Childhood Obesity — All in the Taste Buds? (Part 3)

Neela's tongue

One of the classic signs of addiction is the addict’s tendency to need more and more of the substance of choice. There is evidence that the parts of the brain that recognize pleasure can become jaded.

Tolerance to the substance seems to knock out the dopamine receptors. The reward center is out of order, so the person craves more and more heroin, nicotine, hyperpalatable pseudo-food, or whatever the addictive substance is. Meanwhile, the receptors are so alert that scans show areas of the brain will light up if an addict even thinks about fatty or sugary foods.

But maybe the need for “more” originates even before the brain gets involved. It could start in the mouth. There is a new-ish theory that junk food overdose tends to cripple the taste buds, encouraging people into eating even more junk food to recapture the taste thrill they remember but can’t quite reach. This obviously has a bearing on childhood obesity. It’s new-ish because the research designed to prove it is relatively recent, but it’s been supported anecdotally for a long time. Even addicts themselves realize that it takes more sugar, or whatever, to deliver the desired reward.

The whole situation is complicated by the existence of people called “supertasters” who have more than the usual number of taste buds, and further complicated by evidence that their extra capacity to experience taste might cause them to eat either more, or less. Either way, they tend to avoid the kinds of vegetables that are thought to help prevent cancer, because those flavors fall into the “bitter” range.

Childhood Obesity News mentioned some recent research about middle ear infections, and their possible relation to childhood obesity, but this line of inquiry has been pursued for a while. Four years ago, Linda Bartoshuk, Ph.D., (who also reported on “supertasters”), looked into the connection between otitis media and children’s increased fondness for fatty foods. She found that kids with a moderate-to-severe history of chronic middle ear infections were 62% more liable to be obese.

This bad news was confirmed by research at the University of Connecticut and Brown University, which found that children who had suffered from ear infections had a tendency to ignore vegetables and eat lots of sweets. A meta-study by Howard Hoffman, M.A., an epidemiologist, took a look at National Health Examination research concerning nearly 14,000 children and teens. This showed that kids whose tonsils had been removed were heavier. Since that surgery is often done to quell ear infections, it also ties in.

Steven A. Witherly, Ph.D., president and CEO of Technical Products Inc. (a food consulting firm), at one point told WebMD:

Fast food does not so much dull the taste buds as affect how the brain processes that taste as pleasurable or unpleasant.

He also talks about the fifth taste, known as umami, or savory, or MSG. If you want a lot of it, garnish your food with soy sauce or parmesan cheese. Witherly also refers to a study from the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago showing that:

[…] putting intense-tasting substances called ‘tastants’ on food caused dieters to lose more weight than those who ate unamped portions. The tastants, researchers speculated, may have made the dieters feel full sooner.

Supposedly, a product can be sprinkled on food that reduces the appetite and allows subjects to lose five pounds a month without any other change in habits or lifestyle. But what are these “tastants”? The ingredients are revealed in an article about a class-action lawsuit.

The research in all these areas is far from solid, but it is indicative. And dissenting opinions can always be found.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Ear Infection Linked To Taste Damage, Obesity,” EmaxHealth, 08/17/08
Source: “Is Fast Food Killing Our Sense of Taste?,” WebMD, 09/16/11
Source: “Weight loss firm hit with class action lawsuit over Sensa satiety crystals claims,”, 11/15/11
Image by unnormalized (Steven & Courtney Johnson & Horwitz).

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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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