The science of being hangry

The struggle is real

The science of being hangry
Cissy Li discovers that hunger is a legitimate reason to lose your rational mind

"Why are you being so unreasonable?"

"I AM NOT! I just don't understand why you can't settle at a restaurant!"

"I chose three places. You rejected them all."

"That's because your choices are dumb! Make better choices! This always happens! I'm hungry, I need food now and you're not helping!"

This is the typical script that plays out when someone (i.e. me) gets hangry — a state of being where you're both hugry and angry. Between your close friends or partner and yourself, you've probably found yourself in the same situation.


Recognising the signs of hanger

The most common symptoms of hanger that I have witnessed involve a change in character. Symptoms may include but are not limited to:

  • - Inflexibility and rigidity of opinions, thoughts or ideas — the "there is no other way" mentality.
  • - Black and white thinking — "this will NEVER happen"/ "it's ALWAYS like this".
  • - Decreased decision making and planning ability.
  • - Greater likelihood of impulsive behaviour guided by emotions.
  • - Greater likelihood of social inappropriateness such as being rude or sharp with others.
  • - Quick irritability with others for minor reasons.
  • - Difficulty in letting go of ideas and incredible stubbornness.
  • - Denial that they are hangry (either the person does not feel hungry, or they do not want to tell you).

  • What triggers hanger?

Is being hungry a valid reason for being angry? Or is it just a convenient excuse? For those who experience hanger, do not fear, the struggle is very real and I feel your pain.

The science behind hanger is not unlike the mechanics behind how engine oil works. A car needs engine oil to grease the gears in the engine. If there isn't much engine oil, your car will run to a less efficient standard. Once you run out of engine oil, the car gives up on life and breaks down. Like the car, our brains depend on the glucose that we obtain from food to function. After we eat, our bodies digest the food reserving the glucose for the brain. When we do not eat, our glucose level drops causing a decline in brain function. In short, we can survive with less food and with that less glucose, but this causes our bodies to run less efficiently.

To understand this phenomenon more we have to understand how our brains function. Located at the front part of the brain, the frontal lobe, acts as the person steering the car; in this case let's call him Greg. Greg is smart, and someone gave him the responsibility to drive the car.  He makes decisions, plans and organises routes, solves problem, recognises hazards and takes necessary actions to avoid them. He stays calm in the midst of emergency and he fills up the petrol and engine oil as necessary. Greg keeps you in check and reminds you of how to behave. When people damage their frontal lobes, Greg goes on permanent holiday. This absence can lead to changes in personality, including greater propensity for impulsive behaviour and poor ability to manage emotions.

That said, when we do not eat regularly, our body glucose level drops causing a decrease in the glucose available for Greg to function effectively. He takes a short holiday and is not there to tell you that your behaviour is unreasonable. This results in the increased likelihood of emotional outbursts and a deterioration in your ability to make decisions.

Hanger has been investigated in a number of scientific studies. Couple studies have shown that in the short term, partners exhibited increased aggressive impulses, with those in the study pushing more pins into a voodoo doll when experiencing low glucose levels than those in the control group. They were also more likely to subject their significant other to more discomfort, choosing to blast their partners with a loud noise for a longer period of time than those with higher blood glucose levels. 

However, glucose deprivation does not only have short-term effects. Long term studies of psychologically robust people who experience semi-starvation show that prolonged low blood glucose levels lead to changes in personality including obsessionality, social isolation, impairments in rational thought and concentration, and are subject to a greater likelihood of changes in moods including mood swings, depression and anxiety. 


Dealing with hanger

Hanger is hard to recognise, especially in yourself. So the next time you or someone else notice that you're annoyed or frustrated, just ask yourself when was the last time you ate. If it is longer than usual, perhaps entertain the idea of being hangry as one contributing explanation to your difficulties. If it's a possibility, there are a few things you can do to be your own "Greg".

  • - Try to figure out when and where your next meal is coming from. If you're reading this, the food and drink section of this website might help for quick decision-making. Aim for something nutritious and filling, as a sudden rise in blood glucose (such as from chocolate) will also mean a sudden drop later on.
  • - Agree to talk about your concerns after you eat. Sometimes it helps to write things down if it is too hard to ignore.
  • - Resist the impulse to shop, send an important email, or sign off on anything important until you have eaten.

For friends and family, if you suspect that someone is being hangry, get them some food first and agree to talk about their concerns afterwards.


About Cissy Li

Originally from New Zealand, Cissy is a fan of thinking outside the box. She firmly believes that people can achieve greater fulfillment in their lives by being open and living authentically. When she's not busy living life, writing for Buro 24/7 Singapore, or engaging in volunteer work, Cissy enjoys her day job as a registered clinical psychologist. 


Text: Cissy Li

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