Weight Loss Drugs May Improve Sense of Taste

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  • GLP-1 medications, like Ozempic and Wegovy, may change the sense of taste in people with obesity, a new study finds.
  • There is evidence of people taking GLP-1 drugs reporting changes in their cravings for certain foods, like sweets.
  • Experts explain the findings and how they may relate to weight loss.

The buzz around semaglutide, the main active ingredient in Ozempic and Wegovy, shows no signs of quieting anytime soon. In fact, interest is on the rise and anecdotal side effects of these Glucagon-Like Peptide 1 (GLP-1) medications are still coming to light. You may have heard about Ozempic butt, Ozempic face, and even Ozempic personality. Now, a new small study indicates that these types of medications may influence people’s sense of taste.

The study, presented at ENDO 2024, (the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Boston, MA) looked into how semaglutide might impact taste sensitivity. It’s important to point out that this study has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, and only looked at 30 women.

Previous research has shown that people with obesity often perceive tastes less “intensely,” and they have an inherently elevated desire for sweet and energy-dense food, Mojca Jensterle Sever, Ph.D., study author, said in a press release. “Our findings build upon preliminary animal studies showing that central administration of GLP-1 medications impacts taste aversion to sweetness,” Jensterle Sever noted. GLP-1 agonists are a class of drugs that mimic the effects of the body’s natural GLP-1 hormone (which stimulates insulin secretion and inhibits glucagon release) and are used to treat type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Researchers recruited 30 women with an average age of 34. Half of the participants took semaglutide once weekly; the other half took a placebo. At the beginning and end of the 16-week study, the scientists measured three things:

  • Taste sensitivity: Measured using strips infused with the four basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
  • Gene expression: Evaluated by taking biopsies of participants’ tongues to see which information encoded in a gene is turned into a function.
  • Brain responses: Evaluated by a functional MRI scan while a sweet solution dripped onto their tongue before and after a meal.

The results of the study revealed that those taking semaglutide were more sensitive to tastes than those taking a placebo. Researchers found that the tongue biopsies showed increased activity of genes associated with “taste signaling transduction pathways, neural plasticity, and renewal of taste buds in the tongue,” in those who took semaglutide. Lastly, the brain scans demonstrated that, in response to tasting a sweet solution, there was increased activity in the angular gyrus of the parietal cortex—a part of the brain that influences language and number processing, memory, and reasoning.

This shift in a person’s concept of reward compared with neutral feelings toward taste could have significance for understanding and potentially adjusting taste preferences in people with obesity, per the press release.

So, how can GLP-1 agonist drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy influence taste? According to Deena Adimoolam, M.D., board-certified endocrinologist and a member of Prevention’s Medical Review Board, we have known that GLP-1s impact taste sensitivity for quite some time. “This is done through a variety of complex mechanisms and interactions between GLP1 and various parts of the body,” she explains, such as:

  • GLP-1 is produced by the taste buds themselves
  • GLP-1 is produced in the gut, which may be influenced by taste, especially the perception of sweet taste
  • GLP-1 is produced in the brain, which is also influenced by taste

Studies have shown that people on GLP-1 drugs report changes in their cravings for certain foods, including sweets and rich or fatty foods, which could certainly be related to a (negative) change in the way they perceive these foods on the taste buds, says Avantika Waring, M.D., endocrinologist and chief medical officer at 9amHealth. “And if foods aren’t perceived by the brain as ‘tasty’, then it makes sense that people would crave them less, and consume less of them,” she explains.

If patients are satisfied with food that is less sweet, or satisfied with a smaller amount of sweet food, this could significantly impact their caloric intake and have a potent effect on their weight loss, agrees Meghan Garcia-Webb, M.D., triple board-certified in internal medicine, lifestyle medicine, and obesity medicine physician and internist at Beth Israel Lahey Health. “Patients on semaglutide tend to find it is easier to stop eating when they are satisfied. They also tend to be more satisfied even though portions are smaller. They also don’t crave food as much, if at all.” So part of this increased satisfaction with meals may be tied to better sensory perception, including enhanced ability to taste sweetness, Dr. Garcia-Webb explains. Hence, GLP-1 drug users getting “more of a sensory reward with less calories.”

As of now, we don’t know if these changes to taste sensitivity are permanent, says Dr. Waring, “And the data we have to date suggests that when the drugs are stopped, the effect of the drug also reverses when it comes to weight loss.” However, the changes the researchers noted were related to gene expression, a process by which information encoded in a gene is turned into a function, such as turning protein production “on” and “off.” So, it is likely that it isn’t permanent but more related to the impact of the drug, Dr. Waring explains.

The bottom line

There are important limitations to consider with this study, Dr. Adimoolam points out. “The sample size was small, the study does not reflect the way the general population with obesity eats and lives day-to-day, and we do not know these changes actually have a true impact on taste,” she says.

The science of taste, food cravings, preferences, drive to eat, and weight gain are complex, says Dr. Waring. “It’s exciting that we have medications that can help people who have obesity-related health conditions to lose weight and improve their health, but we still don’t know all the ways in which they work.” These results are important because they add to the growing body of evidence that GLP-1 medications work in a variety of ways to target the underlying causes of obesity, including taste perception, she notes.

It’s also important to know that some may change your perception of sweet tastes without medication, says Dr. Adimoolam. “You can do it with lifestyle and behavioral changes on your own,” she says. If you feel that you consume too much sugar, consider cutting back on your sugar intake each week gradually over weeks to months and over time your body’s perception of taste will change, she advises. Still, some people may need medications, and others may not. If you’re wondering if a semaglutide drug like Ozempic or Wegovy is right for you, to talk to your doctor who can best advise you on the best course of action.

Headshot of Madeleine Haase

Madeleine, Prevention’s assistant editor, has a history with health writing from her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD, and from her personal research at university. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience—and she helps strategize for success across Prevention’s social media platforms. 

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