Contestants on NBC’s “Biggest Loser”

In Woody Allen?s Sleeper, Miles awakens after a 200-year sleep, to a world in which healthy food choices have become topsy-turvy:

Dr. Melik: (listing items Miles had requested for breakfast): “… wheat germ, organic honey, and… Tiger’s Milk.”
Dr. Aragon: “Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.”
Dr. Melik: “You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?”
Dr. Aragon: “Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”
Dr. Melik: “Incredible!”

Will it ever be possible to eat those cream pies with impunity?

With the two hour live finale of NBC?s ?Biggest Loser? airing tomorrow evening, I wanted to discuss recent research on appetite and how smell could used to reduce our calorie intake.

The new health reform law is sweeping in its scope, including a requirement for chain restaurants to post calories on their menus. Overeating and obesity, after all, is predicted to shorten the lifespan of today?s youth relative to their parents and is certain to be a major burden on the healthcare system.

Managing our appetites is one solution, but all of us know the challenge of overcoming such a complex physiological and psychological reward system. One “Biggest Loser” episode portrayed this struggle by challenging contestants to maintain a healthy lifestyle while at home, free from the tight controls of the show?s fitness trainers (see my related article on this topic).

A large wooden box was delivered to each of their homes, containing identical exercise bikes and a box of cupcakes; their reaction to the aromas wafting out of the box was palpable. Contestants faced two ?at home? challenges: a marathon-distance exercise bike race against each other and the temptation of baked goods. Was the aroma of cupcakes a reward or a punishment, an attraction or a repellant? Some reacted with a grimace and an exclamation of ?Gross!? Giving in to the temptation of just one cupcake resulted in a 5 minute penalty in the race. Not surprisingly, contestant rankings changed dramatically after finishing times were ?corrected? for the cupcake penalties.

The aroma of cupcakes can be alluring; for most foods, for that matter. Our sense of smell has a deep connection with memory and can lure us or steer us away from certain foods. A recent study by a food research company, Nizo, in The Netherlands, explored the link between our sense of smell and appetite. While most of us think of food aromas as stimulating appetites, Nizo is exploring ways to use them to curb our desire for food as a method to reduce obesity.

Scientists at Nizo found that adding certain aromas such as strawberry or tomato to foods could reduce consumption by as much as 10%. Reducing calorie intake by even 10% can have a major impact on our health over the long term. The report also indicated that complex smells can be more satisfying. After all, a meal with a variety of small servings can be more enjoyable than a single dish with the same calories ? think of dim sum or Spanish tapas, compared to macaroni and cheese.

Foods in the future could help reduce appetites and be more satisfying by using controlled, slow release of complex aromas. You might be able to have that cupcake and eat it too, but new technologies cannot diminish the value of eating healthy foods in moderate portions, and leading an active lifestyle.

A version of this article was originally published in NJ Voices.


  1. #1 becca
    December 14, 2010

    I hear from the molcular lifespan scientists that the *smell* of food decreases lifespan in fruitflies.
    Don’t assume not eating it means it has no health impact. As crazy as that sounds.

  2. #2 Jeff
    December 14, 2010

    Good point! Thank you for your comment; can you share the published study on fruitflies and smell? Today’s New York Times in Science Times has an excellent article on mapping of fruitfly brains:

  3. #3 Tony
    December 21, 2010

    How sad that we have come to the point where we have to engineer our food to fool us into eating less. The processed food industry has brought us to this place where 1/3 are obese and 1/3 overweight, and to think that corporate food science can solve the obesity public health crisis through more engineering of food is foolish. People need to depend less on food processed beyond recognition and eat some real food.

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