How smell can keep you lean and fit
Smelling and eating go hand in hand. A large part of your “taste” experience actually comes from the food odours you smell and perceive as flavour. When you eat, the combination of saliva, pressure and heat releases little volatile molecules. Through this chewing and swallowing motion these molecules are catapulted into a dark, snot-lined cavity above your mouth’s palate. The receptors that reside here are able to distinguish more than a trillion aroma’s! But what if our smell and taste buds get blurred by distraction or bamboozled…
Computer mouse in one hand and your sandwich in the other or binging on Netflix and dinner at the same time… sounds familiar? Think twice, distraction makes us eat more, studies have found. Distraction makes you perceive food odours, and therefor flavour, as less intense.
Your brain actually has a decreased neural response a study shows. Hoffman-Hensel et al. This lack of perceived flavour can lead you to compensate by eating more with a preference for convenience foods that in turn aren't helpful in staying lean nor healthy. The latter is coined “the Dorito effect”, but more on this later.
Over the past decades our food has been cultivated to grow bigger, look “prettier” and more homogeneous and give higher yield for less costs. But during this process flavour has been bred out (healthy compounds like anti-oxidants, vitamins etc. also took a hit as they are inextricably connected to flavour). There is even a scientific name for the process: flavour dilution. I keenly remember the cucumbers we used to grow in our greenhouse back home. They were packed full of flavour and all the supermarket cucumbers I have anticipatorily tasted since were destined to become a huge flavour disappointment...
The Dorito effect
But industry has gladly stepped in and taken on the flavour usurper role from mother nature. Around the time when flavours of chicken, vegetables, fruit etc. were getting blender, industry was getting better at artificial flavouring. One of the first companies that married these two concepts in their products was, you probably guessed already: Dorito’s.
One recent theory says that the obesity epidemic might be linked to the fact that whole foods have become less flavourful (think greenhouse cucumbers), while at the same time flavour (in the form of MSG, saccharin, yeast extract, maltodextrin, sugar etc.) and calories have notably increased in processed foods. As distracted eating leads to desiring stronger flavours it might nudge us to go for spoonful’s high in calories and flavour stimulants found in …exactly: processed foods.
There actually is an evolutionary-tuned link between flavour and what it tells our body about the healthy compounds a naturally grown product carries. For instance fruit sugar, vitamin C, fiber, anti-oxidants in an orange. You can see why we are quite confused as humankind where it comes to our food right now. Most of the current natural food has less flavour where artificial food has lots of added flavour but doesn’t bring the natural coinciding healthy compounds.
Survival is all about energy. We are hardwired to get as many calories (energy) out of our food and move as little as possible (preserve energy). This made sense when we were still hunting out on the planes but it’s a catch 22 in modern society where the manufacturers of (ultra) processed foods use this innate weakness. Giving us loads of calories but little vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and all these other things that kept us healthy for centuries.. But besides being lured into eating more non-nutritional food our body’s are also getting confused on a physiologic level.
Monkey sees, monkey does
As an evolved species we learned how to walk, talk and eat by trial and error whilst growing up. Who hasn’t sampled a bit of that deliciously smelling fruit soap as a toddler:-) But nowadays when it comes to food even baboons outsmart us. They are still in sync with what their body’s need in order to stay healthy and they teach their little munchkins about a wholesome diet as well.
Tastebuds in our belly?
You might know the taste receptors as the little buds that reside on your tongue, but they’ve actually set up camp all over your digestive tract. Our bud buddies sample the food we eat and inform our digestive organs and brain what it was that we actually just put in our mouth so that our body can prepare for its digestion. For instance by setting free the right amount of bile needed to digest that “kapsalon”.
But because many foods are ultra-processed (with a makeup that does not naturally exist in nature) the signals are harder to recognise and categorise by the bamboozled buds. For instance the sweet taste of light drinks carries a promise of energy in the form of sugar, our taste buds pass on the message and our body cheers our pancreas on to produce insulin, but the “promised” sugar doesn’t come, leaving our insulin flushed system craving the energy shot, driving us to eat more.
Our bodies still carry this innate wisdom. Pregnant women experience first-hand how there smell and taste powers become those of a bloodhound. Our wise bodies has an adaptive taste system that gets turned on in times of high sensitivity to toxins, such as during pregnancy. But it’s always there. We just need to nourish it.
Images by Lara Jameson, jeshootscom and Fauxels from Pexels
Laura Hoekstra is a health educator focusing on the intersections of food, health and climate. With her background in Natural Medicine Laura looks at health (people and planet) through a holistic lens. She is a Certified Nutritionist and Naturopath and an advocate for Integrative, Personalized Medicine.