Do aphrodisiac foods work?
Can certain foods increase desire, or even sexual performance? Our nutritionist investigates
If you’re cooking a romantic dinner, or heading to a restaurant for Valentine’s Day, what’s the betting that the menu will include oysters, asparagus, figs or chocolate?
These foods have long been thought to have an aphrodisiac effect – or to help get you ‘in the mood’ and dial up the desire. But is their reputation deserved? We look into what the nutritional science tells us, and whether this is a case of fact or romantic fiction.
What is an aphrodisiac?
The term 'aphrodisiac' originates from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and passion. But Egyptian, Roman and Indian cultures – as well as Greek – all sought foods that could enhance libido and sexual satisfaction.
Today, researchers define aphrodisiacs as "food or drinks that arouse sexual instinct and potency, increase pleasure and desire and improve performance".
How do aphrodisiacs work?
Can what you eat really improve your love life? The evidence supporting aphrodisiac foods is very limited, with most findings coming from animal studies. However, it is possible that certain nutrients could have a physiological effect that impacts sexual function. For example, we know that some vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can affect blood flow and circulation, blood pressure control, blood sugar control and nutrient deficiency. In theory, these nutrients could therefore influence levels of arousal or improve sexual function – although any improvement is only likely to be noticeable in cases where a deficiency is being corrected.
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Psychological factors are also important – suggestive shapes, textures and even smells can affect desire as the senses are fired up. In addition, mindful eating may enhance the sensory experience of food, resulting in sexual enhancement of the effects of some foods due to their impact on pleasure centres in the brain. It’s even been suggested that eating foods that resemble sexual organs, such as figs and asparagus, or eating the reproductive organs of some animals, such as eggs or animal testicles, could increase sexual potency or performance.
Although research to prove the impact of certain foods on sexual desire or performance is lacking, food can certainly contribute to feeling energetic and good overall. And don’t overlook the power of the placebo effect; belief in the potential of the aphrodisiac food might just be enough to give you the loving feeling.
Which foods are aphrodisiac?
Historically, for ancient Greeks and Romans, wine was linked with sexuality and fertility. More recently, studies have shown that women who drank one or two glasses of red wine each day experienced more sexual desire. While alcohol may give feelings of relaxation to get in the mood, too much can reduce arousal and sexual performance, and may increase risk-taking, so don’t go overboard at the bar.
The aphrodisiac reputation of asparagus is probably more to do with its shape than anything else, but it also contains vitamin E, needed for hormone production and folate which is key for fertility as well as potassium for healthy blood pressure and circulation.
Appearance is everything with the avocado, which was known by Aztec people as the 'testicle tree'. There is little evidence for any aphrodisiac effect, but the nutrients in avocado, including zinc, vitamin E and magnesium, certainly help to support healthy fertility.
Modern day valentines often share chocolate gifts, but the tradition goes back to the Aztecs, as cocoa was thought to increase sexual desire and improve sexual pleasure.
Some researchers believe that chocolate’s potential aphrodisiac properties may be down to the sensual pleasure of consuming chocolate, with its melting point being so close to body temperature. In addition, the combination of cocoa, sugar and fat in chocolate may stimulate the brain to increasing levels of serotonin.
The aphrodisiac effects of figs has only been explored in animal studies, but it is thought that they have potential to stimulate sexual arousal. Plus, some people consider figs to be aphrodisiac because of their appearance, resembling the female sex organs.
Research is limited but suggests that red ginseng could improve sexual arousal in menopausal women. For men, ginseng may enhance erectile function thanks to the impact it has on nitric oxide production, helping blood circulation. A note of caution, red ginseng may interact with certain medications, so check with a healthcare professional before using it.
Nicknamed the ‘Peruvian Viagra’, maca is a sweet root vegetable which has been used traditionally in South America as a natural aphrodisiac to enhance fertility and increase sexual desire, but only small studies have been carried out.
Nuts are nutrition powerhouses, packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre and healthy fats. Alongside the range of health benefits from eating nuts, small studies have shown that eating pistachio nuts may help reduce symptoms of erectile dysfunction, possibly owing to the effect on blood cholesterol and stimulating better blood flow, but more research is needed.
Casanova was said to eat oysters by the dozen for their effect on the libido. Oysters are thought to boost fertility as they are packed with iron and zinc. However, scientific research in support of the connection for oyster lovers is limited.
Find out more about oysters and other shellfish, including their health benefits and how to eat them.
The nutrients in pomegranate, in particular the antioxidants, are key in promoting good blood vessel function, enhancing blood flow to key regions of the body. In fact, small studies in humans and animals suggest that drinking daily pomegranate juice enhanced sexual health for men with erectile dysfunction.
To sum up, there isn’t much scientific evidence to say that eating certain foods will be a foolproof way to raise your game in the love stakes, but many of the foods listed would play an important part in a healthy diet; eating more fruit and vegetables such as pomegranates, figs and asparagus and even enjoying the occasional oyster or dark chocolate would have potential benefits around the body.
If you want to try using an aphrodisiac to pep up your love life, remember to be realistic about it – there’s no magic edible remedy when the chemistry isn’t there. But connecting with a partner over a delicious meal, or staying healthy with a varied and nutritious diet, can certainly help.
Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years' experience.
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