Childhood Obesity — All in the Taste Buds?


There’s nothing like dueling headlines to make a person sit up and take notice. Last week, one website’s story title announced, “Children Who Suffer From Obesity Have More Sensitive Taste-Buds,” while another read, “Study: Obese Kids Have Less Sensitive Taste Buds.” Exact opposites, in other words. However, the “more sensitive” one turned out to be some writer or editor’s brain-burp.

Maybe they got mixed up because the source from which their story was drawn mentioned previous research about taste, which found that people with heightened sensitivity to the various sensations of taste are probably likely to eat less (and therefore to become less obese.) In most cases, among humans, a result other than pure nutrition is being sought. When a person eats to appreciate the taste of food, taste buds that are in good shape are better, because they deliver the “taste hit” reward sooner and more efficiently.

That’s what had already been discovered. So the newest research does not contradict that, but appears to confirm it. In large, rough, approximate terms, the consensus is: Fit, healthy, sensitive taste buds = less eating; blunted taste buds = more eating.

Between the two confusing, conflicting headlines, the accurate one, not surprisingly, comes from a story in TIME by Alexandra Sifferlin, describing a recent study:

German researchers report that obese kids have less sensitive taste buds than their normal weight peers, and may therefore eat more food to get the same flavor sensation… Obese kids had a significantly more difficult time distinguishing between tastes… As most kids got older, their ability to differentiate between taste sensations improved, but not among obese children.

Sifferlin notes that the implications of this research, if proven by further studies, suggest that calorie-counting may in future play a less important role in preventing childhood obesity, while recovery plans based on taste preferences and “mindful eating” could become more prevalent.

Why does any of this matter? Because if they have any choice at all, most people do not eat for pure nutrition. They want every possible sensation of enjoyment. Thanks to modern technology, people are no longer satisfied with food that is merely unspoiled and acceptably edible. They want a three-ring circus in their mouth, each and every time.

Dr. Pretlow says:

Kids initially eat junk food because it tastes good and is readily available. The problem is that the emotional part of their brain undergoes changes to keep the behavior going, particularly as sadness, stress, and boredom are eased by the pleasure of the food. Once significant brain changes have taken place, the child may be unable to stop eating the problem foods – an actual addiction.

Much research and theorizing has concentrated on the molecular composition of junk food, and what happens when the various substances encounter the body’s organs and the brain. But for the solution to childhood obesity, it’s quite possible that we need look no further than the mouth. Dr. Pretlow goes on to say:

Attributing dependence on highly pleasurable foods to a direct biochemical effect of food substances, such as sucrose or fructose, on brain chemistry, seems unnecessary. Fast sensory signals, e.g. taste and texture, acting on the brain are enough to induce dependence. For example, bulimic individuals immediately purge foods eaten, yet still become addicted to the foods.

It may be that people just have to learn to live with their cravings for hyperpalatable foods, in the same way they learn to live with, for instance, chronic back pain. The success achieved by many formerly obese people shows that the ever-present urge to overindulge can be overcome. As 14-year-old Carlie, one of the young respondents to Dr. Pretlow’s Weigh2Rock website, phrased the thought:

Taste is temporary, weight is forever.

The necessity to actively fight cravings might also be forever (though research suggests that it gets easier.) Even though constant, lifelong mindfulness might be something of a chore, it still is preferable to constant, lifelong obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Children Who Suffer From Obesity Have More Sensitive Taste-Buds,” RedOrbit, 09/20/12
Source: “Study: Obese Kids Have Less Sensitive Taste Buds,” TIME, 09/20/12
Image by Greggoconnell (Gregg O’Connell).

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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