All you have to do is walk by a bakery to know your sense of smell is a major player in your decision to eat a chocolate chip cookie the size of your head or stick with your sensible salad. Tempting food smells become Pavlovian in a sense, says Alan Hirsch, MD, a researcher at the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. “You salivate just thinking of eating it.” If you’re already considering picking up a cookie, and then you smell some fresh out of the oven? Well, that craving just skyrocketed.
It’s a technique food marketers are all too aware of, capitalizing on our urge to eat by synthesizing the smell of their products and filling their stores and restaurants with the odor. “They can pump in the smell and induce cravings,” Hirsch says. (Of course, it’s worth noting there is too much of a good thing: Exposure to a food odor over a longer period of time can entirely quash that craving or even turn you off of the food entirely, he says. It’s why I personally cringe when I pass a Subway restaurant after living above one for four months.)
We’ve all been tempted by these types of food smells—but how do you actually fight back? Here are some of the smells Hirsch’s research has identified as tough to resist, and simple nutritionist-approved ways to satisfy those cravings. (Looking for more simple, smart advice? Order Prevention—and get a FREE gift when you subscribe today.)
What science says: Whether we smell it or not, chocolate’s the No. 1 craving, hands down, Hirsch says, so it’s no surprise we find the scent drool-worthy, too. Of course, there’s some variation; for example, some women crave chocolate more during certain times of their menstrual cycle (not that you needed science to tell you that, right?).
How to resist: A little goes a long way, says Vicki Retelny, RDN, author of Total Body Diet for Dummies. Instead of whipping up a pan of brownies that time of the month (hey, we’ve all been there), try just a one ounce piece of a really dark chocolate bar—around 70 to 85% cacao. “It’s so much less sweet without all the added sugar that you’re not apt to overeat it,” Retelny says. Plus, the dark stuff is the kind with all the cardiovascular and cognitive health benefits you’ve heard of. If you’re really trying to swear off chocolate, try a cocoa-infused tea, Retelny says. “It has just enough chocolate flavor to satisfy that craving, especially if you sip it slowly.”
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What science says: A fresh loaf of homemade bread or warm blueberry muffins are tempting no matter what, but there’s something else to it, Hirsch says. When his team studied how foods affect feelings of nostalgia, baked goods elicited a sense of safety and security. “They bring up a positive memory of the past that makes people feel happier,” Hirsch says, which is one of many reasons why it can feel comforting to pop a pan of cookies in the oven after a bad day.
How to resist: “It’s a normal part of life to crave these foods, so it’s all about portion control,” Retelny says. If you’re going to bake Grandma’s famous sugar cookie recipe, try using a mini muffin pan to keep your cookies extra small, she says. Try a whole grain flour to make each cookie a little more filling so you’re more likely to stop at one. And if you can’t say no to that giant bakery cookie, eat just a quarter and share the rest. If it’s homemade bread you’re smelling, try a slice of whole-grain toast for that same warm and crunchy effect (or try these ridiculously tasty, low-sugar bread recipes). When the scent is wafting from the bread basket at a restaurant instead, serve yourself one piece, then ask to have it removed from the table, she suggests.
What science says: Those feelings of nostalgia related to food smells differ depending on where you grew up, Hirsch says. Baked goods weren’t always the most popular when he broke his data down by region of the US. In fact, among west coast smellers, the scent of barbecuing meat was a stronger nostalgic force.
How to resist: You don’t have to forego grilling altogether, but you can be smarter about how you prepare your meats. For starters, cooking at a lower heat for a longer period of time can help you avoid charring, which creates cancer-causing chemicals on the surface of your dinner. Barbecue sauce also tends to burn on the grill, Retelny says, so try marinating your meat beforehand or serving sauce on the side rather than lathering it on during the cooking process. Keep in mind too, she says, that barbecue sauce is often laden with sugar. “Look for brands that don’t have high fructose corn syrup on the label and not a lot of added sugar, or make your own,” she says.
What science says: Just as some people have a sweet tooth, it’s possible to have a salty tooth or even a crunchy tooth motivating you to get to the bottom of a bag of chips, Hirsch says. The smell of salt and other chip flavors triggers cravings, too, he says.
How to resist: Focus. Yes, really. Chips, pretzels, and other salty snacks are far too easy to binge on straight out of the box or bag, Retelny says. When you’re craving these kinds of snacks, a low-fat, low-salt, or baked-not-fried variety might not always satisfy, so it’s okay to have a small amount of the real deal if you’re mindful while you’re eating it. That means portioning it out of the carton onto a plate or a bowl so you see how much you’re eating—and savoring the occasion when you do.
If you’re into it for the flavor and the crunch but willing to experiment, try a flavored nut, like a barbecue pistachio, Retelny says. “You’re getting more health benefits and you’ll be more satiated thanks to the good fat.” (Here are 25 snacks that won’t leave you hungry.)
What science says: The smell of bacon can easily overpower your favorite brunch spot. In addition to the high nostalgia factor of meat smells that drive bacon cravings in some people, even the crackling of oil and sizzling of the slices can be hard to resist, Hirsch says.
How to resist: Fake it ’til you make it. Try seasoning your eggs with smoked paprika for a faux smoky flavor reminiscent of bacon without the fat or calories, Retelny says. Turkey bacon is lower in saturated fat, but if only pork will do, serve yourself one slice instead of your usual three, and make it last. Crumble it on top of eggs or cut it and use it as a toast topping, Retelny says. “You’ll make it last longer rather than downing one slice and thinking, ‘Now I want the other two!'”