Bariatric surgery can bring many new and exciting changes to an individual who has been struggling with obesity. Positive changes in weight loss may occur, but many patients report changes regarding taste and food preferences. Changes in taste and smell have been observed more in different types of surgery such as gastric bypass. One study showed that 97% of patients experienced at least one sensory change (taste, smell, and appetite) immediately following weight loss surgery while another study reported that 82% of patients experienced changes in taste. The most common sensory changes reported by patients is a sensitivity to sweeter foods and beverages, sour foods, and fast foods (fatty, greasy foods). Experts have found it hard to tell if these taste, smell, and food cravings will ever revert to how they were before surgery because of the difference in individual patient outcomes. In one study, taste changes were long lasting for most patients that followed-up two and a half years after surgery. Although, in other cases, patients may see changes lessen or even disappear over time.
When you consume a food or beverage, receptors throughout the body send hormonal messages to the nervous system to relay the feeling of hunger (ghrelin), pleasure in eating foods you desire (dopamine), and the feeling of fullness (leptin). These messages travel back and forth between the brain and gastrointestinal tract. After gastric bypass surgery, it is believed that taste and smell alterations occur because of fluctuating hormones caused by changes to the stomach and intestinal tract that interrupt the messages sent by the nervous system to these areas of the body.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter sent by the brain to the gastrointestinal tract to give you a feeling of happiness and pleasure while consuming something sweet. As you continue eating, hormones like leptin are released to decrease the feeling of pleasure to stop you from eating excessive amounts of food.
Leptin is a hormone that plays the role of telling your body that you are full and controls how calories are stored. Non-surgical weight loss and weight loss induced by surgery are believed to improve the sensitivity of the hormonal message’s leptin produces. Increased sensitivity can result in satisfaction of smaller meals and a decrease in the way the body perceives flavor in different food and beverage items.
Ghrelin is the other hormone that has a role in the feeling of hunger. It determines how much of what we eat can be burned for energy or what can be stored as fat. Non-surgical weight loss has been shown to increase the amount of ghrelin produced by the body, which is why you feel hungry as soon as calories are restricted, and you start to lose weight. Surgical weight loss, such as gastric bypass surgery, produces a different outcome due to a portion of the stomach and intestine being bypassed. In turn, this reduces the amount of ghrelin produced while also restricting the amount of food consumed. Therefore bariatric patients can eat less without feeling hungry.
Taste changes could be a positive outcome after surgery, helping an individual from reverting to their old ways, but it could also cause a problem. Some tips that may help with taste changes regarding the flavor of protein shakes or different healthful foods (animal proteins like chicken, eggs, turkey) that seem to not taste the same anymore would include:
- Chilling protein shakes before drinking
- Try savory options like unflavored protein in a broth or soup flavored protein
- Change up the way you prepare food (poaching, simmering, boiling, braising, steaming, etc.)
- Speak to your doctor about changing up your vitamin regimen (chewables, capsules, drinkable vitamins)
After surgery, it is extremely important to follow a vitamin regimen for the rest of your life to avoid any unwanted deficiencies that could have been otherwise preventable. If your vitamin regimen is no longer working due to taste aversions, try different options that may work for you and your doctor’s recommendations. Give time for your body to heal after surgery and try to go back to a previous regimen because depending on the person, things may change over time.