With rates of obesity growing across the globe, researchers are on a mission to identify new strategies to tackle the problem. According to a new study by scientists from Deakin University in Australia, one such strategy may lie in our taste buds.

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Researchers say training our taste buds to become more sensitive to the taste of fat could be a tool against obesity.

In the journal Obesity, study coauthor Prof. Russell Keast, head of the Centre for Advanced Sensory Science at Deakin, and colleagues claim that training our taste buds to become more sensitive to the taste of fat could deter us from consuming fatty foods.

The study builds on previous research from the team, which found that individuals who are more sensitive to the taste of fat tend to eat less, and that individuals who are overweight and obese have an impaired taste response to fat, leading to excess fat intake.

“It is becoming clear that our ability to taste fat is a factor in the development of obesity,” says Prof. Keast. “The results of this recent study, along with previous work, point to increasing fat taste sensitivity in those who are insensitive as a target for obesity treatment and prevention.”

In this latest study, the team randomized 53 overweight or obese participants to one of two diets for 6 weeks: a low-fat diet (with less than 25% of total daily calories from fat) or a portion-controlled diet (with 33% of total daily calories from fat, designed to lower energy intake by 25%).

Before and after each diet, the researchers measured participants’ fat taste thresholds, perception of fat levels in food samples, and their preference for regular-fat and low-fat foods. They also recorded subjects’ weight, height and hip measurements.

Weight loss was comparable for both groups, with subjects on the low-fat diet losing 2.9% of their body weight and participants on the portion-controlled diet losing 2.7% of their body weight.

Participants in both diet groups showed a significant reduction in fat taste thresholds – representing an increase in fat taste sensitivity – with subjects on the low-fat diet seeing the largest reductions.

However, only participants on the low-fat diet experienced an increase in the ability to perceive different fat concentrations.

These results, the team says, suggest that diet could be used to increase taste buds’ sensitivity to the taste of fat – a tool that could be used to combat overweight and obesity.

Study coauthor Dr. Lisa Newman, of the Centre for Advanced Sensory Science at Deakin, adds:

This could then lead to people being less inclined to fatty foods, which in turn could impact on not only reducing weight in people already overweight or obese, but also in preventing weight gain in the first instance.”

The researchers note that, while participants kept a food diary during the 6-week study period, these may not be an accurate reflection of dietary adherence, which could be seen as a limitation.

“However, the significant reduction in weight, BMI [body mass index], and waist-hip ratio, along with dietary data suggest that participants adhered to their allocated diet,” they add.

Furthermore, they point out that, to date, changes in fat taste sensitivity have not been reported independent of weight loss. “Therefore, future research should focus on studies that modulate fat intake while maintaining weight of participants,” they write.

In 2014, a study reported by Medical News Today identified stress hormone receptors in taste buds that researchers said could explain why people engage in emotional eating.