Ever wonder why you have a preference of sweet over salty? Or you find yourself mimicking foods habits that your parents or even grandparents have? It should come as no surprise that our flavor profiles and taste preferences don’t fall far from the tree.
Eating behaviors are created from a large web of physiologic, environmental, psychological, social and genetic factors. As more research and science unfolds, we are beginning to learn that genetics play a stronger role than we once thought in developing our taste buds and flavor preferences. Thanks to nutrigenomics, the scientific relationship between nutrition and genes, we are closer to unraveling the truth behind what really drives our eating habits.
Silvia Berciano, a predoctoral fellow at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid and researcher at Tufts University in Boston, studied how our brain responds to foods we crave and it finally makes sense why we can’t put down the bag of potato chips.
Berciano stated at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting in Chicago in April, “Most people have a hard time modifying their dietary habits, even if they know it is in their best interest. This is because of our food preferences and ability to work toward goals or follow plans affect what we eat and our ability to stick with diet changes”(1). This holds true for so many Americans as we constantly get on and off the so-called, diet train.
This preliminary study analyzed how brain genes affect food intake and food preferences in men and women of European ancestry. Behold, researchers found the genes that they studied played a significant role in a person’s dietary habits. What does that mean? Well, you may now partially blame your father for having a strong affinity for coffee ice cream and your mother for taking one too many Oreos. The key word here is, partially.
The study was able to spot specific genes in individuals based on a rigorous dietary analysis of the study participant’s food diary and food questionnaires. For instance, those with a high chocolate intake and larger waist size had a lower number of oxytocin receptor genes.
Berciano speculates that those individuals with a lower number of oxytocin receptor genes need a higher volume of chocolate to provide a desired level of satisfaction, thus leading towards a larger waist size. Other findings in the study show that certain genes are responsible for our preferences in salty foods, fat high in fat, chocolate and even our interest in vegetables, bitter foods and high fiber foods (1).
It should be no surprise some people are more sensitive to specific flavors such as broccoli,grapefruit and caffeine.
Research has shown that people can be considered “supertasters” while others can be described as “regular tasters” and others as “non-tasters” when assessing their abilities to taste specific bitter substances. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, a researcher at Yale University, found that our ability to taste or not to taste bitter foods appears to also be determined by genetics. Plus, there are more taste buds on the tongues of a supertaster when compared to the taste buds tongues of a non-taster (2). Further research is exploring the path of studying the density of the bumps on participant’s tongues, the composition of saliva and the sensitivity of taste receptors to learn how powerful our genetics truly are (3).
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of medicine have been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) as a modality of research to understand the role of genetics as it applies neurological responses to food stimuli. Basically, individuals that possess a specific allele might be predisposed to overeating as they experience strong neural reward responses to food or food stimulus. Even though that doesn’t seem fair, it does explain that overeating, food addiction and binging, can possibly be explained by our genetics(3).
So, is it a coincidence that our brain tells us to go toward the chocolate even after we had a well-balanced meal? Well, these studies do not definitively give us a hard yes or no on that one. There is not a direct causation relationship but researchers are looking deeper into nutrigenomics at this point. By no means do these studies grant us permission to blame our genetics when we accidentally finished the carton of ice cream. We have to assess the other factors that direct our taste buds and food decisions, such as environmental factors too.
Are you more likely to engage in some dessert after dinner if the rest of your family is? Probably. Do we tend to crave a snack after we catch a whiff of the freshly popped popcorn at the movie theaters? Absolutely. Those are extrinsic factors that cause us to want to eat, not because our body is calling out for food.
There is much debate of how much of this is nurture vs. nature, external vs. internal stimulus, or merely a lack of human self-control when we can’t resist the urge to go into the cookie jar after a long day at work. What we do know is that by pinpointing these specific urges in people, we can come up with individualized eating practices to nutritionally treat and educate them.
By utilizing nutrigenomics, registered dietitians can create nutrition plans to combat and directly treat our genetic susceptibility towards eating behaviors such as binge eating, carbohydrate cravings or food addiction. In fact, researchers are starting to use nutrigenomics as a means to create customized treatments by sequencing and analyzing genetic profiles.
Already, researchers assessed participants’ DNA and provided therapy tailored toward their genetic profile and saw that there were improvements in weight loss, sugar craving reduction, appetite suppression, snack reduction, and reduction of late night eating (4). Alas, there is hope!
It is not doubted that genes are linked to eating behaviors and psychological traits and play a strong role in the make-up of our food preferences and dietary habits. By further researching our nutrigenomics, health care professionals, such as registered dietitians, can implement the more prudent customized dietary advice and personalized treatment that gives hope to prevent the onset of chronic diseases and conditions in the future. Remember, nutrition advice can never be viewed as a “one size fits all approach” because each person’s own DNA makes them truly unique and we have our genetics to thank us for that.
Featured Image: Shutterstock
In-Post Images: Shutterstock
 Linda M. Bartoshuk; Comparing Sensory Experiences Across Individuals: Recent Psychophysical Advances Illuminate Genetic Variation in Taste Perception. Chem Senses 2000; 25 (4): 447-460. doi: 10.1093/chemse/25.4.447
 Grimm ER, Steinle NI. Genetics of Eating Behavior: Established and Emerging Concepts. Nutrition reviews. 2011;69(1):52-60. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00361.x.)
 Waite RL, Williams L, Braverman ER, et al. LG839: anti-obesity effects and polymorphic gene correlates of reward deficiency syndrome. Advances in Therapy. 2008;25(9):894–913. [PubMed]