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How sensitive are you to the taste of fat and why?

We can blame our genetics for a lot of things in life, however when it comes to fat sensitivity, there’s a commonly-held myth that has been de-bunked.

Fat taste sensitivity is how sensitive you are to the ‘taste’ of fatty acids, a component of dietary fat in foods. Professor Russell Keast, Director of Deakin’s Centre for Advanced Sensory Science, led a new research project that discovered the real cause behind sensitivity to fat: your diet.

‘There’s this idea that maybe some people are just not as good at sensing high levels of fat, and that they’re born that way,’ Prof. Keast says.

To explore this, the study altered the diets of 44 sets of twins for eight weeks, with one twin being allocated a high-fat diet, and the other a low-fat diet.

‘What we found is that genetics does not provide any protection against the dietary influence of fat. If we eat a high fat diet, we lose our ability to sense fat.’

You might be wondering whether that’s actually a significant thing. As Prof. Keast explains, it really is.

Why fat sensitivity is a big deal

How sensitive you are to fat is quite consequential.

Prof. Keast says there’s a strong link between taste sensitivity and satiety – the feeling of fullness you get from eating.

‘If you are eating too many high-fat foods, fat becomes an invisible nutrient,’ he explains.

‘The satiety response becomes very important because consumers have to be satisfied to stop eating.’

‘People who have a lower sensitivity to the fat taste, end up eating far more kilojoules from fat because they need more to feel satisfied.’

‘It’s vitally important we’re careful with what we’re eating,’ Prof. Keast says. ‘Otherwise we will get in a bad cycle of our bodies becoming accustomed to high levels of fat and requiring higher levels of fat to become satisfied. That can then lead to obesity.’

How much fat is too much?

Dr Andrew Costanzo, a researcher in Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, explains Australians are recommended to get between 20% and 35% of their energy from fat in their diet.

On average, Aussies take in about 31% of their energy from fat, and that’s perfectly fine.

'What we found is that genetics does not provide any protection against the dietary influence of fat. If we eat a high fat diet, we lose our ability to sense fat.'

Prof. Russell Keast,
Director of Centre for Advanced Sensory Science (CASS), Deakin University

Dr Costanzo says the issue of a lowered sensitivity to fat begins with people whose fat consumption extends above the recommended range.

‘A moderate amount of fat is good for our health, but excess fat becomes a problem,’ he explains.

‘What this study shows is that if you want to lose weight, choosing lower-fat foods is good because it will gradually increase your sensitivity to the taste of fat.’

In the study, each individual twin allocated to a low-fat diet consumed less than 20% of their energy from fat. It was found that at four weeks, and then again at eight weeks, these people were able to identify fatty acids at lower concentrations than their sibling who had been on a high-fat diet.

Dr Costanzo says a higher sensitivity to fat taste won’t change how much you like the taste of fatty foods, but instead, the small amount of fat that you do eat will make you feel fuller, quicker.

‘In the longer term we can build an increased sense of satisfaction for foods with a lower-fat content, we’ve just got to battle those hard initial weeks.’

Body weight isn’t always linked to sensitivity to fat

Prof. Keast says, ‘Body weight and BMI are multifactorial, sometimes we find a link and sometimes we do not. You may eat a high-fat diet, but be very active and therefore maintain a healthy weight.

‘Or you may eat a lot of carbohydrates, less fat, be inactive and obese. So it is the number of variables that mean we will not always find body weight associating with fat taste sensitivity.’

In saying that, if you’re keen to increase your sensitivity to fat taste, Prof. Keast advises to cut down on any food that is high in fat.

‘Cutting down on butter or margarine is good, and butter or oil based sauces – so anything that has high fat content, cut down or minimise the serving size.’

Love learning about the science of nutrition? Discover some of the secret ingredients to a career in this field.

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Prof. Russell Keast
Prof. Russell Keast

Director, Centre for Advanced Sensory Science, Deakin University

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Dr Andrew Costanzo
Dr Andrew Costanzo

Lecturer, School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

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