Romance and Desire: What the Experts Know

By Melissa Pandika | February 11, 2016 | Rally Health

Wine glasses

The ancient Egyptians mixed potions from honey, the Aztecs downed spicy chocolate drinks, and the French swear by champagne, of course.

Just about every culture has its secrets for getting people in the mood — or as the medical folks say, “increasing desire.” These tricks include a long list of foods, spices, and herbs, so-called aphrodisiacs named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

It makes sense that food and romance are linked — both eating and sex are primal needs and trigger strong memories and emotions. “Ingesting something is the ultimate intimate act,” says Meryl Rosofsky, an adjunct professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University (NYU). “Sharing this deeply intimate and sensual act with another can stimulate desire and appetite in a holistic way.”

So is there anything to aphrodisiacs? Is there a science to the art of love? We talked to a wide range of experts, from the cerebral to the practical — a medical researcher, nutrition experts, sex therapists, cookbook authors, and a chef who runs an aphrodisiac-themed pop-up restaurant.

Here’s their advice on how to heat up your dinner date. Hint: It’s not just about the food.

Savor the build-up. Remember when you were a teenager and spent all week counting down to your Saturday night date? Relive that anticipation with your partner, says Susana Mayer, a clinical sexologist in Philadelphia. Flirt like the early days with quick texts, or plan out something fun to do.

Skip the restaurant. Instead, cook with your partner, suggests Chef Juerg Federer, a.k.a., Chef Fed, owner of FEDISH, an aphrodisiac pop-up restaurant in Los Angeles. Dining in takes off the pressure — no need to worry about rushing to a reservation or squeezing into a fancy dress and heels. Nothing kills sexiness like stress. Stick to simple dishes that you feel confident cooking to avoid any kitchen mishaps. Try Chef Fed’s simple yet sumptuous recipe for brioche pudding with strawberries, pepper and sage.

Use sexy ingredients. OK, we’ll admit it — we don’t have a list of proven winners here. The effects of foods on desire are not so easy to study (can you imagine designing that experiment?) so understandably, it’s been hard to prove aphrodisiac claims. But there are some hopeful clues.

Some foods may have earned their sexy reputations because they can improve mood or blood flow. The antioxidants in chocolate and berries may prevent the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries, for example. Spicy peppers and sweet foods can boost the levels of “feel good” hormones like serotonin and endorphins.

“Elements of certain foods perhaps play a role,” says Dolores Lamb, PhD, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Her lab studies various aspects of fertility and her lab members host a playful aphrodisiac luncheon every Valentine’s Day. Some of the standout dishes? Lavender lemon bars and colorful fruit salads.

Besides their chemistry, many foods have suggestive shapes and textures, like asparagus, oysters, and figs. (We’ll leave the rest to your imagination.) “There is a power of belief involved, as well,” says Linda De Villers, PhD, a sex therapist and author of the aphrodisiac cookbook Simple Sexy Food. Mainly, it’s the expectation of sex that heats things up. Our desires live in our brains, after all.

So have fun with your cooking and remember to eat what you like. “If you really hate oysters, don’t force yourself to eat a plate of oysters because you think you’re going to have monumental sex afterward,” says Amy Reiley, author of Romancing the Stove and other aphrodisiac cookbooks and editorial director of the website Eat Something Sexy. She should know!

Stimulate all five senses. Play with a variety of colors, temperatures, and textures, like a hot soup topped with a dollop of cold crème fraiche and sprinkled with crunchy toasted almonds, Reiley suggests. “Those sorts of things are really great for bringing you into that moment and having this pleasure of sensations together,” she says.

Keep it light. A heavy meal can leave you too sluggish for sex, says Janis Jibrin, a dietitian in Washington, DC. Go easy on fatty meat and butter, but also watch the beans and other fiber-filled foods to avoid feeling gassy later. “Fruits and vegetables are excellent for the rest of the year, but for Valentine’s dinner, you want things that are easier on the digestive system.”

Play with your food. It’s not just what you eat — it’s how you eat it and experience it. Take the time to smell and savor. Turn up the sensuality, and eat with your hands. Feed your partner. “Forks and knives are like a belt on your pants,” Chef Fed says. “It’s just too many tools.”

Go easy on the booze. Research shows that beer goggles are real — alcohol really can make people look and feel sexy, and moderate drinking may even be good for your health. But as Shakespeare’s Macbeth cautions, while alcohol “provokes the desire… it takes away the performance.” So sip a little if you’re in the mood, but don’t get carried away, especially if you get sleepy when you drink.

On to the next course

Though food can be pretty sexy, we all know that date night is about more than food. The experts also have some tips for the rest of your evening.

Set the mood. Make an inviting atmosphere that shuts out distractions, whether it’s in the bedroom, in front of the fireplace, or the back of a pickup truck. Dim the lights. Bring a blanket. Set out some candles and flowers. “Pay attention to details,” says Claudia Six, a clinical sexologist based near San Francisco.

Be present. Turn off the TV, laptop, cell phone, and any other distracting devices. Especially with longtime partners, it can be helpful to have signals. It can be as simple as shutting the bedroom door, or brushing your hand against your partner’s shoulder — “some kind of cue that says, ‘This is what’s happening.’” sexologist Mayer says. Don’t underestimate eye contact. “Part of being present is making a good connection with that person. The eyes make that connection.”

Most important, keep it fun. “Think of your bed as a sandbox,” says Mayer. Get playful. Don’t stress over how you look. Stop trying to achieve a certain outcome, and enjoy the moment. “That doesn’t mean you have to be giggling and laughing all the time, but it’s the same feeling,” Mayer says. “That’s what your bed should be about — having a really great time.”

Editor: Deepi Brar

Melissa Pandika is a freelance writer based on Oakland, California

Selected references

  • Flammer, AJ, et al. Dark chocolate improves coronary vasomotion and reduces platelet reactivity. Circulation. 20 November 2007. [Link]
  • Healing Foods Pyramid. U-M Integrative Medicine. 2009. [Link]
  • Van Den Abbeele, J., et al. Increased facial attractiveness following moderate, but not high, alcohol consumption. Alcohol and Alcoholism. May 2015. [Link]


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