What’s “hangry” and is it just an excuse to be a jerk? Turns out, there’s real science behind why an empty belly can make you cranky.
You know those t-shirts that say, “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry”? They’re not just for a laugh. They’re actually onto something.
It’s long been known that there’s a connection between the state of our bellies and the state of our emotions — and up-to-the-minute research shows that the concept of being “hangry” (aka hungry and angry, or angry because you’re hungry) isn’t just an excuse for being cranky. It’s a legitimate, science-confirmed phenomenon.
So what’s going on in your body when you have this common experience, and what can you do when you’re feeling hangry (besides, um, eat)? We’re chowing down on the answers.
“Hangry” (pronounced like “angry” with an “h”) is a pretty simple concept — one we’ve all probably experienced from time to time. To be hangry simply means to be in a bad mood because you’re hungry. For some people, hangry symptoms might look like irritability, excessive frustration, lashing out, or feeling edgy.
Believe it or not, the word “hangry” has been around since at least 1956 (because, hey, it’s not like the experience is new). Some sources say it was first used in a psychoanalytic journal describing different kinds of accidental wordplay.
Still, it wasn’t until the 2010s that the word hangry came into common usage. In fact, 2018 was a landmark year for the concept of hanger. This is when it was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary with a definition of “bad tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.”
Sure, hangry sounds like a made-up concept — and it’s not like doctors are going around diagnosing it as a medical problem — but the goofy, humorous word describes a real physiological state.
In a 2022 study, for example, 64 participants from Central Europe completed a 21-day program in which they reported their hunger, anger, irritability, pleasure, and arousal at five time points each day. Not surprisingly, when they experienced greater levels of hunger, they reported greater feelings of anger and irritability, as well as lower levels of pleasure.
Further 2021 research revealed that hunger made participants had high arousal responses to neutral stimuli. In other words, every little thing pissed them off.
As for why we get so grumpy when our bellies are empty, researchers are still teasing apart the precise explanation. Some have theorized that, since food fuels our brains, a lack of it leads to poor emotional regulation. Especially if you’re running low on glucose — the carb-derived molecule the brain needs to function — you could find yourself losing your head.
Besides, low levels of glucose tend to be bad news for mood in general. Hypoglycemia, better known as low blood sugar, comes with classic hallmarks of jitteriness and irritability.
Another theory goes that hunger messes with hormones that regulate mood. Ghrelin and cortisol are two hormones involved in appetite that can also play a role in the stress response. When you go too long without eating, these hormones increase, causing feelings of distress.
It’s worth noting, too, that people who already experience regular anger and irritability might be more susceptible to the effects of hanger than others. If you have a mood disorder or hormonal issues, be aware that hanger might kick in more quickly for you.
When you start to go into a hunger-driven funk, getting something in your belly, stat, is key.
While it might seem like you should load up on carbs to replenish your brain’s sources, you don’t want to overdo it on the simple sugars in foods like donuts or candy. They might make you feel better in the short term, but your blood sugar will eventually come crashing down, leaving you just as grumpy as before.
Instead, it’s better to focus your efforts on a mix of complex carbohydrates and protein. Protein is the most satiating nutrient, and complex carbs release their sugars slowly and steadily into your bloodstream, helping sustain both fullness and better mood.
To tide you over until mealtime, try these nutrient-dense snacks that combine protein and carbs:
You may have heard that getting hangry is particularly common for people with diabetes. While it’s not necessarily true that getting grumpy without food is a sign of this condition, there is a possible connection between hanger and diabetes.
It all comes back to the idea of low blood sugar. Even though diabetes raises blood sugar, people with this condition sometimes end up having bouts of low blood sugar if their medication is incorrectly calibrated. That said, it’s always a good idea to check your blood sugar on the reg if you have diabetes.
If you have diabetes and find yourself frequently hangry, talk to your doctor about whether your medication regimen needs some fine tuning.
So maybe you alienated your BFF by accidentally shooting off at the mouth, only to realize it was the hunger talking. You probably don’t want to repeat that experience. To prevent reaching the hangry point of no return, it’s smart to take some preventative precautions.
- Stock up. Always keep a nutritious snack in your purse (or, if you don’t carry a purse, stash snacks in your car or gym bag).
- Snack smart. Candy bars may do the trick in a pinch, but to better outwit hanger, reach for healthier foods that combine protein and complex carbs.
- Don’t skip breakfast. Or any other meals! Eating regularly is the best way to prevent hanger.
- Check-in. Mindful eating is an excellent practice, and so is keeping conscious tabs on your level of hunger or fullness. If you struggle with frequent episodes of hanger, try setting check-in reminders on your phone throughout the day to ask yourself if you’re getting ravenous.
- Talk to a pro. Sometimes an excessive emotional response to hunger could be a sign of an underlying mental health issue. If hanger is getting the best of you on a regular basis, consider speaking with your doctor or a mental health professional.
Even though being hangry is a real, physiological issue, it’s never an excuse to be unkind. If you’ve accidentally lashed out at a loved one when your stomach was grumbling, a genuine apology is in order. Still, with the right steps toward prevention, you probably won’t need one.