QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: Taste Perception in Eating Disorders

Q. I was reading somewhere that foods may taste differently to people with eating disorders than to those without eating disorders. Is there any truth to this?

A.There is some evidence of this. A group of researchers at the Division of Intramural Research at the National Institutes of Health, the School of Nursing, and the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, recently used a systematic review to find studies that might answer this question.

The group, led by Dr. Ariana M. Chao, used a systematic literature review that initially included 2820 studies and 364 full-text articles, but only yielded 49 relevant studies in the end. Most studies included only female participants, and the mean age of participants ranged from 15 to 42 years of age. The researchers included studies of patients with AN, BN, and BED (Biolog Res Nrs. 2020; 22:82). And these studies ranged from self-report to direct taste measurement to neuroimaging methods.

The researchers did find some interesting characteristics among all the participants. Generally, individuals with BN had a greater preference for sweetness than those with AN. Patients diagnosed with AN had a greater aversion to fat.

When the authors evaluated the results of neuroimaging studies, they found that activation of taste-reward regions of the brain (for example, the insula, ventral, and dorsal striatum) to sweet-taste stimuli was lower in those with AN and higher in those with BN and BED.

The authors note that results were somewhat variable and this may relate to varied study designs. Some studies had no controls, and study sizes varied widely.

– SC

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