Is the ability to taste related to weight? Researchers at Cornell University seem to have some evidence that the answer is yes. We all know that eating is a pleasurable activity for most. It’s ingrained in our daily life to savor each meal, eat plentifully, and enjoy eating. After all, back in the day when we actually had to forage for meals (no, ordering from Seamless doesn’t count as foraging), it was important to eat while we had that option. Who knew when the next meal would come?
Nowadays though, food is as plentiful as our appetites, which has contributed to the epidemic levels of obesity in the US. Researchers at Cornell investigated the effect of obesity on the taste buds of mice. Interestingly, obese mice had 25% less taste buds than mice of normal weight. Was fewer taste buds leading the mice to eat more? Was it because of diet? Was it something else?
They then fed mice with genetic differences that made them resistant to gaining weight the same high fat diet that caused weight gain in normal mice. However, unlike the normal mice, who all became obese and lost taste buds, these mice remained normal weight and didn’t lose any taste buds. This allowed them to conclude that it’s not a high fat, calorie-rich diet that resulted in loss of sensitivity to taste.
Lastly, to figure out why obesity might result in loss of taste buds, they looked at inflammation. In particular, they took mice that are unable to make an inflammatory molecule called TNF alpha. Obese humans – in addition to mice – also make more of this molecule, which contributes to the higher levels of inflammation in people who suffer from obesity. When they fed these mice the unhealthy diet, even though they gained weight, they didn’t lose their taste buds!
What’s so interesting this is if we start to think about how this could be a downward spiral. The researchers hypothesize that perhaps because obesity comes with less of a sensitivity to tasting food, maybe our innate food drive seeks out foods that have stronger tastes. In particular, these foods would be those containing more ingredients such as sugar and fat. The more of those ingredients people eat, the more they’ll gain weight… and so the cycle continues.
It’s important to know that in studies, the reverse is also true though. With weight loss, those taste buds will come back! Perhaps the key to successful dietary changes lies in changing our ability to taste. Sure, it takes time to adjust to that, but give your taste buds a break. They’re only trying to help. Next time you’re thinking about shedding a few pounds though, realize that it takes time for your body and mind to adjust to new foods. After all, while the way to the heart is often thought to be via the stomach, one of the ways to heart health all starts with what we put in our mouths.
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