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Is Being "Hangry" a Matter of Science or Just an Excuse?

April 18, 2016

I am willing to bet we have all been there before. We started our day off with good intentions and a healthy meal, only to welcome about 100 distractions and items on our to-do lists. Before you know it, six or seven hours have gone by and we have worked right through the second meal of the day. 

Unprepared for a quick, but satisfying snack or meal, and unwilling to take a break in a streak of productivity, the feeling of irritability kicks in; a feeling that has become known as “hangry”. Quite simply put, you are so hungry that you have become angry. 

But is it really connected to your appetite, or is it just an excuse for your bad attitude? 

According to Stella Volpe, PhD, RD, Chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences, your mood is correlated to what and when you are eating. “If someone really has not eaten it can cause their blood glucose (sugar) to go down to the lower end of normal or even below normal. People get irritated because their bodies do not have enough glucose in their blood to get to their brain or central nervous system, and other cells that need it at the time.”

It is important to note that there is a significant distinction between true, physiological hunger and the feeling of hunger that comes from external cues making us believe we are hungry.  The “hangry” feeling can only be a product of the former, true hunger.

Volpe continued, “Your brain and central nervous system need glucose for energy. Likely, if your brain is not getting the energy it needs, your mood will be affected.”

To fend off the feeling, eat three meals a day with three small snacks, or six small meals throughout the day (though it can vary from person to person).  “If someone suffers from hypoglycemia, that is, if his/her blood sugar drops dramatically when they do not eat, the smaller, more frequent meals help them maintain blood sugar concentrations. The same is true for people with diabetes mellitus. They really need to eat regularly to try to maintain steady blood glucose concentrations throughout the day.” To sum it up, Volpe said, “The point is to eat regularly, whether that is every four hours or every three hours, even when you are trying to lose weight. Try not to skip meals.”

If your planning failed, and you feel the (bad) mood striking, the right quick fixes can get your blood sugar concentrations back up to normal. Volpe recommended steering clear of anything with such a high glycemic index that it could cause a rise and a potential drop in blood glucose concentrations, called “rebound hypoglycemia”. “An easy snack like a soft pretzel; grapes and cheese with crackers; peanut butter crackers; hummus and pita bread; or yogurt and some fruit would help get the glucose concentrations back to an appropriate concentration.”

Another tip to keep your food-related mood in check throughout the day, inspired by European and South American Culture where this reaction seems fewer and farther between: take a break when you are eating to allow your brain to register that you have consumed a meal, which Volpe confirmed does, in fact, take 20 minutes. “In other cultures, they really value sitting and eating meals together,” she said. “Even if you are at your desk or computer eating lunch, turn away from your work for five to 10 minutes. Do not rush eating your meal.”