people on diets not to eat.

Regardless of how it works, the idea of sniffing a tube all day isn't very practical, which is why Hirsch shifted his attention to developing crystals that people can sprinkle on foods before eating. Hirsch says people don't even notice a difference in the way their foods taste when using the crystals, which range in flavor from cheddar cheese and horseradish to mocha and strawberry -- there are 12 in all.

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