Ozempic, Wegovy Improve Sense of Taste, Aiding Weight Loss

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June 4, 2024 – Sofia Spieler, a Boston public relations professional who has been losing weight on Wegovy, said her “snack monster” has essentially disappeared after she's had a lifelong sweet tooth. 

“In the past, hearing words like 'Sour Patch Kids' used to make my mouth water. Now I don’t feel the need to find the treat for myself. I do find I want something small from time to time, but a bite of chocolate or a glass of wine usually satiates me.”

New research suggests Spieler isn’t alone. 

Semaglutide, found in weight loss drugs Ozempic and Wegovy, has been found to improve sensitivity to taste, perhaps explaining another way the medications help change food preferences and lead to weight loss.

These drugs, also known as GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1) receptor agonists, also changed gene expression in the tongue responsible for taste perception and changed the brain’s reward response to sweet tastes, researcher Mojca Jensterle Sever, PhD, of the University Medical Centre, Ljubljana, Slovenia, told those attending ENDO 2024, the annual Endocrine Society meeting, Saturday in Boston.

The study was small, including only 30 women with obesity. But in a news conference, Sever said it builds on previous research. 

“Some studies report that individuals living with obesity often perceive tastes as less intense," she said. Other research suggests that people who are more sensitive to certain tastes are likely to consume less of those foods, and those with lower sensitivity may eat more. “Populations that are prone to obesity have an inherently elevated desire for sweets and energy-dense foods,” Sever said. 

Study Details

To focus on the impact of semaglutide on taste perception, the researchers randomly assigned 30 women, average age 33.7 with a BMI of 36.4 – any BMI over 30 is considered obese – to either 1 milligram of semaglutide or a placebo. 

The researchers measured their taste sensitivity for 16 weeks, using taste strips with 4 concentrations of sweet, salty, and bitter tastes. Brain responses to a sweet solution dripping onto the tongue before and after a meal were measured with functional MRI. Small tissue samples were also taken from the women’s tongues.

Those on semaglutide, compared to those on placebo, had improvements in taste sensitivity and in the renewal of taste buds on the tongue. In response to the stimuli of sweet taste, those on semaglutide also had increased activity in a brain area that provides feedback about reward, which may be reduced in people with obesity. The shift in feeling reward instead of feeling neutral toward taste could be important to weight control. 

Sever predicted her findings would ring true with obesity doctors as well as patients on the GLP-1 medications. But in an email interview, she said, “At this point, we cannot generalize that those taking semaglutide may now perceive sweets in the same way as people who are not obese, and so do not crave sweets [and other calorie-dense foods].”

While the effects on taste were clinically detectable in her study, it is unknown if it is “clinically meaningful,” as they didn’t assess the effect on food preferences or diet changes. 

Perspective: In Real Life

The new research findings do reflect what she hears from some of her patients on the GLP-1 medications, said Megan Melo, MD, a family and obesity medicine doctor at Phinney Primary Care and Wellness in Seattle. They tell her they have less interest in sweets as well as salty or junk foods. “They want to eat vegetables and fresh food instead.”

So far, there hasn't been enough research on this part of obesity, she said, which she calls an “over desire for foods, especially highly processed foods that hit the ‘bliss point.’ When people [taking the GLP-1 drugs] no longer have the cravings and chatter, not only does their eating change, but it also frees up so much brain energy.