I regularly struggle to make simple decisions regarding what I’d like to eat for dinner — yes, I’m that girlfriend trope. Nevertheless, I know that when it comes to making more significant decisions — whether to accept a job offer, break up with someone, move across the country — an empty belly simply will not do. I’m aggressive when I’m hungry: My eyes become daggers; my words are cruel, aimed directly at my loved ones’ insecurities; I say things I do not mean, all because I need a simple peanut butter sammy in my belly!
Considering how easy it is to cause problems in my life when I’m hungry, imagine the kind of damage I could do if I had to weigh life’s tougher choices on an empty stomach. According to a recent study from the University of Dundee, people with an empty stomach are much more likely to settle for smaller rewards sooner rather than larger rewards that require a bit of a wait. On the flip side, when we’re comfortably satiated, we’re better at understanding the benefits of deferred gratification (in other words, don’t make a decision on that new salary offer before lunch).
Ultimately, then, the first step in making a major decision isn’t weighing the pros and cons or anything like that — instead, it’s deciding what to eat. The relationship between food and decision-making all boils down to basic neuroscience. Serotonin is one of the rulers of our mood — and so, too little serotonin and we’re cranky. In a study published in 2008 by the University of California, Los Angeles and Cambridge University, researchers found that people with lower serotonin levels were more likely to make decisions that didn’t benefit them, compared to those with normal serotonin levels.
But in order for our brains to produce serotonin, it needs amino acids. One of the primary amino acids our brains require for happy chemicals is tryptophan, which is exclusively found in food. Most commonly, tryptophan is found in meats and cheeses (famously, tryptophan is said to be the cause of your post-Thanksgiving dinner nap), but for vegetarians, pumpkin seeds and tofu are also significant sources.
It’s a bit of a process for your brain to convert the amino acid into serotonin (it has to become niacin first), but there’s a way to speed it up: Good ol’ carbs! That’s because carbs produce insulin, which removes other amino acids from your blood — per Sleep.org, this then allows the tryptophan to be fast-tracked to the brain. In higher doses, both carbs and tryptophan can make you sleepy, though, so it’s probably best not to go hog wild on a big meal before pondering your future.
Speaking of which, it can take around 20 minutes from the time we start eating for our brains to get the signal that we’re full, so eat slowly and give yourself a half-hour or so for your body to adjust before weighing that big life choice.
Really, though, you don’t need to worry too much about the nitty-gritty of your brain’s amino acid conversions when it comes to planning a meal around your major decisions. All that actually matters is that you eat. “Being hungry, or hangry, could cause you to be impatient, stressed and irritable, so it would be best to eat before making a big decision,” says Alissa Rumsey, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. “Eating a balance of carbs, proteins and fat is a good option, as this will satisfy you longer and keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable. Also, consider eating a food or meal that you really like and enjoy, as this can help bring stress levels down.”
So basically, eat what ya want — it’s unlikely that you’re going to throw your entire life off track simply because you made a poor decision influenced by a box of mac and cheese. But if you’re trying to #hack your decision-making, just eat a well-balanced meal — it’s hard to feel like a piece of garbage after eating a meal of salmon, brown rice and roasted veggies.