Study: Obese Kids Have Less Sensitive Taste Buds

A new report links languid taste buds to excess weight in kids

  • Share
  • Read Later
altrendo images / Getty Images

Everyone’s taste buds are different. That’s why some people can swallow the spiciest peppers while others have no fondness for sweet desserts (gasp!). Now a recent study suggests that taste-bud sensitivity may have something to do with the risk of obesity in children.

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.

The researchers looked at 193 healthy children aged 6 to 18. Roughly half the kids were normal weight and half were obese. For the study, researchers placed 22 taste strips on the children’s tongues, representing each of the five types of taste — sweet, sour, salty, umami (savory) and bitter — at four levels of intensity, as well as two blank strips. The participants were asked to identify each of the tastes, and also rank each taste strip’s level of intensity.

(MORE: BPA Linked with Obesity in Kids and Teens)

Each taste was assigned a score, with the maximum score for identifying all five types of taste at the four different intensity levels added up to 20. Obese kids had a significantly more difficult time distinguishing between tastes, resulting in an average score of 12.6, compared with an average of just over 14 for the normal weight kids.

Overall, kids had the easiest time identifying sweet and salty tastes; they found it harder to distinguish between salty and sour, and salty and umami. In general, girls and older children were the best at correctly identifying the various tastes. As most kids got older, their ability to differentiate between taste sensations improved, but not among obese children. And although all the kids correctly identified the different sweetness intensity levels, obese kids rated most of the higher-intensity taste strips as weaker than did the normal weight kids.

(MORE: Q&A with the White House Chef on Healthy Eating)

While the study suggests an association between taste sensitivity and weight, it doesn’t make clear whether kids who have less sensitive taste buds are more vulnerable to weight gain, or whether obesity somehow reduces taste-bud responsiveness. It could be a bit of both. The authors say we are all born with individual taste preferences that are influenced by genes, age, gender and exposures to a variety of tastes. In addition, hormonal fluctuations may play a role — both in taste sensitivity and obesity — ABC News reports:

For example, the hormone leptin is associated with hunger, fat storage and the ability to taste sweet things. Obese people may be less sensitive to its daily cycles. Also, if the level of insulin circulating in the blood stream remains consistently elevated for long periods of time, as it does in many obese people, it could weaken the cells’ receptors to the hormone, which in turn could mute taste sensitivity.

Previous studies have suggested that people with highly sensitive taste buds tend to eat less, presumably because they don’t need as much food to get the same taste sensations, while overeaters may have less receptive buds. If taste sensitivity really does play a role in childhood obesity, the authors say the findings may hint at obesity-prevention strategies that focus on mindful eating and taste preferences, rather than counting calories.

The study was published online in the journal, Archives of Disease in Childhood.

MORE: Can Laws Against Junk Food in Schools Rein In Child Obesity?