Friends with desserts, close up

The Connection Between Taste Perception and Obesity

David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., F.A.C.P., F.A.S.N., Chairman of the Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board and Herbalife Nutrition Institute | Herbalife Nutrition​ | March 15, 2018
We’ve all heard the reasons and rationales as to the cause of the current obesity epidemic. There is a less discussed element that we each have built into our biology: our taste buds. http://hrbl.me/2nXffMQClick To Tweet

In the medical community and in the general public, we’ve all heard the reasons and rationales as to the cause of the current obesity epidemic. Genetics. Mass migrations to urban centers where fast food chains and cheap, unhealthy, high-calorie options abound. Too much time seated in front of computers and mobile devices. Too many kids who spend less time outdoors and nearly every waking hour online.

 

There’s some truth to all of these points. But there’s also another, less discussed element that we each have built into our biology: our taste buds.

 

On the surface, it makes complete sense. Our taste buds are related to what we eat. They are responsible for perceiving the differences between foods that are salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or umami. They function as a nutrient sensing system, determining which items seem safe or nutritious to consume. The connection seems obvious.

 

Yet just because our sense of taste helps us know whether we like or dislike certain flavors or foods, does that really mean they determine who winds up overweight and who doesn’t?

 

A growing body of literature says the answer is “yes.” Researchers have found that obese patients may experience decreased taste sensitivity. Their findings suggest that people with a dulled sense of taste might be tempted to seek out foods richer in sugar, salt, and fat, or to take in more calories in order to achieve the same level of satisfaction as anyone else.

 

Other studies have confirmed this hypothesis, noting that any irregularity in a person’s taste buds may contribute to excess energy intake and obesity. What’s more, sensory systems, like taste, play a major role in the control and enjoyment of food consumption – and there’s a direct link between increased intake, decreased taste, and obesity.

 

Does this mean that overweight individuals with damaged taste buds are simply out of luck? Not at all. There is evidence that taste changes with changes in dietary pattern, especially for salt and fat.

 

And for those of us who counsel people who are overweight and obese, understanding differences in taste can provide a greater insight into the causes of weight gain. It will ensure we see and understand the whole picture of a person’s physiology and the full complement of factors at play in his or her life.

 

This sort of knowledge is essential to our understanding of the obesity crisis, why it persists, and how to address it. Now it’s a matter of using this information to improve people’s health, wellbeing, and lives.