There may be a scientific reason why some men binge on bacon.

UCF College of Medicine researchers have discovered that female sex hormones make women more sensitive to the taste of fat, helping them better regulate how much of it they eat.

“Our assumption is that the more you can taste it, the more sensitive you are to it,” says Naima Dahir, a Ph.D. candidate at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, who is conducting  the study. “And simply put, if you can taste it, you can regulate it. You’re a lot more aware of how much you’re eating and how much fat you’re consuming. You know when you’ve had enough.”

Dahir works in the lab of Timothy Gilbertson, an internal medicine specialist who focuses on the gustatory (taste) system and how the body uses it to recognize the intake of nutrients, including fats. Dahir’s research focus is whether sex hormones can affect diet and metabolism in men and women, Together they have discovered that men and women taste fats differently, which influences how much fatty foods they eat.

“Naima’s results may explain differences in taste preferences between the sexes,” says Gilbertson, whose lab is funded by the National Institutes of Health.  “And such broad concepts as why dieting success is different for the men and women, why weight gain is common after menopause, and how cravings may change during pregnancy, to name a few.”

Science has long known that female sex hormones help women live longer by protecting them against metabolic diseases like diabetes and hypertension and that this protection diminishes when a woman’s estrogen level declines due to aging and menopause.

“Knowing that estrogen protects women from metabolic diseases and that our risks varies with hormone levels prompted us to take a closer look at the role of estrogen in metabolism,” Dahir says. “Particularly whether estrogen receptors were present in the taste system.”

Not only did she find estrogen receptors in the taste system but in the specific cells that sense fat. The next step was to test how these receptors work and whether they functioned differently in men and women. Dahir tested the taste threshold using various concentrations of fatty acids, the building blocks of the fats we eat, in male and female mice. She found that females were able to taste fat at much lower concentrations, up to 10 times lower than the males. She also found that stopping the estrogen secretion in female mice made them lose their sensitivity to fat.  That led to weight gain, suggesting a reason that menopause can cause women to become heavier.

Dahir says these results indicate that estrogen plays a role in regulating diet and metabolism and hold promise for drug therapies that could prevent or treat obesity and other metabolic diseases. More studies are needed to get a better understanding of the role of estrogen in the taste system, she says.

“The taste system is a first step in nutritional intake,” Dahir says. “So, it’s really important to discriminate what goes in your mouth. It is great that these mechanisms are there to sense how much fat you eat and can help signal the rest of the body to maintain metabolic activity.”