MAR 29, 2018 6:24 AM PDT

How Are Taste Buds Related to Obesity?

We have to eat to sustain our bodies, and a healthy diet is best, but when it comes down to food choices, we all want something that tastes good. A steak well marbled with fat, slices of bacon to go with some eggs, cinnamon rolls, ice cream, a juicy burger or some melty cheese pizza are all delicious but not necessarily ideal nutrition.

Obesity is a fast becoming a public health issue, and there are many research projects ongoing to find out how to nourish the body and keep the excess weight from accumulating. Scientists from Cornell University have completed a study with mice that showed what happens to taste buds after a prolonged diet of high-fat chow. Fundamentally, a high-fat diet impacts the ability to develop new taste buds, which triggers a metabolic process that can lead to obesity.

Senior author Robin Dando is an assistant professor of food science at Cornell and explained, “Evidence suggests that obesity from an unhealthy diet results in a powerful [metabolic] inflammatory response. In mice, this response disrupts the balance of taste bud renewal, reducing how many mature taste buds these mice have. This research provides new clues about how humans might become obese and suggests a novel approach to combatting obesity – looking at the taste bud itself. This is a potential human mechanism for getting fat.” The study was published in the journal PLOS Biology

The study used two groups of mice. Typical mice that had not been altered in any way, and the second group of mice that were bred to be genetically resistant to obesity. Both groups were fed a high-fat mouse chow. The typical mice gained a significant amount of weight, about 30% of their starting weight, which was expected. The mice that were somewhat immune to obesity did not put on nearly as much despite being on the same diet. The typical mice who gained weight also had a disruption in their renewal of taste buds, and the resistant mice did not, validating that the taste bud loss was not the result of exposure to fatty foods, but rather a result of the problems patients who are obese have with their metabolism. It’s a cycle of overeating that results in obesity, then taste bud renewal is decreased, and some patients find they need to eat more because the food isn’t satisfying from a taste perspective. Previous research into obesity shows that many obese people report having a decreased ability to taste what they eat, which can make them want more food because they are missing the best part, the taste.

A normal human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds. In these taste buds are receptors that signal the brain on the flavor of specific foods, whether they are salty, sour, bitter, sweet or umami. Once or a twice each month the cells in the taste buds get renewed, but when obesity is a factor this renewal process doesn’t happen as often because of how excess weight impacts the metabolism of these cells.

Dando summarized what researchers already know about taste buds and the results of their study stating, “Combining those results with this new work, it’s an interesting takeaway. Our obese mice would not be getting as much input from the taste. If the same taste loss happens in obese humans, it’s plausible these people would be driven to eat more, or at least eat a more intensely tasting version of whatever they were eating.” Check out the video below to learn more.

Sources: Cornell University, UPI, PLOS Biology

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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