Can our food choice manipulate our behaviour? Blog by performance psychologist Mike Duckett

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th June 2018

Mike Duckett looks at why microbes are capable of much more than aiding digestion.

You may have heard the old parable illustrating profound attitudes to work: a man sees two workers on the building site of a new cathedral. He asks both what they are doing. The first one replies, “I’m laying bricks”; The other replies, “I’m helping build cathedrals”.  

Writing this and the previous blog I was thinking about how this might apply to you as a chef.  Are you simply cooking some food or are you improving the well-being of your diners? Last time  I wondered if you could see yourself as some kind of neuropsychologist (see Are Chefs Actually Neuropsychologists?) because your dishes will have an effect on the gut nervous system and, through the vagus nerve, on the mood of your customers.

Now I’m wondering if you might see yourself as some kind of microbiologist. Along with increasing interest in neuropsychology and the brain in our guts there is huge interest in the bacteria we host throughout our bodies – and they are there in huge numbers. In fact, latest estimates suggest we carry around just as many microbial cells as the number of cells in our own bodies. So, the chef standing next to you is as much a bag of ‘foreign’ bacteria as ‘chef’.

Now that’s a sobering thought because it seems they aren’t just passengers we carry around; our microbiome, as it’s called, has profound effects on our physical health and wellbeing. You must have noticed adverts for yoghurt containing so called good bacteria (none are good or bad per se, it depends how many and where they are) to aid digestion and the immune system. They have evolved with us to become a fundamental part of our lives; e.g. certain strains break down plant carbohydrates and provide our own cells with nourishment, providing 10% of our energy. We can’t survive without them and they can’t survive without us – a real partnership in life.

Now though, we’re discovering that microbes are capable of much more than aiding digestion for us; they may be capable of manipulating our bodies and even our behaviour!

Take one of western society’s biggest problems, obesity. You can make lean mice fat by transplanting gut bacteria from obese mice, or vice versa. It seems you can even make lean mice obese by introducing gut bacteria from obese humans. The microbiome has been implicated in many conditions ranging from colon cancer to asthma and as a result we’re developing the art of trans-poo-sion – you don’t need me to describe what this means as there’s a clue in the name!

More interesting to me though, as a (coaching) psychologist, is the research on whether our behaviour can be shaped by our microbiome. Early experiments found that transferring gut bacteria from children with autism into mice led the mice to exhibit some similar unusual patterns of behaviour such as social aversion and repetitive actions. Also, when timid mice were given the bacteria from bolder mice they became bolder and when bold intrepid mice were given the bacteria from timid mice they became timid and anxious; the researchers commenting that it seems as though swapping microbes also swapped personalities.

In fact some research psychiatrists are interested in the development of ‘psychobiotics’, so called because of the evidence that changes in our microbiome can affect our mood, especially anxiety and depression. How might this be happening? Well we’re back to our old friend (see previous blog) the vagus nerve. When this was cut in some experiments, the mood changing effects of the microbiome ceased.

Finally, just to put cuisine right in the centre of the picture, I recently read a suggestion by the science writer Ed Yong, that your choice from a menu is a matter of flavour and choosing a nice meal. However, for your bacteria it’s a different matter, as different bacteria need different nutrients. So, if they stimulate the vagus nerve to reward you when you choose the right food for them, could they be training you to choose for them i.e. do they get a say in your menu choices?

Some months ago, I was lucky enough to be served lunch by a team of renowned creative chefs, specifically designed around food that was known to contain particular strains of bacteria, not to observe any immediate effects (we didn’t all start breakdancing) but to illustrate how a delicious meal can be constructed around a microbial architecture. Taking this idea forward maybe through your effects on neuropsychology and microbiology you, as chef, are involved with the equivalent of building cathedrals i.e. the wellbeing of mankind! 

Mike Duckett
Mike Duckett

Mike Duckett has a degree in psychology and is a member of the Occupational Psychology division, the Sports Psychology division & the Coaching Psychology Special Group of the British Psychological Society. He holds a diploma in Hypnotherapy & Cognitive therapy and is a certified NLP coach.

With over 20 years experience he was one of the pioneers of applying performance psychology to coach people in the hospitality industry to get the best from themselves, in areas such as creativity; leadership; optimism etc.

As a certified NLP Coach and ANLP Accredited Master Practitioner, Mike has clients ranging from world-renowned chefs, restaurateurs & sommeliers to up and coming staff in both the kitchen and front of house. You can see more of Mike's blogs atcoachforsuccess.wordpress.com

In these challenging times…

…the hospitality landscape has dramatically changed in the last two months, and with that our advertising revenues have all but expired, significantly impacting our business. Despite having to furlough a large portion of our staff, we are still delivering the valuable content and honest information, which hundreds of thousands of you come to The Staff Canteen for. We believe we have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs, are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector.

Your financial support means we remain independent and open to all. We were launched by a chef and remain the voice of chefs and other hospitality professionals.

We need your support to keep delivering the products and content that you love, giving you the platform to share opinions and inspiration. Every contribution whether big or small, means so much.
Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th June 2018

Can our food choice manipulate our behaviour? Blog by performance psychologist Mike Duckett