I distinctly remember the day I introduced my boyfriend to the concept of being “hangry.” I remember thinking, “Apparently men have a magic shutoff switch between their bellies and their brain that women lack.” He had never heard of the phenomenon that pretty much plagued me daily.
Why do some people get so unbearably hungry, it impacts their mood, while others seem to never experience hunger as long as they have lunch money? What causes that “hangry” feeling, and, more importantly, how can we combat the feeling, so it stops messing with our heads and our day-to-day lives? Here’s the science behind why you experience hanger, and how to quiet that tiger in your tummy.
It’s All About Blood Sugar
When we eat, our bodies convert the food we consume to glucose, which is a simple form of sugar the organs of the human body, especially the brain, use for energy.
People who have diabetes are well in tune with their blood sugar levels — they have to be to stay well. However, relatively few of the rest of us pay much mind to how the food we eat keeps us going each day. Blood glucose levels rise when food enters the stomach, but as the hours since the last meal of the day pass, these levels drop back off.
When they do, energy levels drop, and for some people like me, so does their mood. Usually, I like to think of myself as a logical person who strongly believes the world would be a far better place if we all treated each other with a bit more kindness. Until I get hangry, that is — then, I’m ready to verbally eviscerate anyone who appears to stand between me and my next snack.
The Psychology of Being Hangry
I’m far from the only person who has experienced hanger. Feeling hangry is so well-known, scientists researched the psychology as well as the physiology behind the condition. They discovered that while blood glucose does play a major role, other outside negative stimuli need to likewise come into play to cause the signature snappiness.
Ph.D. students at the University of North Carolina found people are more likely to experience hanger not when they’re focused on their hunger, but when they’re experiencing other negative emotions. At first, this made little sense to me. I mean, I know when I’m hungry, and I usually let everyone around me know, too. But then I realized, normally, when someone cuts me off on the highway, I keep on singing along with whatever’s on SiriusXM. However, if I’ve skipped lunch, all of a sudden I’m screaming a tirade that would make an NYC cabbie who was once a sailor blush.
In a way, this finding represents great news. It’s not inevitable that I’m going to snap, “What now?” at my boyfriend when he interrupts me to ask, “Are you hangry?” just because I missed breakfast. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that I will become a raging witch next time I find myself running a few minutes late due to traffic.
Taming the Tiger
Since hanger has both a physical and a psychological component, calming those tummy tigers requires a two-pronged approach. The first requires eating in a manner that keeps blood sugar levels stable. The second is to step back and check in, asking “Are you hangry?” when you feel yourself getting ready to roar.
Eating a diet that’s high in both protein and fiber can help stave off the physiological sensations of getting hangry. Protein takes longer for the body to break down into usable fuel, meaning blood sugar levels stay stable longer.
Fiber has no calories, but it creates a pleasant sensation of fullness that lasts for hours. Additionally, a diet high in fiber helps lower cholesterol levels and stave off heart disease, which kills more women annually than any other cause.
My first step in overcoming hanger was beginning each day with a breakfast high in both protein and fiber, like breakfast quesadillas with spinach or ancient grain flatbread wrapped around turkey sausage and low-fat cheese. Instead of my usual midday snack of a pack of chips, I opted instead for string cheese, nuts and carrots dipped in hummus — which, TBH, are all far more delish anyway.
Secondly, I learned how to check in with my feelings by asking myself, “Are you hangry?” and forcing myself to count to 10 before responding when stressed. During that time, I ask myself what emotions I’m truly experiencing and whether they correlate to my physical state. It’s not a 100% foolproof method — those who know me best notice I’m struggling to keep my temper in check — but it does help me keep a more civil tongue in my head when I do speak. It makes relating to others at both home and work much more pleasant.
Are You Hangry?
Everyone has good days and others that don’t go so hot — including me, of course. But if I can learn to control my emotions when I start getting hangry, anyone can. All it takes is proper nutrition, a bit of patience and a commitment to being your best self.