The Science of Hanger

Have you ever been so hungry that you felt cranky and irritable? If the need for a snack has brought out your inner toddler, you've experienced "hanger," hunger induced anger. We talked to registered dietician Alison Massey, Director of Diabetes Education at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore about what's prompting these episodes, why hanger only happens to some people, and how to avoid this unpleasant state.

Why does hanger happen?

Everything we eat is made up of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, which are digested into simple sugars (like glucose), amino acids (molecules used to build proteins), and fatty acids. These essential nutrients flow through the bloodstream and are distributed to organs and tissues to be used as energy. Most of these organs and tissues can easily access stored energy when a person hasnít eaten in a whileóbut not the brain. The brain needs a steady supply of glucose to function properly. When youíre hungry and your blood glucose level drops low enough, your brain might perceive hunger as life threatening, which might understandably make you a bit cranky.

When glucose levels drop too low, the hormone system kicks in to help the hungry brain out. When you're hungry, Massey says, "The body releases several hormones, including epinephrine and cortisol, which help the body release stored glucose. These are often called the fight-or-flight, or stress hormones, and a jolt of those can make you feel edgy or grumpy."

Why does hanger affect some people but not others?

Nobody feels their best when theyíre hungry, but cultural factors may play a role in why some people act on their hanger. For instance, some men may display more "hangry" behavior because itís considered more culturally appropriate. Women, on the other hand, may be more attuned to keeping a lid on their hanger.

Are hangry episodes dangerous?

Probably not. Itís unlikely that a healthy person who has easy access to food most of the time will ever get so hungry that their health is at risk. If youíre hangry too often, though, you might want to take a look at what and when you eat and come up with a plan to sweeten your disposition.

Are there any ways to prevent hanger?

Yes! Massey suggests the following:

  1. Eat some protein and fat with every meal. Donít binge on simple carbohydrates like chips, crackers, and fries, which can burn fast and drop your glucose into hangry range quickly. Instead, focus on small amounts of complex carbohydrates (fruits, veggies, whole grains), which contain more fiber and are digested slowly.
  2. Eat regularly. As Massey tells her clients, "Donít wait too long to eat and pack snacks with carbohydrates and protein for times when you know it will be awhile until your next meal. Avoid skipping meals and keep a small pack of nuts, dried fruit, or a healthy granola bar in your car for when youíre stuck in traffic or in your office and working through lunch."

Alison Massey MS, RD, LDN, CDE, reviewed this article.


Alison Massey MS, RD, LDN, CDE. Email interview November 10, 2015.