Do Eating Disorders Change The Way You Taste Food?

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According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, women with anorexia nervosa and those who are obese respond differently to taste than normal individuals. The novel findings could potentially lead to new treatments for eating disorders, according to the researchers from Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

“Taste is an important driver of food intake and invariably associated with distinct neuronal patterns in the insula, the brain’s primary taste cortex,” said the study’s lead author Guido Frank, M.D..

In order to see if abnormal eating patterns were associated with changes in the brain’s ability to classify and respond to taste, the researchers had 106 women undergo brain imaging while they tasted sugar water or a tasteless water solution. They then compared the imaging results to assess how well each person’s insula could differentiate between flavors.

The team observed that women with anorexia nervosa or who were obese showed distinct difficulty distinguishing between ordinary water or the sugar water. However, those who had recovered from eating disorders did not show this difficulty.

“If you can’t differentiate between tastes, that could impact how much you eat,” Frank said. “That could also activate or not activate brain reward circuits.”

The team says the changes in ability to distinguish tastes could be occurring a variety of ways. It may be related to changes in hormone levels which affect how the brain responds to food. However, it could also be due to structural changes in the brain or altered signal processing in the insula.

The study is the first to identify an association between eating disorders and changes in taste, but Frank thinks treatments that take this into account could be useful in the future. In particular, he suggests a treatment which alters the taste of foods to account for taste changes.

“Perhaps adjusting flavor intensity by reducing it for those with anorexia and enhancing it for those who are obese,” he said.

“It’s something we need to examine more closely.”

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