Dating & Relationships

Can Food Put Us In The Mood? How Hunger State Influences Responses to Romantic Imagery

August 6, 2018 by Justin Lehmiller

Food and romance are intimately intertwined in modern dating rituals. Indeed, restaurants are one of the most popular places people visit when they go on a date. Neuroscience research suggests that there might be a very good reason for this: having a full stomach just might make our brains more sensitive to romantic cues.

In a 2015 study published in the journal Appetite, researchers recruited 20 college-age women who had a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range (on average, their BMIs were 21-22). Half of them had a history of dieting and weight loss, while the other half did not.

Participants were asked to fast for eight hours prior to the study, meaning they weren’t allowed to eat or drink anything except water. When they arrived at the lab, they underwent an fMRI scan while they were shown two sets of images: some that were neutral (things like cars, staplers, trees, and bowling balls) and some that were romantic in nature (things like couples embracing or holding hands).

Afterward, participants consumed a 500-calorie Ensure shake and waited for 20 minutes. Researchers then repeated the same fMRI scan while showing the women neutral and romantic imagery once again.

What the researchers found was that when women were fed, they demonstrated greater brain activation in areas linked to reward and reinforcement, as well as areas linked to facial perception and recognition. This pattern suggests that women may have been attending more to romantic stimuli when they were full and, further, that they may have found such stimuli to be more rewarding. (Incidentally, while this pattern held overall, there were some different findings for dieters and non-dieters. One of the main differences was that dieters showed more activation in areas related to visual processing and goal-directed behavior when fed.)

Obviously, this study is limited by the fact that the sample was very small and only included women. These findings are very preliminary and more research is therefore needed before we can draw any firm conclusions.

Intuitively, however, the pattern observed here makes a lot of sense. When we’re hungry, a lot of us get “hangry,” meaning we feel angry or frustrated. We may also become preoccupied with food to the point where we don’t notice or pay attention to other things. When our hunger needs have been met, this may be just what we need in order to move on and focus on other things, like love and romance.

In short, maybe it’s a good idea to wait until after dinner to make romantic overtures.

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To learn more about this research, see: Ely, A. V., Childress, A. R., Jagannathan, K., & Lowe, M. R. (2015). The way to her heart? Response to romantic cues is dependent on hunger state and dieting history: An fMRI pilot study. Appetite, 95, 126-131.

Image Source: 123RF/Jovan Mandic

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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