The Bizarre Way Your Brain Interprets Food As Love

Photo: Estrada Anton / Shutterstock
man eating sandwich at restaurant

We all yearn for deep, enduring love. We burn for exotic, erotic sex. We crave...well, you name it. Why? Not because we're all hot to trot, but because our brains are.

That's right. A segment of the brain called the limbic system governs our reward circuitry, or "pleasure centers," which in turn rule our wants and desires, especially when it comes to love and food, the two things the body — and the species — need to survive.

Though it may sound far-fetched, it really isn't.

In fact, scientists have proved that the brain's reward circuitry is responsible for nearly everything we do, including dating, mating, cheating, and feeding. But that's just where the story begins.

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Here are the bizarre ways your brain interprets food as love:

1. Your brain on dopamine 

When the brain receives some kind of pleasurable stimuli — such as food, sex, drugs, or even music — the limbic system unleashes a flood of dopamine.

Dopamine is the brain's pleasure enforcer. It's the neurochemical that is mainly responsible for flipping the switch on your brain's reward circuitry, telling it to release the opioids — the brain chemicals that let you experience that euphoric "high" you associate with pleasure. But what goes up must come down, and when levels of dopamine drop in the brain (can you say hangover?), it's the enforcer that tells it, "Hey, we gotta have more!"

And just like that, you get a killer craving for whatever it was (sex, drugs, Rocky Road ice cream) that gave you that buzz in the first place. With time and repetition, your brain becomes conditioned to seek pleasure, and the craving becomes ever stronger.

It gets to be so that just the mere thought of Grandma Kate's double-chocolate pudding pie kicks the limbic system into high gear, causing a rush of dopamine to be released. And the cycle never ceases as long as you're alive, because dopamine is the boss. And the boss is never satisfied. It makes you constantly think you want more.

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2. The bigger the brain, the bigger the ... craving

It wasn't always this way. The brains of Early Man were three times smaller than our brains are today. But as the human brain — and body — evolved over the millennia, so did the number of calories required to sustain it.

After all, about 20 percent of everything we ingest goes to fuel the brain, which makes it pretty hard to understate food's importance to our survival, even compared to reproduction (after all, you have to be alive to "do it"). It's also easy to understand why nature has devised such a complicated mechanism to ensure our brains are adequately fed.

Of course, today, we no longer have to snack on raw tubers and hunt for game-wearing mastodon-skin loincloths, but our brains don't know that.

Our brains are still doing what comes naturally, inspiring in us the "need to feed," and making eating one of the most pleasurable activities we, as humans, can indulge in.

And when we indulge in it together, we double our pleasure. In fact, according to 80% of readers who took a YourTango survey, food plays an incredibly important role in romantic relationships. On the flip side, more than half of respondents admitted to using food to compensate for feelings of loneliness and heartbreak, further demonstrating the inextricable ties between food and emotions.

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3. When stimulation becomes overstimulation

So, you're thinking, with food playing such an integral part in your brain's operating system, where does sex fit in?

As stated, pleasurable stimuli are pleasurable stimuli, and once the brain becomes conditioned to the dopamine/opioid rush you get during sex, it craves that just as much as the jolt you get from scarfing down a pint of Haagen Dazs. And sometimes when you're craving sex — or just feeling lonely — reaching for high-calorie foods, which trigger a bigger release of dopamine than their low-calorie counterparts, can be a shortcut to euphoria.

However, problems may occur when the constant release of dopamine due to overstimulation (better known as too much of a good thing) causes the brain to become desensitized to dopamine's effects, precipitating the need for even more powerful stimuli to achieve the same buzz next time. 

But let's look on the bright side: Knowing how your brain chemicals work, especially when it comes to the overlapping effects of food and love, can actually make your cravings easier to handle. And as anyone who's ever gone on a diet or quit smoking or drinking (or gambling or shopping) knows, cravings don't have to control you—not if you control them first.

Control. Now there's a word that carries a lot of weight (no pun intended) in the food/sex arena. If you exercise control, for example, by eating a sensible, balanced diet and refraining from bingeing (on food, drugs, or anything), not only will your body and brain benefit, but so will your sex life. Because soon after you modify your behavior in this way, your brain's pleasure centers begin to regain sensitivity and become more receptive to stimuli.

Think of what that could mean. With your newly sensitized brain, just the tiniest taste of Godiva will send you over the moon; every kiss, every caress, and every orgasm will seem that much better. Sound unbelievable?

Maybe so, but reconditioning the brain in this manner is a common medical practice for addiction specialists. And many former addicts report that after going through a period of withdrawal, their sexual responsiveness returned, bigger and better than ever.

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4. Double your pleasure, double your fun

Of course, changes to the brain, both good and bad, don't happen overnight. But consider this: If you already maintain your weight by eating a balanced diet and making sensible life choices, you're that much ahead of the game. You've already figured out that moderation is the key to a happy brain — and happy life.

If you're not so lucky and have been overindulging on a regular basis, you might want to think about turning off the dopamine drip for a bit and letting your brain's pleasure centers "dry out."

Don’t think of it as rehab, per se, but rather a short trip to Moderationville, during which you may experience a return of the Technicolor tastes and sexual sensations you haven't felt in a while. Who knows? When your sluggish pleasure centers begin to snap back to life, you might find you really like being among the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And we'll be glad you're here.

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Wendie Pecharski is a freelance writer and copy editor who has appeared in  Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Martha Stewart Weddings, Travel + Leisure, Modern Bride, and many others.