The immense popularity of shows like MasterChef Australia and Top Chef attests to our constant need for gastronomic gratification.
Pizzas, pretzels, payasam, poori, pav bhaji and panna cotta please our taste buds and pacify hunger pangs. The popularity of shows like Master Chef Australia attests to a pan human fascination for food. For all its delectable variety and splendour, food does more than just titillate our senses and satiate our appetites. A number of studies show that ‘food’ and ‘mood’ are far more interconnected than we think. Paying attention to our meals is important, because how and what we eat affects how we act and feel. Similarly, our state of mind can influence our food choices. Thus, we think with our stomachs and chew on our problems; our brains taste food and our taste buds can make us smarter. Our relationship with food spans sensory, physiological and psychological domains.
Every parent knows that a hungry toddler is irritable and less likely to comply with demands. However, this extends to adults as well, with more potent consequences than a tantrum or a meltdown. A study conducted in Israel found that judges were more likely to grant parole to prisoners whose cases came up either first thing in the morning or soon after lunch. So, the next time you are awaiting a hearing in court, you may not grudge the judge her coffee break.
While hunger makes us less likely to exert mental strain, our cognitive state also impacts what we choose to eat. Psychologists have found that people are more likely to give in to temptation when performing a demanding task. In one experiment, subjects who had to remember the number ‘35’ were more likely to choose a fruit to eat while those who had to keep a seven-digit number in mind succumbed more readily to a delectable chocolate cake. One reason is related to the idea of “ego depletion,” put forth by psychologist Roy Baumeister. In a nutshell, ego depletion refers to the idea that we have a limited amount of mental reserve or energy; so every time we exercise self-control or are mentally preoccupied, we are dipping into an exhaustible supply, thus making it harder for us to resist future temptations. So dieters, be warned, it is not prudent to embark on a diet when stressed.
Can food make us smarter? A brain-enhancing diet may include omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, antioxidants found in tomatoes and zinc from pumpkin seeds. But apart from natural foods known to bolster cognitive functions like attention and memory, an intriguing study raises a fundamental question regarding the malleability of intelligence. A person’s score on a standardised IQ test was believed to be relatively stable over time. However, researchers found that children, especially those who obtain IQ scores in the below average range, were able to raise their IQ scores to the average range if given a sweet for every right answer. This study has implications on how we view low-achievers. Were the kids in the low-IQ group deficient in motivation as opposed to intelligence?
Given the performance enhancing benefits of food, the mid-day meal programme, launched by the Indian government in schools, does indeed make sense provided it is implemented honestly and properly. The motivational power of food is being tapped by this programme to increase enrolment, retention and attendance of children in school while simultaneously promoting their nutritional levels.
If food can make some of us appear more intelligent, then it can also provide a more humbling view of the human mind. When tasting different foods, most if us are sure of our choices; we ‘know’ what we like and don’t like. Further, we believe that our palates guide our food preferences. However, evidence suggests that higher-order thinking processes influence our sensory experiences in subliminal ways. Similarly, flavours discerned by our taste buds are shaped by food and beverage brands. Diehard Coke or Pepsi fans may insist vehemently that one brand is superior to another. However, when given unlabeled sips of a drink, a study found that fizzy drink fanatics did not necessarily rate their favourite brand higher. As psychologist Sheena Iyengar writes, when people are drinking or eating branded foods, they “tasting the brand.”
The psychological aspects of food are clearly evident in eating disorders. Interestingly, neuroscientists who study brain circuitry underlying either obesity or anorexia posit that these two conditions are both forms of addiction at a neurobiological level.
As food travels from our tongue to tummy, it can have a profound impact on our physiology and psychology. Perhaps, we all need to awaken the gastronomist lurking within each of us. As Orson Welles famously quipped, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”