The smell of food is a powerful sense, one that can remind you or a certain holiday that you loved as a child or a special dish your grandmother use to cook for you each time you visited her. One smell might transport you to a summer picnic, providing you with pleasant thoughts of a high sun, a cool breeze, and a drink shared with friends. Another could put you in your mother’s kitchen as you stood beside her, with the help of a stool, over the stove and worked away on making her vaunted lasagna. Your nose is a powerful tool of transportation, able to carry you away from the current moment and take you somewhere back in your past, whether many years ago or more recently. The smells of food cooked in your past can be equally powerful, a magic carpet ride back to something wonderful you’ve prepared and eaten with family or friends.

Last week, as my team was warming up for a soccer match, one of my twelve year old players yelled out, “Oh my god! I smell McDonald’s! I’m hungry! I want some!” I had been going about preparing for the game but as soon as I heard this I took a deep breath and realized that he was right, you could smell the unmistakeable odor that emanates from any McDonald’s building and cloys to your clothes should you venture inside. It’s a smell of deep fryer grease, salt, and to me, unwanted jiggly fat on my body. If Harley-Davidson is able to copyright the noise emitted by their engines, maybe McDonald’s should trademark the smell of grease and calories and diabetes and fat. I wonder what percentage of the humans on the planet could easily and instantly identify this smell.

Sadly though, this food perks the hunger of many people. The smell of McDonald’s in the air is an odor people love, bringing them thoughts of their favorite “happy meal” or other fast food. I was recently on a plane very early in the morning, far too early for me to need to eat, especially when my activities consisted of sitting still for a few hours. Airports are the state fair’s of the skies. As people wait for their flights they scramble around the terminal in search of the most satisfying fast food to gorge on before they sit in one place for hours, since surely sitting still and watching a move requires numerous calories. Across the aisle were two young women, each the size of a small tree. They were ensconced in Duke labeled, Nike branded clothing and guessing by their height I assumed they were on the women’s basketball team. Ah, top flight athletes! Hmm, and they are eating Bojangles at six in the morning. And they also already have big old booties growing on them. How can they big that large if they exercise for hours a day? The smell cross the aisle from their feedbags of fast food and attacking my nose was one indication of how they managed to be so large despite their constant exercise.

The smell of garlic and olive oil or sweating onions or a sliced cucumber or a cantaloupe are the most wonderful fragrances my kitchen has to offer. Other foods remind me of my childhood or a special family gathering or even just a party with friends. But, the creep of fast food and the increasing domination of the American stomach, with most of that vessel designated as fast food chain garbage food only seating, is reshaping the connection of people and their food. No longer do fresh vegetables and herbs make people hungry, causing their mouths to water, but the odor of boiling grease and charred meat sourced from a megafarm. This connection of ubiquitous fast food chains, the odors emitted from their kitchens and stomachs of many Americans is one reason why so many people suffer from obesity. The chains are everywhere, the smells are everywhere, and the Pavlovian response to rush inside to buy something are all now intimately connected.

The fragrances of natural, fresh and cooked foods no longer transport people back to their childhood or a family picnic. Instead, the smell of grease and salt cause people to desire the unhealthy fast food which emit this odors and instead of traveling back in time to a happy moment, they think about the gluttony which is just around the corner, a new “happy meal” on the horizon which they can scarf down in their car or in front of their television.

Only when we break this chain caused by the chains, the connection of fast food restaurant odors and hunger and the desire to eat, will we be able to break the chain of poverty, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Something as simple as the smell of frying potatoes is actually the malodorous smell of a much large, fetid problem that is rotting Americans from the inside out.