Remember those times you got home late from work and your child was hungry, becoming whiny and more belligerent by the minute? Nothing you said was going to change that behavior. The only answer was food. After eating, they likely became sweet little angels once again. Or, you were starving, but couldn’t get away for lunch and noticed you were quicker to snap at co- workers or make disparaging remarks?
Commercials like the one below are more accurate than you think:
This sudden, irrational rage has been termed “hangry”- a combination of hunger with anger. Expert say it’s a very real phenomenon. “When we don’t eat, blood sugar goes low,” explains Deena Adimoolam, MD, an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Bone Disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “When your blood sugar falls, the hormones cortisol and epinephrine are released in an attempt to raise it back to normal. But those hormones also happen to lead to irritability, which explains why you’re so crabby when you skip breakfast. Another hormone, called Neuropeptide Y, plays a role in hanger. It helps create a hungry feeling when your body needs more food- and it’s also linked to aggression.”
A fascinating study from Ohio State University on married couples found that the lower the participants’ blood sugar level, the angrier and more aggressive they felt toward their partners. So if you’re going to have an important conversation, do it on a full stomach!
Everybody responds to being ” hangry” differently, but there’s no question the lower blood sugars plummet, the worse hunger becomes. Our body’s defense mechanism is to eat as soon as possible. The problem is we then crave foods, like candy bars in the commercial, that will rapidly raise blood sugar to get immediate relief. Unfortunately, this just causes a rapid spike that leads to another crash and before you know it you’re as “hangry” as ever. Plus you’ll blow all your hard work dieting and exercising in one brief moment. Instead, keep healthy snacks around- vegetable sticks, an apple, yogurt, granola bars (check out last week’s post on reading labels), or cheese sticks for a more beneficial choice that can hold you until your next meal. As I discussed in the G.R.A.D.E. diet, eating small amounts every 2-3 hours will curb your hunger, keep sugar levels stable, and keep the beast at bay.
“Blood sugar management is basically key to anger management,” says Jessica Cording, a New York-based registered dietitian. “Some people just try to white-knuckle it through their hunger and have a miserable day. This makes everyone around them miserable because they can’t just admit that they need to eat something.” Cording suggests foods with a lot of carbohydrates, which produces the highest amount of blood sugar or blood glucose, should be eaten with protein or fat in order to slow digestion and leave people feeling satiated. These types of food also help keep blood sugar and energy levels stable, longer. Breakfast is a particularly tricky meal to navigate because our bodies have usually been without food for eight or more hours, and we may crave the sugary fullness of carbs. But, Cording advises treading carefully during morning meals. “If you’re having a morning meeting with your team, doughnuts are the worst choice because there’s so much sugar and here are all these people talking about potentially touchy issues without the benefit of eating breakfast. That’s a total recipe for hanger and not exactly the best scenario for problem-solving,” she says. So next time think of bringing fruit and cheeses, or bagels and cream cheese to make your meeting more productive and avoid potential hostility.
Jennifer MacCormack and Kristen Lindquist, PhD, director of the Carolina Affective Science Lab and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, conducted several experiments that looked beyond the physiological changes to the contexts in which hanger occurs. These were published in the June 2018 issue of Emotion. MacCormack says their research set out to examine whether hunger automatically makes everyone more emotional, or if there’s more going on when people feel “hangry.” Subjects were asked to either fast for five hours or more, or come to the lab after eating a full meal. Once at the lab, they were asked to write a story about emotions, or to write a story about an average day that was meant to be unemotional. In the middle of writing their stories the computers crashed losing all the data. At this point the experimenter laid the blame on the participant, explaining they must’ve caused the crash. MacCormack explains that the fake computer crash and the ensuing blame were meant “to create a negative situation and see if they would become hangry.” Once again, context proved important. People who had written stories about emotions, and had more emotional self-awareness in the moment of the crash, were less likely to react poorly. Hunger didn’t just automatically make people more emotional. Even though everyone was in a negative situation or context, hungry people didn’t just automatically become hangry. It was only the hungry people who hadn’t been thinking about emotions beforehand who got hangry.
In another experiment, MacCormack had people look at positive, negative or neutral pictures, such as a cute kitten, a snarling dog, or a rock. Whether participants were hungry or full, looking at positive or neutral pictures didn’t cause a strong emotional shift in any direction. But when hungry, they reacted much more strongly to the negative images than those who had eaten recently. It appears from these studies hunger isn’t the only cause for someone becoming hangry. It’s again a matter of the context they find themselves in. It takes hunger and a negative stimulus to encourage the combination of events but it may be so subtle we aren’t even consciously aware of the transition. Hunger may not effect us if we’re in a positive or neutral state. But, in a negative one we may be more inclined to blame something or someone as causing the negative feelings because it’s harder to distinguish whether it’s coming from hunger or an outside source. Staying aware of our stress levels and physical state may make it easier to talk ourselves down from a hangry situation before it’s gone too far.
Hunger and hanger are part of life and can’t be avoided entirely. Eating is an emotional and physiological experience tied up with a mix of good and bad feelings. For most, we aren’t just filling up with necessary nutrients. Some fear it as just another moment to gain more weight. Others want to savor the mixture of tastes and smells that tantalize the pallet while preparing and enjoying the meal. Others are there for the communal experience and the chance to catch up and get closer to friends and family. While we may not always be able to control when we’re hangry, understanding why it happens and what we can do to minimize it can help us better manage those times. We can then prevent it from controlling us and make better food choices to resolve it.