Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Sweet tooth? How your taste buds affect your weight.

A sweet tooth doesn't necessarily lead to a bulging belly

Sweet tooth? Personally, I think I might have a salty one. A candy bar can sit in my fridge untouched for eons but a nice wedge of gouda disappears in a matter of seconds. And don't even get me started on posh crisps or roasted almonds. If you offer me a kettle chip you're basically kissing the whole lot goodbye - I hope you weren't terribly hungry.

So why do we all have such different food preferences?

For starters, some people's genes lead them to have different kinds of tongues: about 25% of people have an extra-high number of taste buds, and as a result they experience bitter tastes more intensely, leading them to avoid brussel sprouts and gravitate towards simple sweet snacks. Researchers call these people supertasters. (Their mothers call them fussy.)

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Genes may also influence children's food preferences in other ways, leading to genetic differences in liking for all kinds of other foods. For example, identical twins have more similar preferences to each other than non-identical twins, particularly when it comes to protein foods like fish or meat.

How does this relate to our body weight? It's not abundantly clear.

Some research does show that preferences for sweet tastes are associated with weight gain. But obviously you can get pretty large on non-sweet things too, as long as they’re combined with obesity-promoting fat.

And even having a general disposition towards high-calorie foods - whether salty or sugary - doesn't necessarily mean you'll overeat them. Many researchers believe that the key factor is not how much you like those foods, but how much you want them.

That said, I know a lot of people who would very much like to file down their sweet tooth - whether it's in terms of liking or wanting or both. And for those ambitious individuals, all is not lost.

The key is experience. Children whose parents give them tiny tastes of red pepper 10-15 times end up liking and eating the vegetable significantly more than when they began, suggesting that preferences are mutable.

And it doesn't just work in early life. Adults on a supplement-based diet reported reduced cravings for sweet, high-calorie foods - and they stayed reduced even when they started eating normal foods again.

The implications? A sweet tooth doesn't have to mean a bulging belly. If you take a long-term break from both Ben & Jerry, there's a good chance that your ice-cream cravings will subside with time.

You may also be able to placate your sugary molar with sweet fruits like grapes and pineapple, which provide the taste hit you desire without the accompanying calories.

And if you're still in the mood for a bit of processed sugar you could always eat that 2007 vintage candy bar I told you about earlier. Can't see it? I think it's behind the expired chocolate sprinkles.

Bon appetit, sweeties!

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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