The Science of Hangry & My Top Tips for "Hanger-Management"!

 What I LOOK LIKE WHEN I'M HANGRY

What I LOOK LIKE WHEN I'M HANGRY

We all joke about getting “hangry", a word that perfectly evokes that awful mix of hunger and the ill-tempered irritability that can accompany it. In fact, the term has become so ubiquitous that it has been officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary!

Hangriness does not manifest when you are "feeling peckish", or even when you are properly hungry...

Hangry happens when you push your body past both of these stages and to a point where your mood, behaviour and perhaps even your performance is compromised.

But while we know all to well what it feels like to be hangry, science has only recently put it under the spotlight.

Studies have revealed that being hangry-level hungry not only impairs mood, it can also impair judgment and performance, increase impulsivity and even aggression towards others (see below for my list of studies!). So hangry is not an ideal state for a human who wants to feel and perform at their best.

When we get “hangry” there are a number of physiological and psychological mechanisms at play.

Hunger is our body's way of signalling its need for fuel. Our cells, and especially our brain, utilise glucose as their preferred fuel source. When glucose levels fall, our body initiates a counter-regulatory cascade, which includes:

  • secretion of a peptide hormone called ghrelin (the "stomach growling hormone" which gives us hunger pangs);
  • glucocorticoids to help your body muster up its blood-sugar levels to keep your cells (and brain!) fuelled. Increased glucocorticoid levels are associated with concentration deficits, shakiness, sweating and even heart palpitations (sound familiar?);
  • Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, which are also released in times of physical or emotional stress. In fact, from this perspective it can be seen that getting hangry-level hungry is perceived as a stressor by your body!
  • Release of a brain chemical called neuropeptide Y, to stimulate us to eat. Interestingly, high levels of neuropeptide Y are associated with anger and aggression.

Bottom line: our hungry bodies are sending out a cascade of SOS signals via our internal biochemistry!

So can you see how getting hangry-level hungry can have flow-on effects to our emotions and our behaviour? 

How "hanger" can impact our behaviour and relationships

Hanger has been described in the scientific literature as a physical condition (hunger) with emotional and behavioural outcomes (anger, irritability). 

We have all observed (in ourselves and others!) that our emotions, and even our perception of people and situations, can take a nosedive when we are hangry. And studies are supporting this. One study of university students* found that "hangry" students were more likely to find a negative connotation in an image they were shown than their non-hangry counterparts.

And as we saw above, the biochemical cascade that is released when our blood sugar gets too low, is also associated with increased aggression. But how that "increased aggression" is expressed is highly dependent on a number of factors, including our situation (work versus home), our culture (social acceptability of verbalising anger differs across different cultures) and our own unique nature.  

Now we may be able to exercise some self-control to be able rein in the worst aspects of our hangriness at work, and especially around our boss, for example. But in an ironic twist, this kind of self-control can also cause our brain and body to burn through even more glucose, sending you further and further into hangry territory!

As the old song goes, “you always hurt the ones you love”, and that is especially true when it comes to hangry. So if you have white-knuckled through several semi-controlled hangry hours at work and still haven't eaten, changes are pretty high that you might go "full-hangry" once you get home - on the people who love and support you most. One intriguing study** found that spouses with lower blood glucose blasted their spouse with loud obnoxious sound for longer (and there was also this whole bit where they stuck pins in voodoo dolls too - seriously, who thinks these things up???).

So what can you do to manage your hangriness?

Here are my top "hanger-management" tips! 

1. Learn to listen to your body and respond to its signals!

Many of my clients are super-busy professionals who have, over the years, trained themseves to "push through" all sorts of discomfort to "get the job done". And over time they have lost touch with the more subtle signals their body sends out. So they ignore their body's thirst, hunger and sleep instincts. In my observation, this phenomenon is amplified among women, as decades of restrictive diet culture have taught women to use willpower to ignore their body's natural hunger signals.

If you have spent decades fighting against your body's hunger messages, it can take a while to tune back in, but it is well worth the effort. Listening to your body, and eating a healthy snack or balanced meal when you are hungry rather than out-of-control hangry can be a game-changer for your health, your work performace and even your relationships! 

So make a regular habit of checking in with yourself and note any patters throughout your day when you are prone to hangriness. The study of hangry university students I mentioned above also found that those students who were aware that their hunger was turning into "hanger" were better able to manage it, and avoid becoming a cranky "hangry monster". And I speak from bitter experience when I tell you that it is far better to listen to your body when it whispers to you than when it screams....

One you get into the habit of checkin in with yourself and noticing when you are heading into full-blown "hanger", you can then take evasive action (see below).

2. Eat regular balanced meals to meet your energy and nutrient needs.

Yes I know that is super-boring nutritionist advice, but it is sound advice - and you should take it! In many cases people get hungry, moody and scattered because they have simply let too much time pass since their last meal, or made a less-than-ideal choice that hasn't provided what their body needs to see them through. This can often happen when you are busy at work. So do a little planning, and make sure you have access to healthy snacks in case you need a between-meal boost.

3. Snack wisely when you need to!

I'm not a fan of endless grazing throughout the day. But I'm a big fan of utilising healthy snacks when your body is sending you signals that it needs fuel to get you through to your next meal.

And don't just consider whether you need a snack during the work-day! When it comes to hanger among super-busy-super-stressed professionals, who often don't have time to eat throughout the day, a small nutritious "as-soon-as-I-get-home-hanger-avoidance snack" can be a relationship saver! 

So if you notice that you and your partner bicker in that period between getting home from work and eating dinner, it might be helpful to bust out a small dish of unsalted nuts, some hummus and veggie sticks or grainy crackers. Just something small to help turn off your body's alarm-bells between home-time and dinner (and mucho bonus points if you choose not to open a bottle of wine - I'll write about that hoary old chestnut soon!).

4. If you do find yourself tipping into a hangry state, resist the temptation to reach for a sugar fix or for highly processed refined carb snacks like chips, pretzels, cookies or muffins.

Satisfying your hunger (or hanger!) with refined carbs will cause your blood sugar to rapidly spike, followed closely by a large spike in insulin, and a relatively fast, steep drop back down into the hunger/hanger danger zone. It is far better to choose a snack that contains protein, healthy fats and whole, unprocessed carbohydrate. Think of your daily snacks as an opportunity to fuel and energise your body. Choose snacks that will satisfy you, that are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, and a sustainable source of energy. Nuts and fruit, veggie sticks, hummus, yoghurt (if you eat dairy), or whatever foods you enjoy that are going to boost your energy and health, not tax it.

5. PLEASE, do NOT go to the other extreme and start to fear getting hungry, or classify hunger as "the enemy", or start all day day-long grazing as a way of avoiding hangriness.

Getting hungry won't kill you. And it won't impact your mood or performance if you simply eat something nutritious when you feel hungry.

There is nothing wrong with feeling hungry. So your hunger not something you should judge. You don't fret about your body's need to breathe, so don't fret about your hunger either. When we start assigning moral or emotional values to our body's normal, natural physiological responses it can pave the way for disordered eating, or worse.

The name of the game with "hanger-management" is to learn to listen to your body, do a little bit of sensible planning so you can eat when you are hungry, and not after you have become an irritable jittery mess.

6. Ask your family doctor if it might be worthwhile for you to have an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) and your insulin levels checked.

These tests can help your doctor assess whether your hangriness is just the innocuous garden-variety type, or whether it is a result of more serious blood sugar dysregulation, reactive hypoglycemia or insulin resistance. If not addressed through lifestyle changes or medical intervention, these may progress to type 2 diabetes, a serious chronic health condition. Knowledge is power - and so is prevention!

7. Observe whether you are "hangry" or actually genuinely feeling angry

We have all been hangry at one time or another. And we can all expect a to receive a "pass" for infrequent mild-to-mid-level hangriness from our work colleagues and loved ones. But if you are frequently irritable or have feelings of anger, don't use dysglycemia or hangry as an excuse for rude, aggressive or inappropriate behaviour. Not at home. Not in the workplace. Not anywhere.

As a starting point, take appropriate steps to prevent yourself from descending into hanger: make time for regular meals, keep a supply of healthy snacks available, address any medical issues like dysglycemia or reactive hypoglycemia.

Once you have done this, you may discover that hanger is not the true cause of your irritability. It might actually be due to chronic lack of sleep, or workplace issues, or the general accumulation of too much stress. It's awful to feel constantly irritable and angry, especially if some simple changes could lead to you feeling a whole lot better, so do please consider a visit to your family doctor to help you find an experienced psychologist so you can work through some strategies to address the things that are causing you unnecessary stress, help you process your emotions, reduce your stress response or address any underlying health issues. 

8. Cultivate emotional awareness

So much of my "hanger-management" strategy is focussed on becoming attuned to your body's signals when they are at the "whisper" stage (before they hit the hangry screaming stage). But the research also indicates that awareness of our emotions can also help with hanger-management. How do you do that? Simply take a few moments to pause throughout your day to check in with how you are feeling emotionally as well as physically. One key finding of the hangry university student study* was that the more emotionally aware we are, the more successfully we are able to experience hunger, not hanger!

References for my fellow science nerds!

*Jennifer K. MacCormack, Kristen A. Lindquist. Feeling hangry? When hunger is conceptualized as emotion.. Emotion, 2018.

** Bushman BJ, DeWall CN, Pond RS, Hanus MD. Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014 Apr 29;111(17):6254-7.

Beedie, C. J., & Lane, A. M. (2012). The role of glucose in self-control another look at the evidence and an alternative conceptualization. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16, 143-153.

Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., ... & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 325-336.