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Weight Gain Mutes Taste Buds

How are your taste buds?

Have you ever eaten something, just to keep the taste in your mouth? For example, imagine eating a handful of potato chips. It may start with the smell of vinegar, ranch or bar-b-cue. When you bite down, you feel that satisfying crunch, followed by the taste of salt and potato. Your mouth salivates as the flavors linger for a moment; then disappear. You grab another handful, chasing after those tastes.

The intensity of those flavors varies based on several things. Age is one of the best understood. Young people have about 10,000 taste buds, so they’re more sensitive to subtle differences. Their taste buds are replaced every few weeks. However, as we age, not all buds are replaced. So a typical adult over the age of 50 may have only about half as many or around 5,000 functioning taste buds.

A teenager eating that handful of chips will get a more intense burst of flavor and the taste will linger longer, than an adult of 60. With the decline in our ability to taste, comes an increase in the flavors we search for in our food. The older we get, the more we crave dishes that skew to the extreme: More salty, more sweet and ultimately more calories.

Now researchers have discovered that age isn’t the only thing that affects our ability to taste. When people put on weight, it numbs the taste sensation to sweet foods. The more weight someone gains, the more impaired their ability to taste becomes.

As that ability to taste sweet declines, the overweight person consumes ever larger and sweeter meals to compensate. That of course leads to more weight gain and an ever greater loss in taste. It’s a vicious cycle.

Fortunately, the change doesn’t seem to be permanent. When people have undergone bariatric bypass surgery and lost a lot of weight, they typically report that food tastes better and more intense, a month or two after the surgery.

Taste buds go through a life cycle of about 2 to 4 weeks. Every few days they’re renewed. So it only makes sense that once the weight starts to come off, the inflammation that’s a hallmark of obesity, will lessen and allow more taste buds to return.

Seeing this link between our ability to taste and body weight, gave researchers an idea. What are the eating habits of supertasters?

Supertasters are people who have more taste receptor cells than the average person. Foods like Brussels sprouts, spreads like mustard and drinks like coffee or beer tend to taste too bitter for a supertaster to enjoy. Cakes may taste too rich and peppers are too hot. That’s the downside.

The advantage supertasters have is with their heightened sensitivity to flavors, they’re less likely to crave junk foods. On average, supertasters are 20 percent thinner than people with normal or below normal tasting abilities. 

That gives us two possible ways to deal with the taste problem. On the medical side, if scientists can reduce the inflammatory response of obesity, that would naturally allow more taste buds to grow. As tastes become more intense, we wouldn’t need to eat as much for the same experience. Weight loss would then follow.

On the food side, if companies can find a way to increase the intensity and longevity of flavors, without increasing calories, people may eat less. But the odds of that happening are incredibly remote. Food companies don’t want you to eat LESS, because that would reduce their profits. In fact, many foods are designed to give you a burst of flavor that almost immediately disappears, so you want to eat MORE.

You can’t count on food companies to do the right thing, because it goes against their ultimate mission to make a profit. But you can fight back. Eat less processed food and make more dishes from scratch, because the flavors will last longer. Schedule some time each week to plan and prepare a few dishes you cook yourself, then freeze the extra for quick meals later.

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