The science of hangry

Do you feel the rage when you’re starving? Angela Tufvesson explains why you get hangry.

Have you ever snapped at anyone when you’re hungry? If so, you were probably “hangry” – a fusion of “hungry” and “angry” that causes people to feel grumpy and irritated when they’re more than a little peckish.

What causes hanger?

The brain needs glucose, which is sourced from food, to do its job. When the body is low on glucose, the brain perceives this as a life-threatening situation.

“When you have that drive to eat, the brain needs to make sure that you will try to follow through with it, so it creates that hanger feeling, that grumpiness and anxiety,” says Associate Professor Zane Andrews from the Department of Physiology at Monash University. “It creates a form of negative reinforcement… we are driven to eat to remove that feeling of negativity.”

Because the brain is focused on survival, it becomes harder to concentrate, do simple tasks, make decisions and behave within socially accepted norms like speaking nicely to other people.

What’s more, when blood glucose levels become critically low, the body releases hormones that help increase the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. However, two of these are the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, leaving you stressed and hangry.

“The stress hormones that help regulate hunger are also related to anger and aggression,” says dietitian Trent Watson, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. “It helps to explain why some people may feel a little bit more irritated or angry when they’re hungry.”

What cures hanger?

The obvious cure is food. Assoc Prof Andrews suggests snacking on something healthy. “Something with fibre like a piece of fruit is going to help your gut and control the release of glucose into the bloodstream,” he says.

If you’re stuck somewhere with no access to snacks, recent research suggests that simply recognising you’re feeling hangry can actually make you feel less hangry.

In the longer term, eating regular meals can help prevent hanger. “Having foods prepared and on hand is a simple way to avoid being caught out,” says Watson. “Eat a consistent breakfast and pack a lunch box with healthy meals and snacks.”

Who gets hangry?

Are some people more susceptible to hanger than others? Yes, thanks to genetic and metabolic differences.

“Our ability to become hangry is related to how we sense the changes going on in our body – and it’s not one particular gene; rather, it’s a whole collection of different things coming together,” says Assoc Prof Andrews. “Plus, some people absorb glucose faster, use glucose faster and store glucose easier, or not, and that can contribute to what the brain perceives as a state of hunger.”