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Hangry: Why do we get angry when we are hungry

Feeling hangry? Why we get angry when we are hungry

It's one thing to feel a bit hungry before dinner, but another to feel so famished that it affects your mood. If you've ever felt irritable and overreacted to minor issues when you've not eaten, you may well have experienced being 'hangry' - feeling angry when hungry. But why do we get this when we crave food and what can we do to avoid it?

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Why we get angry when we are hungry

Hanger might sound like a made up thing, but research suggests it is a very real issue. University of North Carolina researchers found that people are more likely to be in a negative mindset when they are hungry1.

Through a series of tests, assistant psychology and neuroscience professor Dr Kristin Lindquist and her team put people in slightly annoying situations, such as being faced with computer problems.

The hungry people were more irritated and more likely to give negative feedback later on, suggesting that hunger can increase how angry you get frustrating experiences.

Blood sugar levels

One of the reasons we may get irritable is because not eating can affect our blood sugar levels. "When we get very hungry and haven't eaten properly in a while, the sugar (glucose) levels in our blood can drop," says Reema Patel, registered dietitian at Dietitian Fit.

"If it gets quite low, this can lead to the hormones adrenaline and cortisol being released. These help raise our blood sugar but can also make us a bit more irritable than usual, which is why we can experience that hangry feeling.

Brain function

Also, low blood sugar can interfere with higher brain functions, such as those that help us control impulses and regulate our behaviour.

Anger is also linked to hunger because of brain chemicals such as neuropeptide Y, which is released into the brain when we are hungry. However, it also helps to regulate anger or aggression.

Historically, feeling anger when hungry has helped humans survive. Being aggressive when hungry helped us fight for food as hunter-gatherers, ensuring we stayed fed when faced with competition.

What to do to avoid getting hangry

Although getting angry when hungry seems like a temporary problem, research shows it can have an effect on personal relationships2. However, there are steps you can take to avoid getting hangry.

Eat regularly

"Try not to wait too long between meals to eat. Having more regular meal patterns can help us reduce dips in our blood sugar, which can prevent us feeling hangry," says Patel.

"Have a prepared snack with you if you are out of the house, so that you can have this if you feel yourself becoming hungry but know you won't be able to have a proper meal soon. Something like a small handful of nuts with a piece of fruit can work well."

Cut back on sugar

Try to avoid junk foods, which can cause a sugar crash. Nutrient-rich, high-fibre foods can keep your blood sugar stable and keep you feeling fuller longer.

"Reducing the intake of highly processed foods with added sugar can help prevent a qrapidrise then crash in blood sugar, which can effect our mood," says Patel.

Eat wholegrains

"Focus on wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice or pasta, as well as fibre from vegetables, fruits, pulses, beans and protein food sources," says Patel. "These foods keep energy and blood sugar levels more stable, which will help you feel better overall. This is because they take longer for our body to break down to digest, reducing spikes in blood sugar.

"Fibre also helps to keep us fuller for longer by slowing down digestion and stomach emptying, as well as having many other fantastic benefits for our health and well-being," she adds.

Pay attention to your feelings

According to the University of North Carolina study, hungry people who understand how they feel and if the effect of changes may be able to reduce their chances of becoming hangry.

Emotional self-awareness can be a personality trait, but it is also something that can be learned through techniques such as mindfulness. It can also help to take note of when you're more likely to feel hungry or irritable, so you can have snacks on hand.

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Further reading

  1. MacCormack et al: Feeling hangry? When hunger is conceptualized as emotion.

  2. Bushman et al: Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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