Does Obesity Change Your Sense of Taste? How much do your taste buds have to do with your weight? Anything? Everything?

In a recent study researchers compared taste sensitivity in obese children and adolescents to that of healthy weight children and adolescents.  According to this study, taste sensitivity is linked to weight.

Children and adolescents who were obese had less sensitive taste buds.  That means for obese children sweet foods tasted less intensely sweet, bitter foods were milder and salt was not as readily perceived.

What do these differences in taste perception mean?

What the study can’t reliably tell us is whether a decreased taste sensitivity causes obesity or whether obesity somehow causes a decrease in taste sensitivity.

We do know that our tastes change over our lifetimes as a result of certain life circumstances.  During pregnancy, for example, nearly two-thirds of women experience changes in taste.  Pregnant women have been found to have a reduced sensitivity to salty tastes, which may be the body’s way of ensuring increased salt intake during pregnancy.

Chemotherapy is another example of an experience that changes a sense of taste.  Forty-six percent of patients receiving chemotherapy report taste changes.

In another study (PDF), subjects who reduced salt intake voluntarily for a period of months, preferred less salt in their food, than those that ate a higher salt diet.  Voluntarily reducing salt intake caused an increased sensitivity to salty tastes.

In the case of pregnancy, changes in the body cause changes in taste sensitivity.  However, in the study on reduction in salt intake, changes in eating habits resulted in changes in taste preferences.

Normal aging, neurological problems, such as seizures and drug use can all cause changes in taste preferences and taste sensitivity.

However, the relationship between taste and obesity is still unclear.  Does a decreased sensitivity to certain flavors cause obesity, or is a loss of sensitivity to taste just another by-product of obesity?

Some doctors suggest from experience and anecdotal evidence that eating unhealthy foods, particularly those foods high in sodium and unhealthy fats that contribute to obesity, causes reduced sensitivity to taste.

In an article on The Huffington Post, David Katz, M.D., Director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, suggests that when we inundate our taste buds all day long with sugar, salt, and chemicals, they become insensitive to them.  Dr. Katz states that foods such as pasta sauces with added sugar, ice cream, potato chips and sugary breakfast cereals all contribute to losses in taste sensitivity.

If you regularly eat high sugar and high sodium foods, this news news can be discouraging.  We might all agree that food needs to provide us with energy and supply our nutritional needs, but we also all want to eat tasty foods and enjoy what we eat.

According to Dr. Katz, there is good news.  Better food choices, even cutting down on sugar and sodium intake for just a few weeks can change your preferences and your sensitivities to salt and fat.

So does obesity change your sense of taste?

The scientific evidence is still out, but anecdotal evidence and what we know about how our tastes change with what we eat suggests that eating high fat and sodium foods reduces sensitivity to taste. It is not obesity that causes changes to sense of taste, rather it’s eating the foods that contribute to obesity.