Does fat taste different?

Could it be that fat tastes different to someone struggling with an eating disorder?

The taste of fat has been proposed to be added to the list alongside sweet, salt, sour, and bitter as a primary taste. Individuals with anorexia nervosa tend to report a low preference for high fat foods and to specifically restrict fat from their overall intake. Why?

Janet Schebendach, PhD, RD, and colleagues at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders wanted to better understand this feature of anorexia nervosa. Patients on our inpatient unit and healthy adults without an eating disorder agreed to help.

Study Specifics

Twenty-five patients with anorexia nervosa and twenty-five healthy controls participated in a three-part taste test in our eating laboratory. Individuals tasted small samples of three types of cream cheese (in random order)—fat-free, low fat, and regular—to rate their fat content. They repeated the test three times, tasting a total of nine cream cheese samples.

Study Results

Contrary to the team’s hypothesis, patients with anorexia nervosa were not better able to distinguish between high fat and low fat foods when compared to healthy individuals. With repeated exposure (over the three trials), however, the accuracy of ratings of the fat-free cream cheese improved among individuals with anorexia nervosa but not among controls.

What does it all mean?

Findings from this study suggest that individuals with anorexia nervosa do not have an enhanced ability to taste fat as compared those without an eating disorder. It is possible, however, that repeated experience with fat-free products over time might make it easier for individuals with anorexia nervosa to recognize some of the features associated with a fat-free food.

Overall, we are lead to believe that the fat avoidance characteristic of anorexia nervosa may instead be based on cognitive factors (like making decisions based on nutrition labels) which bear further study.

In the meantime, we are now taking a look at information collected in a related questionnaire about fat preference in food to see if we can learn more.

To read more about the study described above, check out:

Schebendach JE, Klein DA, Mayer LES, Devlin MJ, Attia E, Walsh BT. (2014). Assessment of Fat Taste in Individuals With and Without Anorexia Nervosa. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(2),215-18.

Photo credit: Creative Commons by alex_smith1

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