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The Ear Infection/Fat Connection

Yesterday The Checkup looked at research suggesting that MSG can make you fat.

Today's culprit? Ear infections.

On rare occasion, science moves forward in big, decisive steps. But more often it's a piling up of small, even obscure-seeming discoveries that may help us better understand how our bodies work -- and that sometimes strike us as obscure, or even bizarre.

At first blush, a connection between common childhood ear infections and adult overweight does seem kind of bizarre. But research presented at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society earlier this week adds to a growing suspicion that repeated childhood ear infections may indeed contribute to obesity and overweight.

Ear infections can damage the nerve that carries taste sensations from the rear portion of the tongue to the brain, according to Derek J. Snyder, a doctoral student in neuroscience at Yale University who worked on the study along with lead researcher Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the University of Florida's College of Dentistry. That damage can change the way a person tastes food, Snyder suggests, and steer him toward preferring foods that feel good in the mouth such as ice cream and other high-fat dairy products.

Snyder and colleagues looked at the food preferences of 245 adults who'd had ear infections when they were little and 1,055 folks who hadn't. The former tended to really dig creamy, fat-filled foods; they also tend to be more overweight than those who hadn't suffered childhood ear infections.

Snyder says this study is the fourth to link ear infections to overweight. While more research remains to be done, he says (and he intends to do it), he speculates that early treatment of ear infections could possibly keep some people from growing up fat.

That could add an interesting new wrinkle to the ongoing debate about treating ear infections with antibiotics. Because many cases resolve themselves after a week or so, a few days' "watchful waiting" while managing pain is the current recommended treatment for many kids over six months. That approach is in keeping with efforts to reduce antibiotic use so as to curb bacteria's developing resistance to front-line medications. But what if we knew that by not treating an ear infection we risked setting our kid up to be overweight?

Snyder says

It is quite possible that early diagnosis and treatment of ear infections may prevent obesity in some people. That said, it is important to remember three things. First, ear infections are so common because they have many different causes (so responses to a particular treatment may vary), which presents a significant public health challenge. Second, ear infections represent one of many factors related to obesity, so we need to develop a greater understanding of how these factors work together to increase intake and body mass. Finally, we are just beginning to explore this effect in detail, so it is possible that ear infections influence body mass only in certain groups of people. Further study should clarify these issues, but at the very least, we have found a potentially important contribution to long-term obesity risk, one that may be preventable.

Snyder hopes to publish the findings within the next six months. As the mother of a kid who lived for years on amoxicillin, going from one ear infection to the next, I'll be watching with interest -- and keeping on eye on the ice-cream carton.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 22, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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Interesting. We have a Labrador Retriever who had chronic ear infections. We were diligent about cleaning his ears, but we could not clear up the infections. Our vet tested him for allergies and he showed a dairy allergy. We switched him to a dairy-free dog food (Wellness by Mother Hubbard) and his ears are great now. My husband has many food allergies, dairy is one of them. When he consumes any amount of dairy, he becomes congested.

We are learning that there is a strong connection between physical health (and in the case of our children, behavior) and food allergies. It really is incredible the relief that a change in diet can bring.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 22, 2008 8:13 AM | Report abuse

This is fascinating. I had severe ear infections as a pre-school child, one after another. I developed a weight problem in my early teens and I struggle with it still. And yes, fat-filled dairy-based foods "speak" to me in a way nothing else does.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 22, 2008 9:42 AM | Report abuse

My husband and I both had numerous ear infections as children. (Probably twice a year for me, more frequent for him from what he tells me.) Mine at least were regularly treated with amoxicillin. Neither of us is overweight (I am average build, he is very tall and thin) and we both enjoy taste-related activities, food and wine, etc. So, our experience would support the idea that either ear infections do not damage taste in all people, or treating them up front prevents the damage.

Posted by: K | August 28, 2008 9:15 AM | Report abuse

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