For whatever reason you may want to change your diet, your ability to taste could be a factor in your success. A new German study has found that normal weight children are more sensitive to taste than their obese peers. Because less sensitivity to taste may be making them eat more, could retraining taste buds have potential in fighting childhood obesity?
The mystery of taste
Taste is a mysterious human ability. Research has shown that different people taste food in different ways. No one knows why, but genetics, hormones, culture and how often a person experiences a particular taste are all suspected to play a role. Earlier studies suggest that people with higher taste sensitivity eat less because they enjoy more flavor per mouthful, while overeaters may have an impaired ability to taste.
Taste and obesity
Children with impaired taste ability could be attracted to high fat, high sugar foods and consume more of those foods before they’re satisfied. To test this theory, researchers at Charité Children’s Hospital in Berlin recruited 94 healthy normal-weight and 99 obese children and adolescents between 6 and 18. None were taking medications or had illnesses that would affect their taste or smell.
Researchers measured taste by observing the children’s response to the five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savory). The slimmer children were much better at identifying taste than their obese peers. The heavier kids also struggled to identify the contrast between tastes, especially among salty, bitter and umami. They also had trouble differentiating salty from sour, and salty from umami.
How sweet it isn’t
One experiment focused on distinguishing different orders of sweetness. All the children were good at ranking variations in sweetness. However, the obese participants tended to rate sweetness levels lower than the others. Researchers suggested that a blunted sense of sweetness could lead to eating more added sugars—and more calories.
Previous studies have noted that a child’s taste sensitivity normally grows as they get older. Older normal weight children identified tastes better in the German study, but the older heavier kids did not.
The authors noted that, “The absence of an increase of taste sensitivity in obese children and adolescents supports the hypothesis that the taste system is affected in obese subjects.”
Leptin and insulin affected
The researchers couldn’t say whether a diminished sense of taste leads to overeating or if being overweight diminishes the sense of taste. Robin Dando, a food science professor at Cornell University, told ABC News that hormones could be a factor. For example, the hormone leptin plays a role in fullness, fat storage and the ability to taste sweetness. Obese people may become desensitized to leptin, due to added sugars elevating levels of insulin in their blood stream.
Could the secret to maintaining a healthy weight be hiding within your tongue? Much more research needs to be done to actually devise a taste retraining program. Simply figuring out exactly why different people experience taste sensations differently would be a good start. Meantime, you may be able to heighten your taste ability with mindful eating. Slow down during a meal in order to focus on maximum flavor with every bite.