Wonder why your numbers on the scale keep climbing? It might be due to a surprising source: As you gain weight, your perception of certain tastes tend to diminish, a new study in the Journal of Nutrition found. And that may prompt you to eat more junk.
In the study, researchers recruited 93 college students, and tested their taste perception three times over the course of the school year. They recorded their weight each time, too.
The researchers discovered that the guys gained an average of about four pounds over that eight-month period, equating to about a 2.6 percent increase in weight. And for those who did put on the pounds, the more weight they gained, the less intensely they were able to determine salty and sweet tastes. That means they judged salty foods as less salty than before, and sweet foods as less sweet than before. (Here's why you crave more salty foods when you're stressed, too.)
In fact, for every one percent increase in body weight, the men’s perception of sweetness dropped by 11 percent, and salty tastes declined by eight percent. Weight gain didn’t significantly change how they tasted other flavors, like umami, sour, or bitter.
So what’s the big deal if you can’t taste sweet or salty as intensely as before? Turns out, it puts your waistline at risk. That’s because taste is hardwired into your brain’s reward centers, according to the study. If your taste is diminished, you might be tempted to eat more and more of the food to try to trigger that same reward boost.
And if you’re overeating salty snacks like potato chips or sweet treats like ice cream or cookies, it’s not surprising that weight gain will follow.
That can lead to a vicious cycle, explains study author Robin Dando, Ph.D. The more your taste buds diminish, the more salty and sweet foods you’ll have to eat to get the same taste you expect. Then, you gain more weight, which, according to these findings, may blunt your taste buds even further.
“We think this forms a feedback loop, and leads to more weight gain,” he says.
But how exactly are those extra pounds messing with your taste buds in the first place, possibly starting that weight gain cycle? Experts don’t know for sure, but they believe that inflammation might be the culprit. Extra fat can trigger the release of inflammatory compounds in your body, and it’s possible that they can mess with your taste buds’ ability to regenerate. As a result, your taste response can diminish.
Based on these findings, the best thing you can do to break that feedback loop is to work on tamping down your body's inflammatory response, says Dando.
“Foods that fight inflammation would be a good move, as would behaviors such as exercise,” he says.
Fruits and vegetables are particularly good choices. Blueberries in particular have been shown to tamp down inflammation, studies have found. Following the Mediterranean diet by eating foods that are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats can fight inflammation as well, according to Spanish research.
As for exercise? Well, you might not have to sweat for as long as you think. Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise has been shown to reduce production of inflammatory compounds in your body, a study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health US.