Are you really you when you're 'hangry'?

Henrietta Strickland
June 13, 2018

Her team wanted to understand the psychological mechanisms at play when our hunger prompts an emotional response.

The Oxford Dictionary only added that word and its definition in January, but we've all experienced this unusual emotion our whole lives - and new research suggests it's more complicated than just getting a li'l grouchy when your blood sugar is low.

A study has investigated the causes of hanger.

"We've all felt hungry, recognized the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better", writes study lead author Jennifer MacCormack. This suggests that in a negative situation, people may be more likely to experience their hunger-related feelings-aka hanger-than if they are in a pleasant or neutral situation, the researchers say. They were also shown a neutral Chinese pictograph, which they then had to rate as either pleasant or unpleasant on a seven-point scale. The researchers found that hungry individuals reported greater unpleasant emotions like feeling stressed and hateful when they were not explicitly focused on their own emotions. "People in our studies were more likely to feel intense negativity in general when they were hungry and something bad happened-suggesting that feeling hungry can turn up the dial on lots of negative emotions such as anger, stress or disgust".

The team ran an online experiment to how emotional cues can prime you to become hangry, exposing hundreds of participants to images created to induce either positive, negative or neutral feelings. In a lab experiment involving 200 university students, researchers asked participants to either eat or fast beforehand. The researchers then blamed the students on the crash. The participants rated their hunger as well as whether a series of ambigious pictorgraphs were positive or negative.

On top of that, Neuropeptide Y, which is also released when your blood sugar plunges, gives you that hungry feeling which is associated with aggression. The hungrier the people were, the more likely they were to report that the image was unpleasant if they were shown a negative image before it.

So the bottom line is that this is a complex mind-body effect, MacCormack concludes.

What makes someone go from simply being hungry to full-on "hangry"? "This means that it's important to take care of our bodies, to pay attention to those bodily signals and not discount them, because they matter not just for our long term mental health, but also for the day-to-day quality of our psychological experiences, social relationships and work performance".

"A well-known commercial once said, 'You're not you when you're hungry, ' but our data hint that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognizing how you're feeling, you can still be you even when hungry", MacCormack said.

Understanding hanger can also help researchers learn how "changes to hunger physiology-whether due to old age, chronic dieting, diabetes or eating disorders-could impact downstream emotions and cognitions in these populations", MacCormack says.

Aisling Pigott, a qualified dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Assocation who was not a part of the team behind the research, pointed out the study is small and only featured fit, healthy, young students. So yes, hanger is very real. "Be aware that if you're grumpy and restricting your food intake, ending the restriction may enhance your mood".

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