Experts explain the science of why you get "hangry" — and how to avoid it

Do you feel irritable when you aren't eating regular meals? You're not alone

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 12, 2023 7:30PM (EST)

Teenager with a dinosaur mask about to eat lunch (Getty Images/THEPALMER)
Teenager with a dinosaur mask about to eat lunch (Getty Images/THEPALMER)

For all the years of our friendship, my late pal Jessica and I always had an easy compatibility and a conflict-free rapport — except for one key sticking point that threatened the very fabric of our relationship whenever we spent any length of time together. Jessica was an "I forgot to eat" person. I, in stark contrast, am a "carries granola bars in her purse to avoid making a scene" one. You know, a hangry one. What made us so different? Was it our metabolisms, our mental health, our circadian clocks? Or is it that I'm just a monster?

Humans have been getting irritable when they haven't eaten since the first biped yelled at the second biped for not stopping to forage for berries back there at the edge of the forest when they had the chance. Yet the portmanteau for that volatile feeling — hangry — only dates back to mid-20th century America, with a casual reference in a psychoanalytic journal. It took another six decades for "hangry" to finally enter the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018. 

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The concept of hangriness feels so uniquely modern, so uniquely American, in part because it's just plain silly. (My rage, however, remains deadly serious.) It's not a term for the true and serious issue of food insecurity the U.S.; it's about those moments when a banana is all that's standing between you and a wild overreaction. It's infinitely memeable, lending itself to the classic contemporary apology, "I'm sorry for what I said when I was hangry."

"Just because your body tells you it is hungry regularly does not mean that there is anything wrong with it."

It's also symbolic of our anxious, late-stage capitalism times, evidenced in a recent campaign for a meal replacement company that asked, "Who has time to chew?" Because eating is for losers! A 2021 poll by Eggland's Best revealed that nearly half of the respondents said they feel "lunch can be a distraction from getting work done." Another 2021 poll, by juice company Evolution Fresh, found that 64% of respondents claimed they regularly get "so busy" they skip meals. 

"Just because your body tells you it is hungry regularly does not mean that there is anything wrong with it or that you aren't being busy enough," said Laura Simmons, a registered dietitian at RET Physical Therapy and Healthcare Specialists. "Comparing what you eat to what anyone else eats is not going to be productive, as no one else has your body!"

Some of the vast population of meal skippers may be like my friend Jessica, able to power capably through a hectic day before looking up from their activities and noticing — oh right, food. Others who go long stretches without eating may have discovered the benefits of intermittent fasting. Some may also be living with ADHD, which can distract people from eating. But I'll bet a whole lot of them realize they're living in a culture in which they're expected to get through a stressful day on hastily choked-down Sad Desk Salad — and they're mad about it.

How can a grumbling stomach affect a person's temper so much? It's not just the discomfort of a delayed meal. "Response to hunger is highly individualized. Some people feel mood changes more than physical hunger, for example," said registered dietician Krista Linares of Nutrition Con Sabor

"Feeling 'hangry' can sometimes be associated with insulin resistance or hypoglycemia," she added. "One of the signs of low blood sugar is irritability, so it makes sense that conditions that interfere with blood sugar regulation would be associated with feeling 'hangry.'"

And Kelsey Kunik, a registered dietitian and nutrition advisor for Zenmaster Wellness, told me that a drop in blood sugar "triggers your body to release cortisol, a stress hormone, and adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, in an attempt to raise your blood sugar to continue supplying your cells with energy. One of the reasons some people react more emotionally to hunger could be related to how your respond to cortisol and adrenaline. In some people, a surge of cortisol and adrenaline can lead to anxiety, irritability and make it difficult to concentrate." 

What you eat also plays as important a role in your demeanor as when and how much you eat. I may love the idea of a morning cronut, but when I have sweets and carbs on an empty stomach, the best-case scenario for my loved ones within earshot is I'll get a headache.

"The hunger hormone, ghrelin, is released from the stomach and acts as an appetite stimulant. Newer studies are showing that ghrelin also communicates with the brain, and may have an effect on stress, anxiety, and depression," said registered dietitian nutritionist Kim Kulp, owner of the Bay Area company Gut Health Connection. "Refined carbohydrates like white bread, juices, sweetened cereals, and sugary snacks and drinks can cause a quick rise, followed by a quick fall, in blood sugar which can lead to 'hanger.'"

And despite what a notorious ad campaign of a few years ago suggested, coffee is likewise not the best meal choice of healthy achievers.

"Caffeine can have a significant impact on hunger and mood," said Monica Russell, a nutritionist and founder and CEO of Acquired Coffee. "While caffeine can temporarily suppress appetite, it can also lead to feelings of anxiety, jitters, and even depression in some individuals. Additionally, consuming large amounts of caffeine can cause dehydration, which can exacerbate feelings of hunger and irritability."

But, she said, it is important to make time for regular meals and snacks, even for those who are frequently "too busy" to eat. "Diets high in protein and healthy fats can help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide sustained energy throughout the day."

Feeling hangry may also be a signal that other factors are ticking you off. A fascinating 2022 study published in the journal PLOS One on "the impact of hunger on anger, irritability, and affect" found that "hunger was associated with a general feeling of lower pleasure." In other words, if you're missing a meal because you're late for school pickup or trying to finish a spreadsheet, the situation might be exacerbating the crankiness from hunger. After all, when was the last time you noticed feeling hangry when you were having the time of your life?

"The neurotransmitter serotonin, also known as the 'happy hormone,' has a big impact on our mood and well-being," said food scientist Michael Murdy, founder of Robust Kitchen. "It also plays a key role in controlling our hunger levels and determining when we feel full."

Conversely, Murdy said, when serotonin levels are low, "it can often result in increased hunger and cravings for unhealthy foods like carbs and sugar."

"Without fat at meals, your blood sugar is more likely to spike and drop, leading to a release of cortisol and adrenaline and an ugly hanger episode."

While individual hunger cues, food choices and circumstances play a big role in how hangry a person gets, one of the most common and significant causes is just simple, legitimate human hunger. If you are not eating often enough or well enough, your body and your mind are both going to suffer.

"Low calorie diets could cause you to get 'hangry' more often because your body isn't getting the amount of energy it needs at each eating episode," said Kelsey Kunik. "Low fat diets could also lead to hanger since fat is a great way to slow down the digestion of carbohydrates, giving your body a slow and even release of glucose into the bloodstream. Without fat at meals, your blood sugar is more likely to spike and drop, leading to a release of cortisol and adrenaline and an ugly hanger episode."

The best way to avoid losing it with an Olive Garden waiter who's a beat behind with those breadsticks is to make old-fashioned eating a priority. Aim for regular meals and go easy on sugary, processed foods that can lead to crashing later. And as I used to do on my long outings with Jessica, get comfortable with taking a time out and feeding yourself.

"Be prepared," said Kim Kulp, who suggests keeping nuts and dried fruit, or fruit and a protein bar, with you when you're with others that aren't eating. 

"In these cases," she says, "food can be like medicine."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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