Childhood Obesity — All in the Taste Buds? (Part 2)

Sarah Stambaugh - boring tongue

Yesterday, Childhood Obesity News began to explore the complicated realm of the human sense of taste. Dr. David Katz has been thinking about the subject also. The research that he is talking about was published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood and only encompassed fewer than 200 6-to-18-year-olds, half of whom were obese.

He writes:

The study can’t say for sure because it was cross-sectional, meaning it examined weight and taste sensitivity at the same time. Cross-sectional studies can show that both A and B happen in the same people, but they can’t reliably say anything about cause and effect. The study can’t determine if obesity is the result of innately less sensitive taste buds, or if the foods that fuel obesity deaden taste buds by bathing them in sugar, salt and food chemicals such as monosodium glutamate.

Still, it is pretty clear the obese kids and teens have less sensitive taste buds than their skinnier age peers. Did you know that processed pasta sauce can contain more sugar than the equivalent measure of ice-cream topping? Did you know there are breakfast cereals with more salt than potato chips? That is pretty darn amazing, and it seems to be one of the reasons why obesity is still one of the world’s top problems. It does also appear to account for all the battered and bruised taste buds.

It isn’t definitively proven, but the evidence is stacking up that taste buds can become deadened to a taste that they are overexposed to. After a while, salty snacks, for instance, don’t deliver that zingy salt reward. So anybody who enjoys the sensation is, of course, tempted to seek out snacks with even more salt.

But there is hope. Dr. Katz cites the the Iowa Women’s Health Study, which demonstrated that when women went to a lower fat diet that was mostly plant-based, after a few months their taste buds recuperated. This has also been confirmed by many anecdotal reports from people who change their eating habits. After abstaining from junk food for a while, you can taste chemical additives and recognize them for what they are, and the levels of sugar and salt that used to seem normal, immediately taste like overload.

Last year, a study from the University of New South Wales found that about 10% of the children in Australia have taste disorders, and this applies whether they are white or Aboriginal. But the Aboriginal kids have “a higher level of disorder,” meaning they have it worse. Researcher Michael Edwards says:

If you lose a taste, even if it is only, for example, sweet or sour, you change your eating habits in most cases and as a result […] you can either become quite obese or you can become anorexic.

There are five basic tastes — sweet, salt, bitter, umami (or savory), and sour. But a person with a taste disorder has lost the ability to pick up one or more of those, and can’t identify it, or else it tastes unpleasant. Aside from overexposure to junk food, many diseases and conditions can cause a taste disorder — middle ear infections, Bell’s palsy, renal failure, and diabetes.

That last one has all the makings of a vicious spiral. Junk food… taste disorder… more junk food… addiction to hyperpalatable foods… obesity… diabetes… more taste disorder… more obesity…

Antibiotics and other prescription drugs can also mess up the sense of taste, so there is another potential spiral: ear infection (extremely prevalent among children)… medication… taste disorder… junk food… addiction… obesity… and so on. What a nightmare.

On the purely biological side of things, it seems like a lot more could be done to prevent setting up the conditions that can initiate these endless mazes of destroyed health.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “DR. KATZ: Taste buds found less sensitive in the obese; is it cause or effect?,” New Haven Register, 09/23/12
Source: “Taste disorders linked to childhood obesity,”, 04/18/11
Image by Mike Burns.

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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.
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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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