Have you ever felt your anger rise while your tolerance level dip as you waited for your food to be served? Here’s why.
Picture your usual group gathering of family or friends – you’re all out to dinner and start off chatting nicely. If it’s a late dinner or your meals take a while to arrive, the mood changes. As time wears on, everyone’s patience wears out. You turn into snapping turtles, dredging up old grievances and picking on each other. You’re not usually so unpleasant, you’re all just mighty, mighty hangry (hungry + angry).
If you’ve been known to snap at loved ones, growl at waitstaff and practically gnaw innocent bystanders’ arms off, you’ll be pleased to know your hungriness is not all in your imagination and you’re not alone. The phenomenon is all too real.
FEED THE GHRELIN
Several scientific studies have examined how aggression rises as our blood glucose levels drop since our last meal. One such study suggests judges pass heavier sentences the longer they’ve gone without food. In another examining married couples, people stuck more pins in a voodoo doll representing their partner as they became hangrier (yikes!).
Associate Professor Zane Andrews studies the science behind food and mood in his role in Australia’s Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute. The key to your hangriness, he explains, is ghrelin, a hormone from the stomach that’s important for regulating food intake, as well as your moods and motivation.
“As the food you’ve consumed goes through the intestine and gets lower and lower, and your stomach becomes more and more empty, you start to release this hormone, ghrelin,” he says. “If you don’t eat, the parts of the brain that think you’re hungry send signals to other parts of the brain that control your mood and emotions.”
Ghrelin causes your stomach wall to contract, so you feel hungry. It also plays a role in monitoring your blood glucose levels, which are necessary for keeping your brain ticking. Low blood glucose levels encourage your body to secrete stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. These stress hormones in turn set your sympathetic nervous system into action, causing you to feel shaky, dizzy, and potentially irritable and angry.
This is your body’s way of providing enough negative reinforcement to motivate you to eat. While you often feel rising levels of aggression as hunger sets in, there are some benefits when you’re in this state that fade away once you’re full again.
“We’re more alert leading up to our meals,” says Dr Andrews. “When you eat, you get a lot of glucose and insulin, and those make us drowsy.”
Some foods, such as those rich in carbohydrates, make us drowsier than others. To work and play at our best, it’s all about maintaining balance and eating regularly to make sure we stay on an even keel. In this way, we navigate nicely between making hangry, rash decisions before eating and becoming too docile and drowsy after a meal.
DID YOU KNOW?
Low blood glucose levels encourage your body to secrete stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones can lead to irritability.
THE FASTING FACTS
Going on a fast or a diet where your calories are restricted throws off the body’s expectations about when to expect its next meal and the usual intake for your energy needs. Dr Andrews says the main thing is to be prepared for these mood swings when embarking on these types of diets.
“They’re certainly going to make you more hangry than normal because your body’s going to try to fight your brain to make sure the brain tells you to eat food,” Dr Andrews explains. “That’s why losing weight and keeping it off is so hard.”
Once the time for your usual meal passes, however, your hunger will subside because of your body’s circadian rhythm – the system that monitors your 24-hour sleeping and eating schedule according to daylight and other signals. Your body will give up on the current AWOL meal and begin looking forward to the next one.
Similarly, this system learns to adjust when you’re travelling. It’s temporarily thrown into chaos when you fly overseas and cross time zones. Your gut will be expecting meals at all sorts of strange hours, but then adapts to the new light cycle and expects meals at appropriate times for your new location.
HOW TO CURB YOU HANGRINESS
So what can we do to curb our hangriness other than carrying emergency snacks around? Dietitian Jenna Taylor recommends steering clear of processed carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and pastries and opt for healthy fats, wholegrains and protein instead.
“Foods to keep ‘hanger’ at bay include oats, wholegrain toast with egg or avocado, unsweetened yoghurt, high-fibre fruits, dried beans, lentils, and pasta with tuna or salmon,” she says.
There’s no particular body shape that means you’re more likely to get hangry. “If you’re obese, for example, and your brain is not receiving the signals from the body that it’s full and your brain thinks it’s constantly hungry, it then might also be feeding into parts of the brain that make you grumpy,” Associate Professor Zane Andrews explains.
The good news is that your tendency to become hangry could be an indication of a strong survival instinct. “We are designed to consume food, have enough food to find a mate and pass on our genes,” says Dr Andrews. “You might say that those who are more hangry are the ones that evolution has naturally selected to survive, because the stronger the desire for food, the more likely you are to go out and find food, and therefore, not become extinct.”