Next time you’re about to make a romantic gesture, consider doing a bit of wining and dining first. Especially the dining part.
A new psychology study published in Appetite suggests that young women respond more to romantic images when they’re fed than when they’re hungry.
In a small pilot study, a group from the University of California, San Diego put 20 women of normal weight between ages 18 and 25 into an fMRI machine after they had fasted for eight hours. The women were shown images of heterosexual couples sharing intimate moments—embracing, holding hands, etc.—along with neutral images such as a car, stapler, and bowling ball.
Then the participants were fed a high-calorie, high-protein nutritional shake and scanned again. The researchers found significantly more brain activity when looking at the romantic images in the women when they were sated.
The participants were also asked if they had tried dieting before—and surprisingly, women who had dieted were more responsive to the romantic images than their counterparts, particularly in areas of the brain associated with rewards. Lead author Alice Ely tells Quartz, “The dieters were more responsive than non-dieters when full in a brain region that’s been linked to perceived attractiveness, and given that they are a more weight-gain-prone population, it suggests that their sensitivity to reward generalizes beyond just food.”
One possible explanation, Ely says, is that eating could increase sensitivity to rewards like sex. But, she says, there’s still more work to be done to make the connection to sexual desire—after all, the images were pretty innocent. Ely also hypothesizes that “romance or romantic gestures seem more pleasant and important when we’ve recently eaten than when we’re hungry.”
It’s worth noting that the sample size for this study is small and limited, and as the authors point out, it’s still early days for this kind of research. But it’s a “good jumping off point” says Ely, and points to the potential for further longitudinal study on the connection between food and love.