Why You Should Never Make an Important Decision on an Empty Stomach

Photo: Getty Images/ Luis Alvarez
When hunger strikes, I don't trust myself to decide what pair of shoes goes with my outfit—much less to make life-altering decisions. Visions of alt-pasta dancing in my head put everything on hold. And according to Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, science backs filling your belly before going all-in on moving in with your significant other, dying your hair purple, or accepting a new job.

"Research supports not making a decision on an empty stomach," explains Dr. Naidoo. "Ghrelin is a hormone made in the GI tract that affects the brain. It is released when the stomach is empty. In a healthy person, once you eat, the action of this hormone stops." So far, research on how the presence of ghrelin affects your ability to be rational has mostly been conducted on animals, or extremely small sample sizes of humans. Dr. Naidoo says the results are still worth noting, however.

Most recently a small study with 50 subjects, conducted by Benjamin Vincent, DPhil, from the University of Dundee's Department of Psychology, found that hunger threw a wrench in participants' decision-making processes. "Hunger made them impatient and more likely to settle for a small reward that arrives sooner than a larger reward promised at a later date," says Dr. Naidoo. "Simply said, what the research appears to show us is that we seem to make poorer more reckless choices when we are hungry.

Yet another factor to consider is what an empty stomach does to your brain, which thrives on glucose (aka blood sugar). "The brain needs about 62 grams of glucose in a 24-hour period. This means actual glucose, not other forms of sugar. Our mental sharpness relies on the brain getting enough brain food. So when we eat, our brains get fed too," says Dr. Naidoo. So, in case you're keeping track, that means you need to feed both your stomach and your brain before making your choice.

What's on the menu? Dr. Naidoo recommends going back to basics. "A simple way to lead to a healthier lifestyle is to maintain a balance of foods that you eat, focusing on whole foods—for example, eat an orange rather than buying the juice—or eat leafy greens, lean poultry, legumes, nuts, healthy fats, and omega-3 rich seafoods to help your brain along," she says. Chow down—and then decide if you really want to pick up everything and move to another city. 

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