Consumer & Behavioral Science Consulting

Food And Love: How They Are Linked In The Brain

The Huffington Post did a piece recently on how relationships can affect body weight.

Food And Love: How They Are Linked In The Brain


We’ve all seen it, lived it, made jokes about it… our waistlines are affected by our love lives. Whether it’s the girl that landed the guy and now with all the rich dinners with him she’s gained 10 pounds… or the guy that was living on PB&J everyday now has a girlfriend and they eat together and he puts on 10 pounds… or the person that goes through the breakup and comfort eats into gaining 10 pounds… It’s a vicious cycle.

romantic dinner

Food and love are linked.  Think of the sayings…

“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” – unknown

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” ― Charles M. Schulz

“Comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.” – ‘The Song of Solomon’ 2:5

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” – Jack Brooks (song writer) ‘That’s Amore’

“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans. ” ―Ronald Reagan

We even start of our marriages by feeding each other:

wedding cake

Dr. Maryanne Fisher, a professor of psychology St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, focuses her research on the evolutionary foundations of human interpersonal relationships and had something to say about this phenomenon in a recent piece for Psychology Today:

“Food is a way to display skills to a potential mate,” Fisher told HuffPost Healthy Living. “You might buy nicer food, prepare better meals. It’s fascinating how it can be used as part of the relationship.”

Further, Fisher asserts a role for neuroscience in this tango:

“…those who are newly infatuated produce an overabundance of “reward hormones” like norepinephrine. Those in turn produce feelings of euphoria, giddiness and energy. But they also suppress appetite in many, according to Fisher.” (Huff Post article)

This is an interesting idea and one I’ve talked about in the past a lot (in industry, academia, and in discussions).  I’ve always thought this was an interesting idea for using smells in dieting. The first and most basic response we have to any scent is liking/disliking—a hedonic emotional response. Associative learning explains both how odors become liked and disliked, as well as how odors elicit deeply emotional memory associations and behavioral responses. After being paired with an emotionally meaningful event, a previously neutral odor can reactivate the original event, such that when later encountered the odor itself elicits the emotions that were originally paired with it, along with the consequent cognitive, behavioral, and physiological sequelae of those emotions. Associative learning and the immediate neural and emotional responses that odors elicit explain how some odors have earned the reputation of having effects such as increasing positive mood and heart rate. So in this sense, the scent would be the reward…

In Fisher’s study of romantic love, she and colleagues used fMRI to determine the neural mechanisms of romantic attraction. The had two groups of people: 17 in “intense love” and 15 who were recently “rejected in love”.

Preliminary analysis showed activity specific to the beloved in related regions of
the reward system associated with monetary gambling for uncertain large gains and losses, and in
regions of the lateral orbitofrontal cortex associated with theory of mind, obsessive/compulsive
behaviours and controlling anger. These data contribute to our view that romantic love is one of the
three primary brain systems that evolved in avian and mammalian species to direct reproduction. The
sex drive evolved to motivate individuals to seek a range of mating partners; attraction evolved to
motivate individuals to prefer and pursue specific partners; and attachment evolved to motivate
individuals to remain together long enough to complete species-specific parenting duties. These three
behavioural repertoires appear to be based on brain systems that are largely distinct yet interrelated,
and they interact in specific ways to orchestrate reproduction, using both hormones and
monoamines. Romantic attraction in humans and its antecedent in other mammalian species play
a primary role: this neural mechanism motivates individuals to focus their courtship energy on
specific others, thereby conserving valuable time and metabolic energy, and facilitating mate choice.

I can’t help but feel that’s the kind of language that is used when people that are not neuroscientists write about neuroscience. And this is reminiscent of the type of studies I like to complain about, the ones that try to make correlations of fMRI data based on shaky experimental design and theory of mind as a road map.  But I digress.  For all the stretches made here on what it means, the bottom line is that there were correlations found for activation for recognizing your romantic love interest and the reward system in the brain.

But what about food and love?

sexy food

Fischer goes further… ‘But as with all things, “love hormones” that go up must come down, and, in extreme cases, that can lead to obesity.”

A recent UNC study has something to say about love, marriage and obesity:

  • Married women and men – both more than twice as likely to become obese
  • Women living with a romantic partner – 63 percent increased risk
  • Men living with a romantic partner – no increased risk

This could be a case of you lay down with dogs… meaning that if one spouse is gaining, the other is likely to follow fat suit.  But maybe you’re also just getting too comfortable, no longer in the game:

Most importantly, if you’ve settled down with someone, you’re no longer facing the competition of the dating field. That means you may have less incentive to stay in shape and look your best. Plus, your lifestyle starts to revolve around food a bit more. As a couple, you probably stay in and cozy up (with food) on the couch more often than you did when you were single. – Today

But food is sexy right?  Valentine’s day is coming up and for sure couples everywhere will be headed out for decadent dinners and chocolates and wine…


Fischer, in a piece for Psychology Today, writes about this:

“The human need for food and sex are basic, part of the foundation of our nature, which makes it sensible that they are so closely knit together.

Another way to look at it is that when you eat, you’re using many of your senses. Obviously, you are using taste, but also sight, smell and touch. These sensations are the same ones used during sex. And, if you feed your lover, sensually, these sensations might be heightened.

You can also eat certain things to increase your feeling of wellbeing or increase your sex drive. Some foods you just have to smell or see to think about sex, according to some researchers. Here are a few to consider:

1) Chocolate has long been thought to be an aphrodisiac – in the 1600s it was considered such a powerful one that religious leaders banned monks and nuns from consuming any! It contains the chemical PEA, which creates a rush or feeling of euphoria. It causes the release of dopamine, which is the same chemical that is released during all sorts of “highs” including orgasms, gambling, and drug use. Dark chocolate contains the most. Other foods that also increase PEA are apples, avocados, tomatoes, almonds, and cheddar cheese. While we’re on the topic, the mere scent of almonds is supposed to increase women’s sex drive – with the added bonus of potentially improving heart health.

2) Some foods might be considered sexy because they are make us think erotic thoughts. Asparagus and avocados resemble certain male attributes, so they might be an indirect way to make your lover think of sex. Banana flowers have a rather phallic shape, which might be why some people consider them aphrodisiacs. Bananas themselves are thought to be important for sex hormone production because they contain high levels of potassium and B vitamins.

3) Let’s not forget spices. Ginger and ginseng increase circulation – ginseng in particular it thought to increase libido by exciting the central nervous system. Cinnamon and nutmeg are also rumoured to stimulate sexual feelings. And, since we’re talking spices, this might be a good time to mention that some additives are supposed to improve the taste of semen – cardamom, peppermint, lemon and pineapple, for example, while garlic and onions are thought to cause it to taste unpleasant. (more suggestions for food can be found on the web, including:

4) If you’re planning a romantic evening, you might try to find on a good bottle of wine with the hopes that it will make your lover (and you!) more relaxed. Drinking wine in moderation might serve that purpose well, but drinking too much can be problematic. Aside from the commonly discussed results, such as not remembering one’s behaviour, or not being able to sexually feel much (if anything), excessive alcohol consumption can decrease women’s DHEA, which is related to sex drive. In men, it decreases testosterone, which is the backbone to male sex drive, and can make vasopressin plummet, meaning it might be difficult to achieve an erection. Even touching your lover can lose its magic because alcohol reduces oxytocin, so the sense of touch is not as sensitive.

5) Then there’s using food for play – whipped cream, honey, jell-o and all the usual ones to consider. After hearing some very humorous and sticky stories from girlfriends, I’ll pause here to remind you to examine expiration dates, and to beforehand clean-up issues.”

That’s all fine and good.

But I think Dan Savage, of Savage Love, has the best advice for Valentine romance and food when he suggested that we are doing it wrong. Often we think that a big fancy rich meal with alcohol and a decadent dessert is sexy and romantic.  When really, that just leaves us sleepy and bloated (remember the Thanksgiving post?).  Not sexy.

A better idea is to get romantic first (while not bloated and uncomfortable) and have a late dinner reservation.

Food for thought for this coming Valentine’s Day.

One comment on “Food And Love: How They Are Linked In The Brain

  1. Pingback: Food And Love- Decoding The Vicious Link Between Food Choices And Love Hormones – Futuragua

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This entry was posted on January 8, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , , .



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