Is it possible that obese people are more attuned to food odors and that this contributes to their overeating and weight gain? It’s an idea that’s been kicking around the chemosensory literature for years. Recently it got a direct test by a group of German researchers.
The study, published in the Elsevier scientific journal Appetite by Poessel et al., used fMRI to measure the brain response of normal weight, overweight, and obese individuals while they smelled high- and low-caloric food odors (chocolate and potato chips vs orange and cucumber, respectively.
Smelling the food odors was related to activity in several specific brain areas. However the neural response to food odors was not related obesity status or weight-related metabolic factors. The result isn’t very encouraging for the smell-driven hypothesis of obesity.
Whatevs. I don’t have a dog in this particular fight.
It did occur to me, however, that with all the brouhaha on social media about fat-phobia, fat-shaming, and fat pride it’s only a matter of time before studies such as this become a target for criticism. I idly wondered whether there might already be fewer of them. So I took a look at the TOC for the upcoming April 2022 issue of Appetite.
Boy oh boy, what an eye opener.
A few titles reflect traditional research themes:
“Differences in gastrointestinal hormones and appetite ratings among obesity classes”
“Meal-to-meal and day-to-day macronutrient variation in an ad libitum vending food paradigm”
But the woke oozes from others:
“A naturalistic observational study on food interactions and indicators of healthy and unhealthy eating in White-European and Latinx families”
“Vegetable parenting practices vary by feeding styles among middle class mothers of young children”
“Sparking Change: Evaluating the effectiveness of a multi-component intervention at encouraging more sustainable food behaviors”
An animus against meat consumption fairly leaps off the page:
“Backlash against Meat Curtailment Policies in online discourse: Populism as a missing link”
(From the abstract: “Given overwhelming evidence that current levels of meat consumption jeopardize human and planetary health, there is a need for governmental action to reduce meat consumption (i.e., Meat Curtailment Policies, or MCPs). However, few such policies are actually being implemented, in part due to fear of backlash.”
“The impact of masculinity stress on preferences and willingness-to-pay for red meat”
“Unpalatable truths: Commitment to eating meat is associated with strategic ignorance of food-animal minds”
Appetite, it seems, has become a happy home for progressive political views on food intake. Whether this is the result of passive drift or a deliberate policy choice by the journal’s editorial board is an open question. (About a third of the board is from the U.S and about a half from Europe.)
To me, any study that explicitly sets out to defend a particular political/policy stance has forfeited the presumption of scientific integrity. If I were to review it I would recommend rejection. In fact, I’d refuse to review it. This is something I’ve already done in the case of one paper, submitted to a psychology journal, premised on a “sustainability” policy position. To review such a paper puts me in the position of passively accepting the premise and therefore being complicit in the politicization of science. But to accept the reviewing task and then dispute the political premise makes me look like the political actor when in fact it’s the author. It’s a lose-lose for disinterested science.
Full disclosure: I have reviewed papers for Appetite in the deep past; I know several people on its current editorial board; and I know one of the authors of the study cited below.
Maria Poessel, Filip Morys, Nora Breuer, Arno Villringer, Thomas Hummel, and Annette Horstmann. (2022). Brain response to food odors is not associated with body mass index and obesity-related metabolic health measures. Appetite, 168;105774.