It appears that a keen sense of smell has something to do with obesity, a condition that can put a person at higher risk of developing a range of unwanted health problems including cancer and type 2 diabetes.

In a new study presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), researchers have revealed that the ability to clearly imagine the smell of food is greater in obese individuals compared with their slimmer peers.

For the study, Barkha Patel, from Yale School of Medicine, and colleagues asked the participants to complete a series of questionnaires that required them to imagine and rate the vividness of odor and visual cues.

The researchers found that those with higher body mass index were more likely to report greater ability when it comes to vividly imagining food and non-food smell.

"As predicted, correlation analyses revealed positive associations between BMI and perceived ability to image odors and foods, but not visual objects," the researchers reported. "A second experiment with 57 participants (BMI range: 19.1 kg/m2 - 38.7 kg/m2) then confirmed the significant positive association between BMI and perceived ability to image odors."

Patel said the results of the study raise the possibility that the ability to image odors particularly of food may promote cravings for food, which in turn could prompt an individual to eat more and gain more body weight.

The researchers based their research on Kavanagh's Elaborated Intrusion Theory of Desire, which posits that the creation of vivid mental images can stimulate and maintain cravings for food that are triggered by the smell, sight and thought of food.

Earlier studies have already found an association between food cravings and obesity with obese people more often experiencing food cravings but the role of odor imagery ability had not been examined before.

"These findings highlight the need for a more individualistic approach in identifying factors that may increase risk for weight gain," said Patel.

The researchers said that future studies should place emphasis on objective ways measuring smell ability instead of relying on the self-reported ratings of participants.

Besides being associated with obesity, the sense of smell appears to be also helpful in detecting autism. Scientists have lately found that a smell test that determines which of the participants can distinguish a repulsive smell from a pleasant one can help detect autism in young children.

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