A new study gives us insights into weight gain, the inflammation it causes, and the shocking side effect that makes fat loss so difficult.
Gaining fat increases low-grade systemic inflammation, leading to a mountain of health problems. Sure, everyone but Lizzo knows that, but now we have another reason to avoid gaining fat: the resulting inflammation makes everything taste bad except junk food. It’s a vicious cycle.
In The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler writes about hyperpalatable foods – processed foods designed to spark the brain’s reward system. These junk foods are a carefully designed concoction of sugar, fat, and salt. Alone, those things aren’t that powerful, but combine them and the trio creates a feedback loop that leads to “hyper-eating.” It triggers cravings, makes you overeat, and leaves you wanting more.
Now, a study shows that the end result of eating too many hyperpalatable foods – gaining fat – can even change how food tastes.
Researchers took a bunch of mice and got them fat. Then they studied their tiny little taste buds. The obese mice, surprisingly, had 25% FEWER taste bud cells than lean, sexy mice. The researchers concluded that the inflammation associated with fat gain reduces the number of taste buds on the tongue.
They noted: “…low-grade inflammation brought on by obesity reduces the number of taste buds in gustatory tissues of mice – and is likely the cause of taste dysfunction seen in obese populations – by upsetting this balance of renewal and cell death.”
Human taste buds (or taste sensory cells) die and regenerate quickly; their average lifespan is just a few weeks. So this effect is reversible with weight loss. But if you keep gaining fat, you’ll regenerate fewer and fewer taste bud cells.
Talk to an obese guy and he’ll often tell you that he, ironically, doesn’t even enjoy food anymore. Now we know part of the reason why: food doesn’t taste as good because he has fewer taste bud cells.
We can theorize that this is part of the reason why overweight people reach for increasingly fatty and sugary foods – those hyper-flavored foods taste normal to them. A lean person may find a banana sweet and a donut cloying, but an obese person wouldn’t taste the natural sweetness in a piece of fruit, and it wouldn’t be satisfying.
This could become a slippery slope even for the not-obese person who enjoys one too many cheat meals – or a lifter on a bulking diet. The fatter you get, the more sweetness you’ll need to satisfy your “sweet tooth,” and the harder it’ll be to enjoy healthy foods. But as you lose body fat, you’ll grow more taste buds and be more sensitive to healthy flavors.
Followers of the Velocity Diet have reported similar effects: after the 28-day diet, healthy foods they didn’t even like before began to taste delicious, making their fat loss more easily sustainable.
Many evolutionary biologists believe that the so-called sweet tooth exists not to make you crave candy and kid cereal, but to make you enjoy sweeter natural foods.
It makes sense. If you didn’t have a “receptor” for fruits and berries, you wouldn’t eat them and would miss out on those important nutrients and other goodies. The sweet tooth is there to ensure nutritional variety. Sadly, the sweet tooth has been hijacked by refined sugars.
This could be another downside of cheat meals. The more you have, the less satisfaction you get from nutritious foods. You may not lose 25% of your taste buds, but you could reduce them a little, then a little more as you gain body fat. Healthy foods will begin to taste worse, making losing that extra fat even more miserable.
The take-home message? Don’t get fat. And don’t become a cheat meal addict. On the bright side, this can be reversed with healthy eating due to the constant turnover of your taste buds. You’ll just have to suck it up until those new cells proliferate and replenish.
- Kaufman A et al. Inflammation arising from obesity reduces taste bud abundance and inhibits renewal. PLoS Biol. 2018 Mar 20;16(3):e2001959. PubMed.
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