Middle-ear infections—the most common illness in young children—afflict three out of every four kids before the age of three. Now research suggests that these bacterial infections cause more than just pain. They may lead to taste impairment, putting children at an increased risk of becoming obese.

Linda Bartoshuk, a University of Florida researcher who studies how taste perception affects health, knew from earlier research that middle-ear infections can damage the chorda tympani, the nerve that carries taste information from the front of the tongue to the brain. She wanted to know whether such damage might have other health effects, so she administered surveys to 6,584 people attending a scientific lecture series.

Bartoshuk was surprised to find that subjects with a history of moderate to severe middle-ear infections were 62 percent more likely than the others to be obese, according to data presented at the American Psycho­logical Association meeting in August. She has since confirmed the link using three large databases main­tained by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Minnesota and the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Bartoshuk also found a link between tonsillectomies, which were a common treatment for ear infections until the late 1980s, and obesity: six- to 11-year-olds who had their tonsils re­moved were 40 percent more likely to be obese as children than other kids were.

“One could imagine since these children have ear problems or other illnesses more constantly, they’d be smaller,” says Howard Hoffman, a researcher at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, who examined the NCHS data. “Turns out that’s not what happens.”

Because ear infections precede the weight gain, Bartoshuk believes they cause obesity rather than result from it. Previous research suggests that taste damage limits a person’s enjoyment of certain flavors but that it intensifies the ability to experience other kinds of oral sensations, such as texture. Fatty foods have a creamier texture than low-fat foods, so Bartoshuk speculates that people with taste damage consume more high-fat foods to compensate for flavor loss.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "The Obesity-Earache Link".