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Hangry? Here's the science behind your food-based rage

By Leah Groth ; Updated June 12, 2018

Many of us joke about being “hangry” — a term that describes the familiar feeling of hunger making you bad-tempered or irritable. Now new research shows that “hanger” isn’t just clever slang: It’s actually a real phenomenon — and one that can be avoided.

You might experience hangriness as a rage that comes over you when you haven’t eaten in several hours, your blood sugar drops too low and, say, your significant other looks at you the wrong way. Or perhaps you’re sitting in a restaurant ravenous and your order is taking too long, so you (accidentally) snap and say some not-so-nice things to the server. Watch out for hanger!

Tasneem Bhatia, M.D., a certified nutritionist and expert in integrative health, suggests making nutrition a priority if you don’t want to feel hangry. “To avoid the ‘hangry’ blood-sugar fluctuations, eat protein and healthy fats every four hours — aiming for around 10 to 15 grams of clean protein and five grams of healthy fats,” Dr. Taz tells LIVESTRONG.COM.

Why? “Full-fat foods help to keep you satiated and insulin levels stable — avoiding the mood-altering crash.” She typically recommends the following foods:

  • Avocados
  • Small amounts of protein
  • Eggs
  • A handful of walnuts, almonds or macadamia nuts
  • A midafternoon smoothie with flax, greens and a scoop of protein powder

It’s good advice, but what if there were more to hanger than just low blood sugar? That’s what researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill set out to understand. They discovered that context and self-awareness are also contributing factors to being hangry.

“We’ve all felt hungry, recognized the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better,” explained the study’s co-author Dr. Kristen Lindquist. “We find that feeling hangry happens when you feel unpleasantness due to hunger, but interpret those feelings as strong emotions about other people or the situation you’re in.”

One of the experiments aimed at agitating its participants involved almost 250 undergraduates, half of whom fasted before and half of whom ate a meal. Researchers asked them to write an emotional essay to tap into their self-awareness and then showed the participants positive (a cute kitten), negative (a snarling dog) or neutral (a rock) photos. When the participants who hadn’t eaten looked at the the positive or neutral pics, they didn’t experience an emotional shift; but when they looked at negative images, they reacted significantly stronger than those who had eaten.

These findings led the researchers to conclude that an individual’s emotional awareness contributes to their risk of becoming hangry. “The idea here is that the negative images provided a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant,” said Jennifer MacCormack lead author of the study. “So there seems to be something special about unpleasant situations that makes people draw on their hunger feelings more than, say, in pleasant or neutral situations.”

Researchers also believe there is a mind-body connection when it comes to hunger, fatigue or even illness. “Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions and behaviors — whether we are hungry versus full, tired versus rested or sick versus healthy,” MacCormack said. Being aware of these feelings are not only important for long-term mental health, “but also for the day-to-day quality of our psychological experiences, social relationships and work performance.”

“It becomes more like, ‘maybe that person isn’t a terrible person. Maybe I’m just hungry,’” MacCormack explained.

So next time you start feeling a bit angry on an empty stomach, try to take it easy on whoever is in the room with you — and make sure to get some of the Dr. Taz recommended foods in that tummy ASAP!

Read more: The 10 Worst Diets of 2018, According to U.S. News and World Report

What Do YOU Think?

Do you get hangry? Does this study offer a sensible explanation behind the phenomenon? Other than eating, what do you do to avoid hunger-based anger?

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