Hangry: Why do we get angry when we are hungry?

It's one thing to feel a bit peckish 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 are ravenous and what can we do to avoid it?

Why we get angry when we are hungry

Hanger might sound like a silly term, but research suggests it is a very real phenomenon. In a 2018 study, University of North Carolina researchers found that people are more likely to be in a negative mindset when they are hungry.

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

The hungry participants were overtly irritated and more likely to give negative feedback later on, suggesting that hunger can increase anger in the face of frustrating experiences.

Blood sugar levels

One of the reasons we may experience irritability 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

In addition, 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.

Ultimately, experiencing anger when hungry is a biological mechanism that has helped our survival as a species. 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 a significant impact on personal relationships. 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 rapid rise then crash in blood sugar, which can impact on 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 pay attention to their feelings in the moment 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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