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Eating Disorders Change How you Taste Food

Eating disorders may affect how you taste and enjoy food, according to a recent study out of the University of Colorado.

Researchers had 106 women taste test sugar water and a tasteless water solution. During the taste test, researchers took brain scans to analyze changes to hormones and neurons within the insula, the part of the brain that regulates emotions, self-awareness and perception. Researchers wanted to find out whether abnormal eating patterns correlated to the insula’s ability to classify taste. They discovered that the brain classifies tastes differently when someone has an eating disorder.

In the study, participants who had anorexia or who were obese couldn’t really distinguish between the sugary water and the tasteless water. On the other hand, people who had recovered from anorexia clearly could tell the difference.

There are several things that could affect how someone with an eating disorder processes taste. Leptin, a hormone that helps to regulates hunger, changes when someone is obese or has an eating disorder, which affects how the brain responds to food. People with eating disorders often don’t find enjoyment in foods that most people would consider indulgent, like a piece of chocolate cake or a rack of barbecue ribs. On the other end of the spectrum, those who are obese have trouble reaching a point of satisfaction with food, which leads to overeating. University of Colorado researchers also suggest that structural changes in a certain area of the brain could affect the insula’s capability to distinguish taste. Fortunately, these problems go away when a person reaches a healthy weight, according to the researchers.

The study’s findings are so important because taste affects what we eat — and how much of it. An inability to process taste correctly could lead to overeating or undereating. Now that we know how the brain responds to certain foods may change because of certain eating patterns, we may be able to use this information to give patients better, more targeted treatment.

Though we still need to understand the specific mechanisms that drive these brain changes — whether it be leptin or impaired pathways within the insula — the study clearly shows that eating disorders and obesity are intensely psychological and emotional disorders. Changing the way you think is difficult under any circumstance, but when the health consequences could be severe, it’s even more challenging. Researchers say that adjusting the flavor intensity in foods  for people with anorexia or those who are obese may help them better distinguish taste, and in turn, re-establish healthier eating patterns. However, more research needs to be done in this area.

Either way, the study’s findings could pave a path for helping more patients with eating disorders and obesity, which will ultimately improve their quality of life or even save it.