Weight gain in college males linked to changes in taste sensitivity

In a longitudinal study of first-year college students, scientists link modest weight gain with a diminished ability to taste sweet and salty foods – particularly in males. The new Cornell research was published in the Journal of Nutrition, Aug. 23.

According to Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science and senior author on the study, weight gain over the course of the academic year was associated with a reduction in taste response in males. Females, in general, did not show any appreciable changes.

“Many people have heard that students in college gain weight, and it’s been called the freshman 15,” said Dando. “Well, it’s not really a freshman 15. It’s more like a freshman six or seven. But students do gain weight across that first year. Our research found that this weight gain was also tied to their taste response.”

College-Aged Males Experience Attenuated Sweet and Salty Taste with Modest Weight Gain” lead authors were Corinna Noel, Ph.D. ’17, and Patricia Cassano, professor of nutritional science.

Physiological differences between males and females likely account for the differences in weight gain based on taste, as gender influences on taste perception have been documented in other studies, the authors wrote. 

Dando said first-year college students often feel a lot of stress and negative emotions, which may influence taste perception, possibly altering concentrations of serotonin and noradrenaline. It’s also a time when hormones likely play a role in matters of taste.

The scientists also noticed that as the participants changed their consumption of meat, perceived umami (savory) sense became notably less intense. Dando explained that if the students increased their meat consumption, or consumption of other umami rich foods, the males became less sensitive to it, likely resulting in them desiring those foods more. “The more you eat meat, the more you want meat, and this implies another element of weight gain,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Male and the female participants on the whole became less sensitive to salty taste over the course of the academic year, likely as a result of eating out and consuming institutional food, Dando said. “An increase in salty food intake could be driven by the shift away from home-prepared meals,” he said.

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Joe Schwartz