Sex and Food – Friends or Foes?

What is as erotic as sex? That's right. Food.

You really want to sleep but you can’t. Something is missing. Something to quickly satisfy you and put you happily to sleep. You think a piece of chocolate would hit the spot. Or cheese. Or watching some porn?

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Sex and food are true kin. Not only because they are human needs that will, regardless of where this engineered world is going, never leave us; they are the reason why humans have made it to the year 2015, through reproduction and preservation. And because Mother Nature is so wise she created an ingenious system so we don’t go extinct.

In the bigger picture humans are very simple by design. They don’t do many things to, or for, their fellow humans out of a sense of reason or responsibility, but rather because they get rewarded for it. Multiple orgasm or rich moist mousse au chocolat, with both experiences a hormone cocktail of pleasure explodes. Dopamine and endorphins are released, adrenalin levels plummet, we unwind. This naturally occurring drug – people are indeed little junkies – keep us coming back for more. If you eat well you want to eat well again and again. If you have good sex it’s hard to give that up. And some who haven’t had enough once the meal or sex is over reach for something that keeps the pleasure hormones soaring for a little while longer: the cigarette after.

You don’t have to be a neurologist to see that sex and food have a lot in common. As immediate sensual and subjective experiences, both afford us a sense of wellbeing. In other words: licking, sucking, biting (I think the similarities are clear by now). For those who cannot differentiate between food and sex there’s the blog When you’re hungry and horny, and for the more adventurous there’s “sploshing.” But wait. Why do we have to decide at all?

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That’s a no-brainer. Because you can’t do both at once. It could very well be that some possess this talent, but generally speaking you don’t have sex while eating and you don’t eat while having sex. Just as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were once rivals, our sex drive and food cravings fight in the same territory over a single throne.

When we’re hungry neuropeptide Y shoots through the brain. This messenger substance regulates our feelings of hunger and fear. It increases appetite while hindering our sexual desire. That is, neuropeptide Y has clear priorities: eating. Upon the first bite our body disassembles the food into individual components, channelling them into their respective pathways. Superfluous energy is stored for less abundant times as fat – this in turn produces leptin, neuropeptide Y’s enemy. The hormone leptin stimulates sexual desire and suppresses hunger. So the more we eat the fatter we get, the more leptin the less hungry we are and the more we want sex. Leptin also releases amphetamines which simultaneously increase appetite and sexually arouse.

Without fat, that is, without food, no leptin, no lust. When famished, we have less sex, so a delicious meal before going back to my place or yours really is a good idea. Yet leptin also has its limits: researchers have found that obesity is associated with leptin-resistance (hence leptin as a dubious weight-loss treatment). The body gets used to all the indulgence, dulling its reaction and is no longer as delighted as before. In this vein, having sex when starving is just as bad as having it with a full tummy. If both needs are met you have to pay attention to the ratio. Deciding on chocolate or porn ultimately depends on how hungry we are.

And why do new lovers lose weight? In this state the body is capable of releasing so much adrenaline and amphetamines that you don’t feel hungry. Couples, however, tend to gain weight after a while, as the need for pleasure hormones is more often satisfied with food rather than sex, which is great! Here we see the social significance of food for cooperation – without it a lot of relationships would fall apart.

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We all know the same sexual partner over and over again gets boring at some point. We release more adrenaline and amphetamines when navigating uncharted sexual territory, perpetually falling in love anew or getting to know new bodies. Programmed by nature to perpetuate their genes as much as possible, men have greater odds for offspring if they sleep with several women as opposed to one who can only get pregnant every nine months. Yet we cannot forget that along with reproduction preservation plays a role. We have cultivated social constructs such as pairing and the family in order to raise children together. A man who sleeps around the globe without fulfilling his familial obligations is not very useful. Yet the yearning for hormonal drugs, for change, for reward remains. And this can be satisfied with food, a kind of ersatz love. After all, eating something different every day is less socially dangerous than endless one night stands.

An interesting discovery to conclude: a recent study with nematodes (very similar to humans and the most researched animals in the world, by the way) demonstrated that males, when making a life-or-death decision, would choose sex over food. Ominous neurons found only in male nematodes cause them to choose sex although they know it will kill them. Whether that boils down to pure horniness or self-sacrifice for the continuations of the species is up to the reader.

Images: Monica Cook via


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