Researchers have long hypothesized that taste bud function may be impacted depending on an individual’s weight. Studies have worked to better understand whether weight affects taste or if some other factor associated with weight impacts people’s ability to taste.
One study at Stanford University School of Medicine compared the ability of people considered with a “normal” BMI and how they could identify tastes- sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami- to bariatric patients (both before and after surgery). The results revealed that taste perceptions did change with weight loss. In that study, obese participants reported flavors to be less pronounced, leading researchers to believe that potentially patients make up for taste “depreciation” by consuming a higher volume of food to reach the same level of satisfaction.
In another study, specialized diets were created for mice to increase their weight and a focus was on whether any physical changes occurred with the tongue. The study, carried out by Robin Dando, an Assistant Professor of Food Science at Cornell University, compared the taste buds of “normal” weight mice to the taste buds of mice consuming a fatty diet. The obese mice were found to have 25% fewer taste buds, and the tongues of the obese mice were also found to have cells that were dying more rapidly, without normal cell regeneration as in the normal weight mice.
The study didn’t stop at that point, but further explored other possibilities for why taste buds are impacted in obese mice. The most revealing element of the study resulted when testing mice that had been genetically engineered to not gain weight, no matter what their diet. When consuming the diet that was the same as the obese mice (which weren’t genetically engineered), the tongues of the mice were inspected and did not show any signs of fewer taste buds. This ultimately led researchers to believe that it wasn’t the food that was responsible for the decreased ability to taste, but potentially a mechanism tied to obesity itself. The final element of the study focused on mice that can’t produce a molecule (called TNF alpha) that creates inflammation in the body, and are naturally found in higher levels in obese people (and mice). Again, the mice were given diets that increased their weight, but their taste buds remained the same- meaning that taste bud loss was related to an inflammatory state.
This was a huge breakthrough, as better understanding that inflammation impacts taste, which can potentially impact the amount of food that is consumed by an individual, can help fight obesity. New research is being done to find whether nonsurgical cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can be used for weight loss by changing sweet taste perception. Some initial studies found that CBT could in fact alter the preference of sucrose in obese people, and that Leptin (a hormone in the small intestine that helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger) may be behind the preference for sweets in those with obesity.
How to combat inflammation
Obesity isn’t always a direct result of what is eaten. Other medical conditions may play a role, as do medications, family history, physical activity levels, quality of sleep, and more. The same goes for inflammation. Although obesity does increase levels of inflammation, other factors also play a role. Some ways to manage inflammation include:
- Consume anti-inflammatory foods (read about the whole foods diet, which includes many anti-inflammatory options).
- Reduce foods that are known to cause inflammation (like sugar)
- Increase physical activity
- Manage blood sugar
- Sleep well (read about the importance of sleep hygiene, here)
- Manage stress
- Try massage
These fascinating studies shed light on the ways our bodies react when in an inflammatory state. Who would have thought that even our taste buds are impacted by inflammation? This information can help us understand how to better address inflammation and other health concerns, like obesity, that often go hand-in-hand.