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The Deafness of Taste: Childhood Ear Infections and Obesity

Say you are an otitis-triggered "energy-intense" eater. So, you have a greater preference for fatty and creamy foods... Does that mean that you are powerless to control your cravings? Of course, not.
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Michael Price (with American Psychological Association Monitor, October 2008 issue) reports: "research presented at APA's Annual Convention suggests that ear infections in early childhood have a profound effect on obesity later in life... children who suffer from repeated middle-ear infections, or otitis media, are much more likely to be overweight as children and as adults."

The APA Monitor article continues: Linda Bartoshouk, Ph.D., in exploring the "the correlations between taste perception and health" stumbled upon the following unanticipated finding: history of otitis media predicted body mass index, with males evidencing the greatest vulnerability, with the otitis kids being twice as likely to struggle with obesity as adults.

Derek Snyder, a Yale neuroscience graduate student hypothesises: "An important taste nerve, the chorda tympani, runs from the tongue up through the middle ear and into the brain... The effect is that certain nontaste sensations, like the creaminess of fat, get intensified."

The article explains: the chorda tympani neurologically drives the taste on the front of the tongue and since it is damaged by the otitis media, the taste sensations in the back of the tongue get amplfied to compensate for the overall loss of sensory experience, to assure "taste constancy." As a result, "the tongue's texture detectors pull double duty" and "a person's food preferences shift toward fatty and creamy foods."

Snyder sums up: "Over time, a history of ear infection may contribute to a more energy-dense diet" and, as such, contribute to adult obesity.

From Otitis to Obesity... Damn, biology again! So, what are we to make of this? What are the psychological implications of these research findings? How will the media spin the Otitis Media? Will we once again take the path of reductionistic explanations of our behavioral patterns at the cost of free will and self-efficacy? Will the Disease-Model weight management camp (the Overeaters Anonymous and the like) jump on this piece of research to try to convince you of the need to surrender to the presumed disease of compulsive overeating? Are we going to once again claim that biology trumps psychology and conclude that since there is a physiological explanation behind obesity it can only be solved physiologically?

So, there you go, another double-edged sword of mind-body dualism: this is an important research report that has a normalizing, validating implication, but, at the same time, it can be overinterpreted as an absolution of our responsibility for our physiological liabilities. So, say, you are an otitis-triggered "energy-intense" eater. So, you have a greater preference for fatty and creamy foods... Does that mean that you are powerless to control your cravings? Of course, not. Take this knowledge of the problem and take the responsibility for its solution. Whatever the problems of the body may be, do not rush to throw away the trump card of the mind!

Let the history of otitis explain your overeating, but don't let it excuse it.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of "Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time (New Harbinger Publications, 2008).

Childhood ear infections may pave the way for weight gain in adulthood. Michael Price. APA Monitor, Oct. 2008.