How Obesity Kills Taste Buds

Taste buds may be the tiniest victims of the obesity epidemic.

A man prepares to bite into a double cheeseburger at Majors Hamburgers, in Yakima, Washington.

In the long list of ways that obesity is bad for the body—hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, to name a few—a diminishing sense of taste can seem almost trivial. But the loss of taste could be fueling obesity itself—or at least help to explain why losing weight is so hard—by driving humans to consume more and more of the sugary, salty, and fatty foods that trigger the reward center in the brain. Understanding exactly how obesity affects taste is a critical first step to identifying an intervention. And now, a new study in mice, published today in PLoS Biology, shows that obesity-related inflammation leads to a rapid loss of taste buds.

Researchers have known for some years that obesity seems to weaken taste sensations, but it’s a hard phenomenon to study in humans. “It’s not controlled at all. You can’t test people before they’ve gained weight and then after they’ve gained weight, because you don’t know who is going to gain weight, you don’t know when they’re going to do it, you don’t know how much they’re going to gain,” says Robin Dando, an assistant professor at Cornell University and a co-author on the new study. “So we moved to the mouse model.”

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