The Science of Hanger, Explained—Plus How To Prevent It From Taking Over in Any Situation
Keep reading to learn more about the science of hanger and its effects on your mind and body. Plus: a dietitian’s top tips to prevent hanger before it makes you lose your cool.
Is hanger a real thing?
As Florida–based dietitian Kim Rose, RDN, CDCES, CNSC, LD, begins, an empty stomach and the resulting dip in blood sugar levels can definitely impact your mood. “For example, hypoglycemia—low blood sugar—may result in nervousness, anxiety, irritability, or confusion,” she says. “Yet once someone experiencing hypoglycemia gets something to eat, these symptoms resolve themselves.”
"Hypoglycemia—low blood sugar—may result in nervousness, anxiety, irritability, or confusion.”
—Kim Rose, RDN, CDCES, CNSC, LD
The quick fix of munching on something to stabilize your blood sugar and mood should come as a relief to some people—especially those who are booed up. An April 2014 study published in the journal PNAS measured the link between low glucose levels and aggression amongst 107 married couples. Over the course of 21 days, participants who had lower glucose levels acted more on their aggressive impulses—in this case, sticking more pins into a voodoo doll of their spouse and blasting them with louder and longer noise blasts through headphones. (And suddenly, I’m reminded of the joys of being single...)
Moreover, new findings from a July 2022 study published in PLoS One contribute to a growing body of research demonstrating that hanger is, in fact, a legitimate phenomenon. Over the course of three weeks, 64 participants in Central Europe reported their levels of hunger, anger, irritability, pleasure, and arousal at five points throughout each day. The study found that the more hungry someone was, the more angry and irritable they were and the less likely they were to report feelings of pleasure. (The link between hunger and arousal wasn’t found to be statistically significant.)
But why is it that sometimes you’re simply hungry and sometimes you’re downright hangry? What’s the dividing line between the two?
According to a June 2018 study published in the journal Emotion, context and self-awareness play pivotal roles that determine if hunger will contribute to negative emotions. This study involved two experiments. In the first, 400 participants were presented with an image that had either positive, neutral, or negative connotations. They were then shown an ambiguous image (a pictograph) and were asked to rate how pleasant or unpleasant the latter image was, as well as how hungry they felt. The researchers found one strong link: Participants who were both hungry and saw a negative image first were more likely to report the ambiguous image as unpleasant.
According to a June 2018 study published in the journal Emotion
, context and self-awareness play pivotal roles that determine if hunger will contribute to negative emotions.
The second experiment involved 200 college students—some of whom fasted and some of whom ate beforehand. Select students also completed a writing exercise designed to tune into their emotions, and all participants were eventually asked to complete a tedious task on a computer before it crashed and a researcher stomped in blaming them for the malfunction. The hungry students who hadn’t completed the emotional check-in exercise reported more negative emotions—including stress, anger, and a harsher critique of the interfering researcher. Interestingly enough, hungry students who had completed the writing exercise didn’t report the same trends in their own emotions or perception of the researcher.
In short, both experiments showed that negativity can beget more negativity, especially when hunger is involved. While facing negative stimuli on an empty stomach can contribute to more anger, less pleasure, and greater reactivity, being more in tune with your emotions may help deflect your hunger from cascading into greater turbulence.
How to prevent hanger, according to a dietitian
In addition to immersing yourself in a positive environment and practicing mindfulness—yes, even when your tummy’s rumbling—here are other healthy habits worth following to stabilize your blood sugar levels and avoid the gnarly wrath of hanger.
1. Eat balanced meals on a consistent timeline
Rose emphasizes the importance of how and when you eat to stave off hanger. Step one: Eat balanced meals consisting of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. "In addition, eating approximately every four to five hours will keep your blood sugar stable,” she says. With these tips in mind, it’s pretty clear that skipping meals is a no-go. “When you deprive your body of essential nutrients, your blood sugar drops, leading to increased sugar cravings and hanger," Rose adds.
2. Stock up on snacks
If you find yourself stuck at your desk or otherwise engaged without the time to sit down for a proper meal, healthy snacks can come to the rescue to tide you over. “Carrying granola bars, fruit snacks, and peanut butter-filled pretzels may tide you over if you do not have time to eat a meal,” Rose says. Again, the more nutritionally balanced they are, the better.
3. Be careful with your alcohol intake
“Believe it or not, excessive alcohol intake can result in hypoglycemia,” says Rose. Of course, alcohol is a toxin as well and can loosen your inhibitions, so if you’re prone to both hanger and aggression after a few too many drinks, she recommends keeping your drinking habits in check.
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