Intimate couple

Surely you’ve heard the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. A new study indicates that route to romance works for women, too. Food, sex, and other rewards all activate the same area of the female brain so, gentlemen, if you want better chances of making whoopie tonight, wine her, dine her first.

This brain-based urge for romance is strongest in women who have a history of dieting, according to Alice Ely and Michael R. Lowe, the researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia who are behind the study. Ely based her doctoral dissertation on the research while at Drexel; she’s now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine’s Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research. Lowe, senior author for Ely’s study, is a professor at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Ely used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to document changes in blood oxygen levels of young women’s brains under various conditions. The young, college-age women in the study were all of normal body weight but there were differences:

  • HD — Historical Dieters. These women had a history of dieting, a lifestyle factor that puts them at increased risk for gaining weight later in their lives.
  • ND — Women who had never dieted.

The study initially involved each woman having her brain scanned under four scenarios:

  • After fasting (fasted) and while viewing neutral food images such as carrots.
  • Right after eating (fed) and viewing neutral food images.
  • Fasted and watching provocative food images such as chocolate cake (reward).
  • Fed and viewing provocative food images.

Brain activity for both the HDs and NDs shifted to different parts of the brain according to being “wined and dined,” with the brains of HDs being more responsive than that of the NDs:

  • In both HDs and NDs, being fed led to greater activity in the reward centers of the women’s brains.
  • In fed HDs, brain activity extended beyond the reward centers and into areas associated with perception and goal-oriented behaviors while viewing provocative images. The extended brain activity witnessed under this circumstance is similar to documented brain activity associated with rewards that include sex and drugs.

Ely’s research team thought HD brains might be more receptive to rewards in general after eating so they extended the study a bit. Both groups were shown romantic images while in fasted and fed states. The brains of the HDs generated more activity than the NDs and involved some of the brain regions activated by fed HDs viewing provocative food images.

Ely says the similar response patterns of the fed HDs viewing provocative foods and romantic images “is consistent with research showing overlapping brain-based responses to sex, drugs and food.”


  1. Ely, Alice V., Anna Rose Childress, Kanchana Jagannathan, and Michael R. Lowe. "The way to her heart? Response to romantic cues is dependent on hunger state and dieting history: An fMRI pilot study." Appetite 95 (2015): 126-31. ScienceDirect. Web. 25 Aug. 2015.
  2. "The stomach is the way to a woman's heart, too." EurekAlert. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Aug. 2015. Web. 25 Aug. 2015.