If you are someone who gets cranky when hungry, here’s some good news for you: it’s not all in your head. Hangry, a combination of the words hungry and angry – and something we’ve all experienced at some point – is such a common phenomenon that it was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018. And now, peer-reviewed studies have revealed that not only is hanger real, but this experience is true for everyone regardless of age, gender, BMI, diet, and personality traits.
Why do we get hangry?
Hunger, with and without moodiness, is a complex interplay of hormonal and physical processes between the brain and gastrointestinal tract designed to let us know when we’re in need of energy (food). Generally speaking, there are two types of hunger: physical and psychological hunger.
Physical hunger, sometimes called biological hunger, happens when your brain communicates a need for fuel. It typically manifests itself through a range of physical and emotional sensations designed to make you stop what you are doing and get some food in your system. For example, you may feel an emptiness in your stomach, rumbling and growling, yawning, and even a painful or nauseous feeling when the hunger is severe.
Psychological or emotional hunger occurs when you have a conscious or unconscious desire to eat but feel no physical signs that your body needs food. While most people associate emotional hunger with negative emotions, like sadness, anxiety, or anger, this type of hunger can also result from positive or even neutral feelings, like happiness or boredom.
Hanger can result from both physical and psychological hunger, albeit for different reasons. Emotional or psychological hunger often comes when we feel we need to compensate ourselves with food for something that has shaken our emotional state. Moreover, when feeling sad, depressed, reactive, or irritable, it is not uncommon to have low levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that influences mood and behavior.
Research suggests that even mild serotonin deficiencies can trigger food cravings, particularly cravings for rich, sugary foods or nostalgic meals that remind us of happier times. This happens because the body is trying to reduce a specific type of serotonin-inhibiting amino acids called BCAAs while also trying to increase levels of tryptophan, a serotonin precursor. These cravings are often accompanied with excessive moodiness, irritability, exhaustion, and anguish, especially if we try to ignore them.
In the case of biological hunger, studies show that feeling moody or cranky – aka hangry – boils down to blood sugar levels, or glucose. When you eat, your gastrointestinal system breaks down foods into glucose, the body’s main energy source. Glucose, with the help of a hormone called insulin, then enters your cells to provide them with the fuel they need to function properly. When you haven’t eaten for a while, though, your blood sugar levels drop, and your body stops producing insulin. This glucose crash, in turn, creates hormonal changes that trigger hanger and other symptoms of hunger.
How to avoid getting hangry
Snapping at friends, colleagues, and innocent bystanders doesn’t have to be the norm when you’re hungry. If you are someone who gets hangry often, there are some things you can do to keep yourself sated for longer and keep your blood sugar balanced between meals:
- Eat – yes, as simple as that. The best cure for hanger is eating, so next time you feel hunger pangs or start fuming at every little sound your co-worker makes, just get something to eat
- Be prepared – keep nutritious snacks on your desk or in your car in case hunger strikes before mealtime.
- Increase your fiber intake – high-fiber foods provide bulk and take longer to digest, helping you feel full longer on fewer calories. Great examples of high-fiber foods and snacks include vegetables, popcorn, nuts and seeds, whole grain foods, and fruits.
- Resist junk food – sugary and junk foods are high in calories but low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which means that your body breaks them down quickly and can cause you to feel hungry faster. Plus, junk foods contribute to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels and promote insulin resistance, increasing your risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity.
If being on an empty stomach fills you with rage, it may help knowing that it’s not all in your head. Feeling irritable or angry when you are hungry is often the result of blood sugar crashes and hormonal changes in the body. The good news is that hanger is easily manageable and preventable; to make sure you don’t have to later apologize for what you said or did when you were hungry, just be sure to keep your body fueled by eating often and favoring high-fiber snacks and meals over carb-y snacks to regulate your glucose levels and keep you full for longer.
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