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The Emotional Signatures of Food – Eating as an Essential, Emotion Rich Act

By Dr. Arthur Lavin

It’s hard to go a day without hearing another news item or whisper about food.  What is good food, what is bad food?  What is too much to eat, what is too little?  When is the best time to eat, early, late, in the middle?

One question we hear about frequently is the impact of food on behavior.  Which foods rile up a child, and which foods calm the rages?

In this post, we take a step back from specifics to look at the central role food plays in life, and how that leads to the power of emotions food generates.

Food and Life

Food is so central to life that it can be said that there is no form of life that does not have food as a core need.  The only form of life that may be in question is viruses, which have no need of food.  But there is some question about whether a virus lives, or is a sort of structure that can only exist around life.   The other form of life that might be said to never eat is plants.  But food is just as central to the life of a plant as an animal, the only difference being that plants create their food, while animals must eat their food.

It may seem obvious that all life must have food, but there is a deeper reason behind this core fact.  That has to do with the role of energy in life.  Most processes in the world and universe involve the increase in disorder.  Stars burn up and fade away.  Rocks erode.  Structures in the world tend to decay and blend into nothingness.   Perhaps the singular property of life is its ability, at least for a bit of time, to build up structures, to reverse the endless steps towards the tearing down of structures.

Without getting too technical, there is an essential property of the universe referred to as entropy, which can be thought of either as a level of disorder, or more simply the extent to which a warm item has cooled.  From the order point of view, entropy is the degree to which a system has moved from order to disorder.  A glass breaks, that is a move towards increased entropy.   Or it could describe to what extent a warm object has cooled.  When a fire burns out, entropy has increased.   No system in the universe has ever been found to decrease entropy.  With one exception: life.  Life takes the elements around us and organizes them in such a way that they can create extraordinarily complex, highly ordered structures, such as leaves, feathers, wings, cilia, mushrooms, and brains.  Not only can these structures beat entropy, but they reproduce!

Of course, the rule about entropy always increasing can’t be beat.  So life achieves order at a terrific cost that can only be paid by energy.  It takes a lot of energy to swim against the entropy current.  So much that if we take account of the heat generated and cooled off by life, the sum total of entropy, in fact increases.

But here is the point of this dive into entropy: energy isn’t just something life needs to run the machine, it is an essential ingredient to the very existence of life, it is required to buy every form of life a fleeting respite from the grind towards oblivion and lifelessness.

In fact, recent theories on the origins of life look at mechanisms to concentrate energy as preceding the emergence of DNA.

And when it comes to finding energy for life, what is that energy called for all of life?  Food.

Yes, food provides material for those wonderful structures to be built, but it also provides every last drop and speck of energy that life absolutely requires.

Food and Emotion

Another property of all life is that when it comes to truly essential needs, you can count on some system to drive that form of life towards achieving the essentials.

We don’t think much about the emotional life of bacteria, but this very early form of life clearly has very complex mechanisms to help it be drawn to its needs and to avoid its dangers.

And, when it comes to needs, the two essential needs of any form of life are food and reproduction.

Life pushes itself towards its needs, and food is one of the two top needs, so there will be systems in place to push life to seek food.  And so it is, every form of life has elaborate, forceful systems to drive it to either create food or eat.  Plants turn toward the sun to create their food.  And animals cannot rest if food is needed.

For we as humans, that push life gives to eat comes in the form of emotion.  We often think of feelings as irrational phenomena that more get in the way than help.   But emotions are what set our agenda and determine what we will do next.  There are some few people stricken with types of damage to the brain that nullify or eliminate emotions from their life, they turn out to be incapacitated, unable to decide what to do.

When it comes to food, the body is organized to deliver mainly positive emotions.  We are very, very richly rewarded when we eat with floods of yummy emotion.  We are so used to the joy of eating we take for granted that their are few activities in life that create more deeply pleasurable emotions.  Perhaps one or two, but not many.

Just think about the depth of the unpleasant emotions that accompany not getting the food when our lives demand it.  Hunger is a devastating emotional experience, potentially traumatizing, causing permanent memories and altering one’s life.

Because food is so central to life itself, our minds have evolved many systems to generate showers of cascading wonderful emotions for eating, and overlapping emotional punishments for not.  And it works, every healthy person eats.

Three Systems of Emotion that Make You Eat

What sort of systems are we talking about?  Three (of many) systems at the heart of our mind’s schemes to make us eat are the dopamine system, the  endorphin system, and the autonomic nervous system.

  • There are a number of networks of nerves in the brain that are activated when the chemical dopamine is released.  Dopamine is a chemical related to adrenaline, and like adrenaline, it will excite the mind, but in a different way.  Adrenaline simply stimulates.  Dopamine gives the mind a sense that a reward is nearby, and it orients the mind to move the body to seek and attain that reward.  In many ways, dopamine is the chemical of anticipation of a great pleasure, and the chemical that connects the thought of a great pleasure with the muscle movement, the action, of getting that source of pleasure.  Think about your favorite food cooking, your mouth watering, your excitement about having that food, your feet moving to the table to devour it, is greatly organized by the firing of dopamine nerves in your brain.
  • Endorphins are powerful chemicals of mood in the brain.  They are the chemicals that are mimicked by morphine and other opiates and opioids.   They can stop pain, but also they cause a level of happiness and calm.  Eating releases endorphins as powerfully as any action of the body.
  • Autonomic nervous system.  Outside the brain two systems of nerves create balances that help the body operate many of its most basic functions.  The one system, the sympathetic nervous system, causes alertness around alarm.  When activated the pupils widen, more air is breathed, more blood pumped, less food is eaten, the body is ready to fight or flee from danger.  The other system, the parasympathetic system, calms the body and mind.  Breath is eased, pulses calm, muscles relax, and appetite soars.  Eating itself tips the balance towards the parasympathetic.  It leads to sleepiness or at the least calm.


The Emotional Signature of Food

If you consider the central place energy possesses right at the heart of life, the many deep emotional systems that exist to ensure we get the energy required to have life, then one can begin to wonder at the emotional power of food.

Much has been made of the sugar high, how when we eat a ton of sugar, our minds get giddy with glee, our energy level pops, and if you are the parent of a child who has just done this, you see your child go absolutely bonkers.

But every food does something emotionally to everyone who eats, and that emotion varies.

Let’s think about three words in that sentence:  every, emotionally, varies.

Food is so very central to life, that there is no food that is emotionally neutral.  Think about it, how do we describe foods?  The first thing everybody says about any food is whether they like it, or not.  Every single food I have ever eaten, or refused to eat, has been tagged with some sort of level of liked or hated, maybe even loved.   We say, “I love this food,” or “I hate this food,” or “I like this food.”  If one could possibly find a food that you couldn’t come up with one of these three sentences for, that itself would be remarkable and a singular sort of emotional event.

And so the word every really does pertain to food.  And so does the word emotionally.

What about varies.  This is where it gets so interesting.  Take any food, say an apple.  People vary, and time varies when it comes to apples.  People clearly vary.  Some people love apples, some people hate apples, and some people like apples.  For many people their emotional reaction to apples remains pretty steady all their lives.  But for others, they may go through a few years when they love apples, can’t get enough of them, and then for some reason they start loathing apples and can’t even look at them without getting sick.  Those changes may happen every few decades, or every few days.  Depends on the food, right?

So shifting, varying emotional responses to every food can, and do, vary from day to day, from person to person, and from one food to another.

It is in this sense that every food at every moment in time has an emotional signature.  That signature drives how much we seek or avoid eating that food, and will also determine what emotional response our mind will have when we eat it.

The real point here is that emotions and food are so deeply bound up with each other, that reducing our thinking about food and emotion to one example, like the sugar high, takes away an appreciation for the universe of emotions that are tied up with all foods.


  1. Life owes its existence to its ability to very locally create order out of disorder.  But that comes at a cost that always must be paid if there is to be life- energy.
  2. The energy essential to life is provided by food.
  3. Given how food sits at the very center of the creation and sustenance of life, it comes as no surprise that we are wired in so many ways to eat.  Three systems provide an example of just how deeply that wiring goes:  dopamine, endorphins, the whole autonomic nervous system.  And, there are many others.
  4. Food and emotion are woven into one cloth.  That weave involves every person and every food.  Every food we eat generates emotions, including ones such as liking, loving, and hating.
  5. Put it all together, and we can begin to appreciate how every food has an emotional signature, and that signature varies from person to person, and even within each of us over time.

So, enjoy your food, let your child live with their own rich and peculiar emotional life of food, and respect and avoid the foods that tend to create negative emotional experiences.

To your health!
Dr. Arthur Lavin

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