Why Do We Get Hangry? Study Offers New Explanation for Why You're Not Yourself When You're Hungry

“Hanger”—or the emotion which erupts when our hunger boils over—is caused by more than just a drop in blood sugar level and can be controlled with the mind-body connection, according to a study. 

A complex combination of our biology, personality and environment triggers hanger, research published by the American Psychological Association suggests. 

Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student at the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lead author of the study, said in a statement: "We all know that hunger can sometimes affect our emotions and perceptions of the world around us, but it's only recently that the expression hangry, meaning bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger, was accepted by the Oxford Dictionary.”

Her team wanted to understand the psychological mechanisms at play when our hunger prompts an emotional response. The study published in the journal Emotion showed that context and self-awareness appear to be the two determining factors of hanger.  

pizza-food-stock A study has investigated the causes of hanger. Getty Images

Dr. Kristen Lindquist, the study's co-author commented in a statement: "We've all felt hungry, recognized the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better. 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."

To arrive at their findings, the researchers carried out two online experiments on 400 participants in the U.S. The individuals were shown an image intended to trigger positive, neutral or negative feelings. Afterwards, they were shown an ambiguous image and asked to rate it on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant. Researchers then quizzed the participants on how hungry they felt.

The data revealed the hungrier the participants were, the more likely they were to score the ambiguous image as negative, but only after initially being shown a negative image. Participants shown neutral or positive images, however, didn’t see any effect.

In a separate experiment, researchers asked more than 200 college students to either fast or eat before completing exercises designed to focus on their emotions. They were then tasked with completing a purposefully tedious exercise, where the computer was programed to crash before it was finished. The researchers then blamed the students on the crash.

Participants who were hungry reported feeling more emotions like stress and hate after the test, and rated the researchers as harsher or more judgemental. But those who thought about their emotions didn’t report this change, even if they were hungry.

The researchers believe a person’s emotional awareness therefore contributes to their risk if tipping into hanger.

MacCormack said: "The idea here is that the negative images provided a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant.

"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."

The research emphasizes the mind-body connection in relation to hunger, according to MacCormack.

"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," she said. The research offers further proof of the importance of taking care of our bodies, and not discounting bodily signals.

"They matter not just for our long term mental health, but also for the day-to-day quality of our psychological experiences, social relationships and work performance," she said. 

MacCormack added: "A well-known commercial once said, 'You're not you when you're hungry,' but our data hint that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognizing how you're feeling, you can still be you even when hungry.”

Sophie Medlin, a lecturer in nutrition at King's College London who was not involved in the paper but has previously researched hanger, said this was the first study to look into the matter since the term was adopted into everyday language, and therefore offers a new understanding of the phenomenon in this context. 

"In the future it would be helpful to understand who is more prone to this response and why, whether this is genetic predisposition, male/female or based on the endocrine psychological factors," she told Newsweek. 

"Our food environment allows for easy access to a wide variety of foods almost constantly. This may exacerbate the feeling of hanger when access to food is limited."

She added: "If you know that you are prone to hanger, being prepared for this by keeping healthy snacks at hand and making sure you eat before stepping into long, challenging or critical situations will help you to ensure that the decisions you make and your response to those around you are not influenced by your hanger."

Aisling Pigott, a qualified dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Assocation who was not a part of the team behind the research, pointed out the study is small and only featured fit, healthy, young students. 

She told Newsweek: "To further understand how we link our emotions with food it would be interesting to look at this on a larger, broader scale.

"This [study] is really noteworthy for those trying to lose weight, [as] sometimes calorie restriction can enhance our negative body image thoughts, making it very difficult to stay on track."

The take-home message, she added, is: "Look after yourself. Food is wonderful. Nourish your body every day. Be aware that if you're grumpy and restricting your food intake, ending the restriction may enhance your mood."

This piece has been updated with comment from Aisling Pigott.

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