Weirdly True: We Are What We Eat (2022)

Summary.

Food is fuel for our bodies. But it doesn’t just give us energy, it can also impact our moods. Knowing this, how can we make better food choices?

  • Our gut or gastrointestinal tract is home to billions of bacteria. The food we eat directly affects our gut health (or the balance of good and bad bacteria) and influences the production of neurotransmitters (our body’s chemical messengers that are constantly carrying messages from the gut to the brain).
  • Because different foods trigger different moods, we can strategically choose foods that evoke desirable mood-states. Forkeeping our moods even and balanced, especially in the work environment, we can consume foods that promote good bacteria in our guts.
  • We should also consider the physiological reactions various foods trigger. For example, it might make sense to serve and consume a mild or sweet fare during a get-together with friends and family, and, maybe consume spicy food ahead of a confrontational meeting in which we don’t want to be run over.

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What do you turn to when you’re feeling low?

If you’re like me, your answer will include “something sweet” — a chocolate glazed doughnut, a tub of ice cream, or a box of chocolates.

We eat it, and almost instantly, we feel better. These good feelings arise partly because pleasure hormones (like dopamine) are released in our brains when we consume food high in caloric value.

It’s not just sweet things that have an impact on our mood either. Findings show that organic food makes us happy and hopeful, while consuming food high in protein improves motivation and concentration.

But food doesn’t always improve our moods. Sometimes it can evoke negativity.

A few years ago I read an article about how Malaysian prisons don’t provide carbonated drinks to inmates who have a history of violence because if they’re consumed when someone is agitated, that person is more likely to have an outburst.

All of this science got me thinking: Are we really what we eat? And if we are, how might that impact the way we behave in certain environments — for example, at work?

I decided to reach out to some researchers who study this topic to find out.

Are we really what we eat?

Professors Raj Raghunathan (marketing professor at the McCombs School of Business, Austin), Rishtee Batra (marketing professor at Villanova University, Pennsylvania,) and Tanuka Ghoshal (marketing professor at Baruch College, City University of New York) have conducted three studies that found there is a direct correlation between spicy foods and aggression.

I reached out to Professor Raj Raghunathan to learn more about their research on the way foods can impact our mood, and how we can use this knowledge to our advantage.

First, can you tell me a little more about your study?

Raj Raghunathan: Though ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita — one of the most important Hindu scriptures — and practitioners of alternative medicine posit that spicy foods may increase aggression, their intuitions have never been scientifically tested. So we carried out a series of three experiments to test this theory.

In the first study, participants first reported spice levels of food they generally consumed on 100-point scale (1 = “not at all spicy” and 100 = “very spicy”). They then rated their own personalities on aggression, using Forgays et al.’s (1997) trait-aggression scale (which had items like, “I consider myself to be hot-headed”) as well as on other traits (considerate, impulsive, dependable, reliable, interesting) unrelated to aggression.

We found a positive and significant relationship between consumption of spicy food and self-reported propensity for aggression — like feeling “hot-headed” and “easily irritated.” There was no correlation between spice consumption and peaceful traits like “considerateness.”

The second experiment established causation. In this study, another set of participants consumed either a plain tortilla chip or a tortilla chip dipped in habanero salsa (one of the hottest chilis in the world). Both sets of participants then read a passage about someone named “Jay,” who behaves in an ambiguously aggressive manner. Participants rated Jay on a variety of dimensions, including aggressiveness, assertiveness, and impulsivity. Participants who had consumed the spicy salsa perceived greater “aggressive” (but not greater “assertive” or “impulsive”) intent in Jay. This result suggests that after consuming spicy food, we are likely to perceive greater aggression in others. The study also confirmed, via a sentence-completion task, that aggression-related words, like “hit” came to mind more easily for participants in the habanero condition than were non-aggression related words like “hat.”

In the final study, participants were shown pictures of several foods that varied in terms of spice levels and asked to rate them in terms of spiciness. Then, participants read the passage (about Jay) used in the previous study, and similarly rated his aggressive intent. Thus, participants in this study were merely exposed to pictures of spicy food — and didn’t even consume them. Yet, findings revealed that exposure to spicy food triggers aggressive intent in participants.

All three studies confirm, at some level, that the popular saying, “you are what you eat” may be accurate: If you consume hot and spicy food, there’s a greater chance that you will be “hot headed.”

Our results support a larger family of studies that suggest the types of food we eat can significantly affect our mood. For instance, one set of studies conducted years earlier found that we are more prone to altruism after consuming sweets. Another more recent study found that eating spicy food promoted risk-taking in participants.

Why does food affect our mood in so many different ways?

Our gut or gastrointestinal tract (also known as our second brain) is home to billions of bacteria. The food we eat directly affects our gut health (or the balance of good and bad bacteria) and influences the production of neurotransmitters (our body’s chemical messengers that are constantly carrying messages from the gut to the brain).

Ninety percent of serotonin receptors — our mood regulators that influence our biological and neurological processes such as aggression, anxiety, cognition, mood, and sleep — are located in the gut. So, for example, when we eat something sweet or sugary, it produces dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and serotonin (the happiness hormone). The neurotransmitters carry those chemicals to the brain, and we feel happy.

The same goes with other kinds of food. Foods can trigger physiological changes associated with emotions. Consuming hot food increases discomfort and sometimes even pain, whereas, as we saw earlier, foods high in caloric value can trigger positive moods, and consuming protein can improve motivation and concentration. Certain foods contain chemicals or ingredients that by nature trigger how parts of our bodies function — in some cases resulting in an increased heart rate or sweating due to a rise in body temperature.

For example, capsaicin, which is what makes spicy food taste hot, is irritating to the taste buds. Our taste buds contain something called VR1 receptors. Their job is to detect heat. When we eat something spicy, they get activated, triggering sweating or discomfort.

But do aggressive thoughts mean aggressive behavior? If I consistently consume spicy food, will I become aggressive, hyperactive, or hot-tempered?

We do believe that aggressive thoughts are suggestive of angry behavior, but we don’t have conclusive proof. It was not in the scope of our study either. Hence, we aren’t sure that consistently consuming spicy food can make you an angry person. On the one hand, you can expect that given our results. On the other hand, if people adapt to the level of spice they eat regularly and certain foods no longer taste spicy to them, you could expect that there would be no effect on their behavior.

Knowing this, how can make better choices about what I eat at work? Should I be eating certain foods if I want to be more alert, more assertive, more focused?

Because different foods trigger different moods, one could strategically choose foods that evoke desirable mood-states. For instance, consuming a snack high in fat or sugar content may help increase positive mood and hopefulness (and thus confidence), which could be useful before making a presentation — but you should also be wary of the comedown.

Likewise, when working long hours, consuming food high in protein content may help boost motivation and concentration. Consuming spicy food, too, could potentially come in handy — e.g., in situations in which you expect a confrontational interaction, and you need to be at your “angry best.”

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How can we make food choices that elevate our moods and enhance the quality of our relationships?

One straightforward recommendation for keeping our moods even and balanced, especially in the work environment, is to consume foods that promote good bacteria in our guts. This means consuming fresh vegetables and foods high in probiotic content (e.g., yogurt or kimchi), and reducing the intake of alcohol or simple carbohydrates (like sugar). You’d probably want to opt for this before a big presentation or a year-end review with your boss.

A less straightforward implication is to consider the physiological reactions triggered by various foods. It might make sense to serve and consume a mild or sweet fare during a get-together with friends and family, and, maybe consume spicy food ahead of a confrontational meeting in which you wish to not be run over. Or if you want to mitigate bouts of irritability and anger before challenging an overly aggressive colleague, consider cutting down on the consumption of spicy foods that day or a day before.

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