Stinkin' Diet

At Baylor College of Medicine, in the behavioral medicine research center, Dr. John Foreyt was holding a cookie.

It was a dark chocolate chocolate-chip cookie, and he fingered it lovingly and gazed at it with longing. He was about to shove it into his mouth, when, with the discipline of a trained scientist, Foreyt raised his other hand and took a deep breath of a bad smell. Yep, that did it. The scientist didn't want a cookie anymore.

"I was going to eat it,'' he testified. "Now I really can't."
This was an actual demonstration of an actual product that Foreyt and a colleague, Carlos Poston, plan to test more scientifically in the new year. If you have tried everything from steaming off your baggage to cutting it off, you may be consoled to know that a California company now offers another alternative to sweat; that, in fact, they are funding the Baylor study; and that if you act now, maybe you, too can become one of Foreyt's 100 volunteers and receive a year's supply of a bad smell -- free of charge!

"Congratulations!'' reads the pamphlet for Aromatrim. "If you can breathe, you can lose weight."

This is a principle Foreyt studied 25 years ago as a graduate student at Florida State University. Foreyt exposed his subjects to the luscious smells of their most cherished foods -- puddings and pies and cakes -- and just as they began to enjoy these smells, Foreyt would blast them with the smell of vomit.

It would have been wicked if they weren't volunteers. Perhaps it wasn't surprising that they did indeed lose weight. But the method certainly had shortcomings: the subjects had to travel to the clinic to be blasted with vomit, and once blasted, they tended to stink. Those were the years Foreyt smelled like vomit in the name of science. When his name was called, alas, there were no women salivating like Pavlov's dog. The student couldn't get a date, he recalled.

But now there's Aromatrim: the new portable bad smell. About the size of a lighter, the two plastic "modules" fit easily into a pocket, and perhaps because of that, because you are supposed to travel with your bad smell, it doesn't really smell that bad. When hunger strikes during the day, the well-armed dieter theoretically would reach for the "Crave Ender," which is primarily fennel seed and smells like licorice. This is meant to suppress the appetite in all except those dire situations when you are threatened by foods you cannot resist. Facing a chocolate cake, as the theory goes, you would begin filling your mouth with one hand, and with the other, would hold the "Diet" module to your nose. Fennel is in there, hickory and mint, and 14 other scents that combine to smell faintly like vomit. A faint smell of vomit is all it takes.

"I guarantee it," said Philip Maitlin, president of the Aroma Therapy Research Institute. "You get your next piece of pecan pie and smell this, and halfway through, you'll say you've had enough. Maybe the next time, it'll be a quarter, and maybe the time after that, you'll go, 'Ugh -- I think I'll have pumpkin pie instead.' "

Before he founded Aroma Therapy and began creating odors, Maitlin spent 20 years developing perfumes. He seems to believe the future of medicine is in the nose. "We're looking at a major shift in an area that has previously been regarded as witchcraft," he said. To hasten public acceptance, his institute is funding smell studies all over the country now -- using fragrances to help people sleep in California and New York; using odors to keep them awake in Cincinnati.

But the Baylor study had not yet begun when just after Thanksgiving, in time to limit Christmas cheer and bolster New Year's resolve, commercials for Aromatrim began appearing on television stations around the country -- bad smells, a special diet book and tape, all yours for the low price of $49.95. Aroma Therapy's 24-hour counseling service is an extra $3.99 a minute.

Foreyt himself appears in the Aromatrim commercial, plugging the benefits of aroma aversion therapy, but he says it will be a year before his research determines whether the product is aromatic enough, whether people will choose a bad smell over a good food. But there is hope.

"There's no magic bullet in this world," he says, "but if we can help people manage their weight by conditioning them against pizza, I think that will be a real help.''

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Randall Patterson