If you are irritable after skipping breakfast, or your mood goes haywire an hour before dinner, you’ll know that being hungry can affect your emotions. Here we examine the science behind being ‘hangry’, and why how you feel often depends on what you eat
We’ve all seen the Snickers advert with the tagline: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” While it’s a lighthearted take at feeling ravenous, it turns out that the science behind hunger impacting your mood is actually pretty solid. And there’s plenty of reasons why being hungry can actually affect your mood, and even your relationships.
A study of married couples found that anger towards spouses was greater when glucose levels were lowest, which is when we feel hungrier. But how exactly does hunger impact our mood and, more importantly, what can we do about it?
Let’s start by talking about why it happens. Whatever we eat (whether that’s a full English breakfast or a superfood smoothie) is digested into helpful things like amino acids and sugars, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and used around the body for all sorts of functions to help keep us alive. A few hours later, our blood sugar level drops, and that’s what makes you feel hungry.
This is actually a really useful cycle, but if we’re rushed off our feet, or don’t have food close to hand, then other changes start to kick in to remind us that we need to start eating again. That’s when our fight-or-flight mechanism gets going, thanks to a big adrenaline boost, making us feel emotions such as anger, anxiety, or a general sense of stress and panic.
This was ideal in caveman times, when we needed a signal to hunt, but less useful nowadays if you’re in the middle of an important work meeting, and suddenly feel rage.
If you’re not eating, your brain wants to boost blood sugar, so it sends signals to other parts of your body to release more hormones to help. These include our stress hormones, which also trigger perceived ‘negative’ emotions like stress or anger.
Nutritionist VJ Hamilton explains: “When blood sugar gets low, which may happen when you haven’t eaten for a while, it triggers several hormones to be released in the body, including adrenaline linked to the fight-or-flight response, and cortisol , known as the stress hormone. These hormones are released to bring blood sugar back into balance, but both adrenaline and cortisol can affect mood and cause aggression in some people.”
There’s plenty of research to show that being hungry can make you feel more negative: research on university students found people who were hungry reported more unpleasant emotions – such as feeling stressed, or even hateful – and had a more negative attitude to the researchers in the study.
If you’re not eating enough throughout the day, this can cause physical symptoms, too. “Often people feel tired and develop headaches if their blood sugar regulation is not in check, especially if they develop a couple of hours after eating. You may also feel hungry and crave sugary foods,” says VJ.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that your current mental health can further impact this cycle. For example, those with anxiety or depression may experience a loss of appetite (meaning they’re hangry, but still don’t feel like eating). Certain medications, such as antidepressants, may also make you feel more or less hungry, meaning you get out of sync with your usual eating patterns.
But what can we do to help us feel less hangry? Well, the most obvious solution is, of course, to eat. But realistically this isn’t always straightforward, depending on your relationship with food and a history of disordered eating. Or it could prove more challenging simply based on your physical location – but where possible, and if you do have food to hand, you need something that will help boost your blood sugar, so reaching for carb-rich foods is ideal.
While you might be tempted to head to the vending machine, some sugary snacks might only temporarily solve the problem if their blood sugar is absorbed too quickly (leading you to feel hangry again an hour later).
Good snacks to help hanger are complex carbs. These often take longer to digest – thanks to being higher in fiber – so they cause your blood sugar to rise more steadily. These include things like oats and wholegrains.
“Start eating foods that help regulate blood sugar levels, such as good quality protein, high-fibre foods, healthy fats, and colourful, plant-based foods such as dark green leafy greens, red and purple berries, and sulfur-rich garlic, onions and leeks,” adds VJ.
The best thing you can do is to try to prevent hanger happening in the first place, by opting for regular meals.
Did you know that one in four of us regularly skips breakfast? Yet, there’s a reason this is the most important part of the day. Having a breakfast that’s rich in complex carbs and protein will help you feel fuller for longer, and keep hanger at bay before lunch. If you find yourself not feeling hungry first thing, even a light breakfast – like fruit and yogurt or toast with nut butter – can make a big difference.
If you find yourself regularly getting hangry, VJ also suggests researching the glycaemic index. “The glycaemic index scales foods on how likely they are to affect your blood sugar levels. If you eat foods with a lower glycaemic load, you are less likely to encounter a dip in blood sugar that can lead to hangry symptoms,” she adds.
If the problem is that you’re not prepared, then it could be worth prepping meals or meal planning for your week ahead. Take a look at your timetable and make sure to schedule in lunch, dinner, and snack breaks – you might also figure out which times you’re more likely to feel hangry, and try to have snacks to hand.
It’s reassuring to know that most of us feel hangry from time to time, and while it might seem like something to joke about, it’s a very real emotion, thanks to the complex body processes.
Prepping meals, eating regularly, and switching to foods that won’t cause sudden blood sugar spikes, can all help to make feeling hangry a thing of the past
For more information about nutrition, visit a nutritionist resource or talk to a qualified nutritionist.