Do you get Hangry?

Co-workers eating lunch together

Maybe you’ve skipped breakfast or lunch, or just eaten something like a plain donut. All of a sudden you’re cranky, irritable and unbearable to be around. What the heck is going on? In the same way we see a four-year-old melt down after a tiring day, adults feel hangry (hunger and anger) when their blood sugar dips too low for normal function.

“What happens is as the blood sugar drops very low it affects hormones and mood,” says Deborah Levy1, MS, RD, “When you eat, the body breaks down the sugars and starches into glucose to fuel the body’s cells.”

A drop in your blood sugar, or glucose level, which is the body’s main source of energy, means a drop in your vitality and self-control, fueling not only those moody, food-seeking binges but a cranky outlook on a perfectly fine day.

A recent study2  linked being hangry to a rise in domestic squabbles between spouses, specifically when one spouse’s blood sugar plunges, and they suddenly turn into the Cookie Monster who hasn’t had a cookie in a week. Sounds beastly.

“Not everyone experiences it; some people are more susceptible than others,” says Levy. Blood sugar can drop because you haven’t eaten anything in a while or you haven’t eaten the right things. Levy says we’re not sure why hangar happens to some people, perhaps they have more stressors, their mood is spotty to begin with, or they’re just sensitive to it. Then they eat something like a plain bagel with butter for breakfast and their blood sugar, which should be around 75-100mg/dL rises rapidly and crashes just as quickly dropping very low to something like 55 mg/dL causing hangar.

All of a sudden, they’re a beast.

“Bodies are like cars—you have to fuel them or you can get tired, depressed, angry, dizzy, a headache and stressed,” says Felice Kosakavich, RD3.

Some people may not notice hanger if they’ve eaten a high carb meal the day before since their body stored that energy. Others may stay so hydrated they don’t realize they’re hangry.

The more you skip meals and the more you eat simple carbohydrates—toast for breakfast, jelly beans at your desk, a candy bar mid-afternoon-- the worse you feel because simple carbohydrates and all that sugar move through the bloodstream quickly. “Hanger is both physiological and emotional,” says Kosakavich. “It’s physiological because you’re hungry and it’s emotional because now you’re angry.”

How to Head off Hanger

The trick is to eat meals and snacks that combine produce, whole grains and protein, as well as timing meals and snacks so that blood sugar levels aren’t given a chance to dip. Ideally, always eat on a schedule of every four to five hours.

There’s science behind a balanced ratio of protein, whole grains and colorful produce that helps energy and fuel release like a time capsule vitamin. Research shows whole grains give immediate energy, protein provides staying power to feel full longer, and water and fiber in veggies give the needed vitamins and minerals for optimal physical and mental functioning.

“That combo basically takes you from the time you’ve eaten to the time you’re due for a snack or your next meal depending on where you are in the day,” says Levy.

Think of the biggest rollercoaster you’ve ever ridden. You go all the way to the top and then fall all the way down at breakneck speed. That’s what happens when you eat simple carbs like toast for breakfast, or a candy bar for lunch. Now think of a baby roller coaster. You go up slowly for a while, linger at the top and then slide down more gingerly. That’s what happens in the body when you eat protein, produce and complex carbs. Now you know how to never be hangry again.

Eat to Beat Hanger:

Breakfast: Oatmeal with blueberries and chia or flax seeds; Breakfast bar and a banana; Bran cereal and melon

Lunch: Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with carrot sticks; Chicken whole grain wrap with broccoli and red peppers; Vegetable salad with tuna and whole grain roll

Snacks: Hardboiled egg with whole wheat crackers and an apple; Cheese stick, handful of grapes, couple whole grain crackers

Dinner: Brown rice, chicken breast, asparagus spears; Quinoa, lean beef tips, green beans

1Interview, 2014, Deborah Levy, MS, RD, dietitian in private practice at Carrington Co., LLC Health and Nutrition, New York City

2Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), http://www.pnas.org/content/111/17/6254.abstract

3Interview, 2014, Felice Kosakavich, RD, chief clinical dietician at Workmen’s Circle Multicare Center, a healthcare facility, the Bronx.

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