Are you in the right frame of mind to eat a great meal? Your mood can make a big difference in how you enjoy eating…
By Jeremy Ryland
Research on the connection between a person's mood and the food he or she eats has revealed what many people have long believed - that eating a certain food can influence a person's mood, at least temporarily.
Food intake affects mood due to biochemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters. They can control mood, appetite, thoughts and behaviours. The most food sensitive neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Serotonin, released when eating carbohydrates, calms and relaxes us; and can also make us sluggish and drowsy. For relaxation and anti-stress, eat carbohydrates.
Dopamine and norepinephrine, released when eating protein, are responsible for alertness, increased energy with quicker more accurate reaction times. So you can boost your alertness with protein.
For the most beneficial effect of either carbohydrate or protein, eat them separately.
Caffeine is a stimulant and can be an effective antidepressant, with one or two cups of coffee a day being beneficial. However, caffeine is a diuretic and can dehydrate the body and cause mood swings.
Another group of chemicals that can influence mood and appetite are the endorphins. These are the body's natural opiate-like chemicals that produce a positive mood state, decreased pain sensitivity and reduced stress.
Endorphins are released when a person is in pain, during starvation, and during exercise - resulting in what is
known as a "runner's high". Endorphins are natural tranquillisers, which are released with exercise and through the consumption of chocolate.
A food substance related to endorphins is phenylethylamine, which is found in chocolate. Phenylethylamine is responsible for the endorphin response that is similar to the feelings experienced with a hug or being in love. Chocolate has always been a highly valued commodity in many cultures; and there is some evidence that chocolate may improve mood temporarily due to its high levels of sugar and fat, phenylethylamine and caffeine.
There are other chemicals and food factors that can affect our mood, including the size of the meal. Overeating will make us drowsy whilst light meals can increase performance. Foods high in fat are more slowly absorbed by the body: slowing blood flow to the brain, and making us feel sleepy and sluggish.
So, it is well established that certain foods can affect our mood… but can our mood affect the food???
Not only does our food affect our mood, but our mood affects the food we prepare and the food we’ll choose – and our mood or how we are feeling at the time can affect our perception of a meal.
In the movie “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992, Miramax), the central character, Tita, frustrated by her unrequited love for Pedro, creates food that is vibrant and sensual, imbued with her feelings of longing, frustration, rebellion and love, so that it affects everyone who eats it.
Chefs are well known to be passionate and emotional. Just look at Gordon Ramsey! Creating food is an act of nurturing and love. Cooking is a passionate skill, and the care and emotions of the chef can be seen in the food he/she creates. When at their best, chefs create works of art that affect all of our senses. Something exploited by Heston Blumenthal.
As diners, our mood also affects the way we perceive a meal. Everyone has different tastes and perceptions – and every chef and restaurant has better days than others. However, our own mood can cloud our expectations and the perceptions of what we eat.
The taste of a meal is affected by a lot of factors.
• Our senses and preferences: one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
• Anticipation/expectation: perception is reality and whether we got what we expected affects our taste.
• Colour and visual: even the best wine critics have been fooled by changes in colour.
• Hunger: “the best sauce”, which makes us eat fast and taste less.
• Physiological factors: e.i., flu - similar to holding your nose to block some flavours.
• Altitude: our tongues and airways expand at higher altitude, similarly to blocking your nose (reason for bland taste of aeroplane food)
• Noise: another factor in flying, which is a noisy space.
• Genetics: our upbringing determines what we like and dislike.
• Service: poor service can ruin a good meal.
• Personal preferences: also influences the taste of a meal.
And a major factor is context and the mood we are in:
Context: where we are, who we are with, what the occasion is, our frame of mood, our preceding experience – all affect our perception of the quality of the food and wine we are consuming. Food or wine that has been rated exceptional by someone else may not impress us when we are forced to eat it with people we dislike or are in the wrong frame of mood.
Business meetings in particular, where tensions are high and where food and wine are secondary to accomplishing some corporate goal can ruin good food and wine. It is difficult to enjoy and objectively evaluate food and wine when we are distracted by other factors and events. Stress has a major effect on our perceptions.
Pleasure, passion and emotion are important to the enjoyment of food. When we are happy and relaxed, food will taste better; the flavours will seem stronger and the elements more distinct. Moreover, when we are in a happy frame of mood, we are more likely to forgive small errors. Some of the best meal experiences we will have will be due to the context as much as the quality of the food.
Good service and hospitality make us relaxed and happy: they improve the experience and the food. Conversely, poor service makes us angry and critical; we find fault in the little things and the meal will not be as good.
Food critics in particular need to be conscious of their moods. A food critic by his/her very nature seeks and finds errors, faults and inconsistencies that others will miss. When acting as a food critic one must be as objective as possible.
Food brings people together. Food should be savoured, relished, enjoyed and eaten at leisure. Sit down. Relax. Eat slowly. Eat mindfully. Talk. Listen. See and taste what you are eating! But above all enjoy. Now that’s food for pleasure.