A huge box of chocolates, a shared plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a heart-shaped red velvet cake: Valentine’s Day is certainly not the time to shy away from indulgent foods. But your dinner doesn’t have to be a caloric feast. Many foods – some common, some exotic – with historically aphrodisiac roots are high in valuable nutrients – and boost your mood at the same time.
Featured prominently in the Bible, many scholars believe the fig was actually the forbidden fruit picked by Eve, giving it it’s first scandalous reputation. Ancient Romans believed figs were a gift from the god of intoxication, Bacchus, while in ancient Greece, figs were symbols of love and fertility. And even with their sweet, honey-like taste, figs are still considered a healthy treat: with 14 grams of fiber per cup (broccoli has 5 grams), they are one of the highest plant-based sources of fiber. In addition to protecting against breast and colon cancer and lowering cholesterol, fiber helps in weight management. And don’t throw away the famous fig leaves that once covered Adam and Eve: several studies have shown that they have anti-diabetic properties by reducing the amount of insulin needed.
The word “aphrodisiac” actually originated with an oyster, when the goddess of love Aphrodite rose from the sea in an oyster shell. Since then, oysters, as well as other mollusks, have been regarded as the ultimate food of love. Low in calories and high in protein (six contain just 57 calories and 6 grams of protein), they’re an excellent choice for an appetizer. While salmon gets all the omega-3 hype, oysters are high in the fatty acids as well, which contribute to a healthy heart and fight inflammation. They’re also the richest source of zinc, a mineral that contributes to a healthy immune system and may even reduce depression and anger. If you can’t stomach raw oysters, don’t mar their delicate taste with cream or butter; they’re just as delicious poached, steamed, baked, or roasted with a squirt of lemon juice, salt, and herbs.
17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote that asparagus “stirs up lust in man and woman.” He may have been on to something: a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Drug Research found that extracts of asparagus significantly exerted aphrodisiac properties in male rats. Asparagus is rich in inulin, a type of soluble fiber that travels undigested to the large intestine and acts as a prebiotic (as a food source for probiotics like Lactobacilli). In studies, inulin has also been found to increase calcium absorption, making it the only food source (apart from calcium) that effectively improves bone mineral density. In addition to being high in potassium, folic acid, choline, biotin, and vitamins A, C, E, and K, the National Cancer Center has named asparagus as the top food source of glutathione, one of the most powerful antioxidants in the body. Serve asparagus roasted with truffles, another lust-boosting food.
Chocolate – the ultimate Valentine’s Day food and the number one craving of American women – contains a cocktail of compounds that contribute to both health and those loving feelings. With anandamide (a molecule that mimics THC), phenylethylamine, and theobromine, it has been found to increase the release of the bliss-inducing neurotransmitter dopamine. And adding more bang to your happiness buck, it’s one of the few sweet treats that actually has some nutritional value: its flavanols are known to protect against cancer and heart disease and lower blood pressure. Other antioxidants boost cognitive performance, including memory, attention span, problem solving, and reaction time. Stick with one ounce a day and pick a bar with at least 70% cacao (skip the generic supermarket Russell Stover box!); milk may hinder the absorption of antioxidants, while added sugar negates its benefits.
In 1825, French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that the truffle “awakens lustful and erotic memories” among both genders. And although he didn’t know it, their musky scent is reminiscent of the male pheromone androstenone. Apparently, it attracts both sows, who eagerly dig up the truffles, and female humans. Truffles are high in protein, containing all the essential amino acids, making them an ideal source for vegetarians. Like other mushrooms, they stimulate the immune system and and inhibit tumor growth. Because they’re so rare, truffles are extremely expensive (recently, three pounds sold for $300,000!). But their rich and intense taste comes with even tiny amounts, and allows you to cut back on fat and salt for flavoring.