Brad J. Bushman Ph.D.

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Don't Get Hangry—Eat Healthy Food

When people don't get enough to eat, they can get cranky and irritable.

Posted Apr 14, 2020

The term "hangry" is a combination of two words: hungry plus angry. In 2018, it was included in the Oxford English Dictionary: hangry (adjective), defined as “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger."[1]

The first known use of the term hangry was in 1918.[2] Another early usage of the term hangry was in a psychoanalytic journal in 1956.[1] Today there are several books on the topic, including children’s books on being hangry[3], and self-help books on “hanger management.”[4]

Why Do People Become Hangry?

Even though the term hangry is relatively new, the feeling of being cranky and irritable when hungry is as old as time. Most people have been hangry before, but why? 

Dr. Deena Adimoolam, a professor of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Bone Disease, provides an explanation.[5] "When we do not eat, blood sugar goes low," she said. When our blood sugar gets low, the hormones cortisol and epinephrine are released in an attempt to raise it back to normal levels. But those hormones are also linked to irritability. In addition, the hormone Neuropeptide Y helps create a hungry feeling when your body needs more food, but it is also linked to aggression.

Research Shows That Being Hangry Is a Real Condition

To our knowledge, our lab conducted the first research on the condition of being hangry, and why it occurs. We explicitly tested the blood sugar explanation described by Dr. Adimoolam. Even though the human brain is only about 2% of our body weight, it uses 20-30% of the calories we consume. It is a very demanding organ.

The part of our brain just behind our forehead, called the pre-frontal cortex, is in charge of executive functions, such as controlling our emotions. The emotion people have the most difficulty controlling is anger.[6] Glucose provides fuel for the brain. Glucose is a simple sugar that circulates in the blood of animals as blood sugar. Glucose is the most important source of energy in all organisms. With a fuel tank full of glucose, the brain is better able to regulate angry feelings and aggressive impulses.

In one experiment conducted in our lab,[7] college students fasted three hours before coming to the lab for a “taste test study,” in which they would first consume a beverage and would then have their reaction-times tested in a computerized task against a partner. By the flip of a coin, participants drank a glass of lemonade sweetened with either sugar (provides glucose) or a sugar substitute (provides no glucose). Next, they competed with an ostensible partner on a competitive reaction-time task in which the winner blasts the loser with loud noise through headphones.[8]

The intensity and duration of noise participants select for their partner to receive is used to measure aggression. As expected, participants who drank the lemonade sweetened with sugar behaved less aggressively towards their partners than did participants who drank the lemonade sweetened with a sugar substitute.

These findings offer the first evidence that boosting blood sugar levels causes a decrease in aggression. To see if the results generalized outside the lab to “real people” over a longer period of time, we replicated the study with married couples in a field experiment in which both spouses measured their glucose for 21 days, and obtained similar results.[8] Hangry spouses also stabbed more pins into a voodoo doll that represented their partner.

Additional research we conducted found that poor glucose metabolism was linked with anger and aggression. One study found that diabetic symptoms were related to aggressiveness.[7] Using data from all 50 states in the U.S., another study found that diabetes rates from each state were positively related to violent crime rates from each state.[7] Another study found that rates of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase were positively related to violence rates around the world.[7] People with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency lack an enzyme related to glucose metabolism. It is the most common enzyme deficiency in the world and is especially common among individuals with diabetes.

Research conducted in our lab has also shown that diabetic symptoms are negatively related to forgiveness.[9] To forgive others, people must control their vengeful impulses. But to do that, it helps to have a well-fed prefrontal cortex. It’s challenging to resolve conflict when you’re too hungry to think straight.

Other research from our lab shows that Omega-3 is also helpful in reducing aggression levels.[10] Many other labs have found similar results. Omega-3 is a fatty acid that can be obtained from foods such as fish (e.g., mackerel, salmon), seeds (e.g., flax, chia), and nuts (e.g., walnuts). It is also available in supplement form.

Chronic Hangry Conditions

For some, being hangry can become a chronic condition if they always have difficulty obtaining food.[11] The best way to keep glucose levels higher longer periods of time is by eating veggies and whole grains, but not all people can afford to buy such food.  

Being Hangry During COVID-19

During a pandemic, it can also be difficult to obtain food. Food can become scarce in grocery stores, and it can be dangerous to obtain food because of possible exposure to COVID-19. Other stressors during a pandemic can lead to feelings of frustration.

For example, healthcare and warehouse workers often work long hours, especially now, and might not always have time to sit down for a meal during a shift. Others with the privilege to work from home are cooped up with one another, without the typical options to cool off by heading out for a walk or a drink with friends. Also, quarantine can warp peoples’ daily schedules and routines, changing when we eat and sleep and perhaps thus impacting our blood sugar levels.

Global pandemics can also make animals other than humans hangry. For example, Bobby Corrigan, an urban rodentologist (i.e., a scientist who studies rodents), noted that rats have been hard hit by COVID-19.[12]

He said, "A restaurant all of a sudden closes now, which has happened by the thousands in not just New York City but coast to coast and around the world, and those rats that were living by that restaurant, someplace nearby, and perhaps for decades having generations of rats that depended on that restaurant food, well, life is no longer working for them, and they only have a couple of choices." Those choices include rat battles, cannibalism, and infanticide.

Conclusions

If you find yourself in conflict and realize you and the other person might be hangry, try giving each other a little space while you each have a snack, then circle back to the conversation after you’ve had a little while to digest.

For sustained results, try to partake in nourishing foods instead of reaching for a candy bar every time you snap at someone. If you can afford to safely do so, support local restaurants by ordering carryout or delivery. Everyone wins when nobody’s hangry.

Please watch my TED talk: Don't Get Hangry: Feed Your Brain Healthy Food.

References

[1] BBC (January 30, 2018). Hangry and ransomware added to Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved fromhttps://www.bbc.com/news/uk-42870791

[2] Meriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hangry

[3] Brockington, D. (2019). Hangry. New York: Hatchette Book Group, Inc.

[4] Albers, S. (2019). Hanger management: Master your hunger and improve your mood, mind, and relationships. New York: Little, Brown Spark

[5] Naftulin, J. (June 13, 2018). Why we get hangry, according to science. Health. Retrieved from https://www.health.com/nutrition/what-is-hangry

[6] Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1993). Controlling anger: Self-induced emotion change. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.), Handbook of mental control (pp. 393–409). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

[7] DeWall, C. N., Deckman, T., Gailliot, M. T., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). Sweetened blood cools hot tempers: Physiological self-control and aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 37(1), 73-80. DOI: 10.1002/ab.20366 

[8] Warburton, W. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2019). The competitive reaction time task: The development and scientific utility of a flexible laboratory aggression paradigm. Aggressive Behavior, 45(4), 389-396. DOI: 10.1002/ab.21829

[8] Bushman, B. J., DeWall, C. N., Pond, R. S. Jr., & Hanus, M. D. (2014). Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(17), 6254-6257. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1400619111  

[9] DeWall, C. N., Pond, R. S., & Bushman, B. J. (2010). Sweet revenge: Diabetic status as a predictor of interpersonal forgiveness. Personality and Individual Difference, 49(7), 823-826. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.030 

[10] Bègue, L., Zaalberg, A., Shankland, R., Duke, A., Jacquet, J., Kaliman, P., Pennel, L., Chanove, M., Arvers, P., & Bushman, B. J. (2018). Omega-3 supplements reduce self-reported physical aggression in healthy adults. Psychiatry Research, 261, 307-311. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.12.038

[11] Phan, J. L. (2016). Do you get hangry? Committee on World Food Security. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/cfs/cfs-home/blog/blog-articles/article/en/c/448999/

[12] Clark, D. (April 14, 2020). Starving, angry and cannibalistic: America's rats are getting desperate amid coronavirus pandemic. Microsoft News. Retrieved from https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/lifestyle-news-feature/starving-angry-and-cannibalistic-americas-rats-are-getting-desperate-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/ar-BB12ArzM

Author Notes: I would like to thank Becca Bushman for her feedback on this blog.