Hangry is the (unofficial) technical term for being so hungry that you are angry. In fact, most of us have experienced it, perhaps we just didn’t realize what it was called. It is that moment in time when you become cranky, moody, irritable, or when you are about to have a massive meltdown that can only be avoided by eating something ASAP. Fortunately, a little understanding goes a long way, so let’s talk about how to avoid getting hangry.
Back in the day, I used to be the queen of hangry. It would literally happen to me on a daily basis; between my meals or before I made it to my next meal, I would get so irritated that it would literally put me in a bad mood. My friend jokes that she used to have to pack granola bars in her purse in order to make it through an afternoon with me to ensure I didn’t have a meltdown. Thankfully, she is kidding (to a certain extent), however until I realized what was actually occurring I didn’t know how to solve it.
What does hangry mean?
All jokes aside, getting hangry is a real thing, it’s just that the name is a little silly. What getting hangry actually refers to is unbalanced blood sugar, specifically the moment when your blood sugar has dropped so low that you become angry and irritable. Glucose is a form of sugar and it is the body’s main source of energy. Glucose is acquired in the diet by eating sources of carbohydrates, which give the body energy to do its functions. Not only does it give us the energy to do physical tasks, but it gives us the energy to do mental tasks as well. There are many different types of carbohydrates, all of which contain varying concentrations of glucose (or sugar), however, in the end, they all play a similar role in providing a source of energy. In order for the body to function optimally, a certain amount of glucose is required in the bloodstream (AKA blood sugar) in order to keep up upbeat and active. Every time we eat a meal with carbohydrates we provide the body with a certain amount of glucose (energy) to keep us going. After our meal, as time passes, the amount of glucose present in the bloodstream begins to drop as we use up our energy. The brain, unlike other organs, is heavily dependent on glucose to do its job; if you have ever missed a meal before you many have noticed that it can be hard to concentrate on simple tasks or pay attention. So being hangry, is actually the brain’s reaction to the moment when blood sugar has dropped low enough that it begins to panic a little and causes you to be hungry and angry as it searches for it next source of fuel.
Why Do People Get Hangry?
One might think that the simple solution to avoiding that hangry state is to simply add more glucose to the diet, right? Wrong. In fact, that is actually the last thing you want to do. Allow me to explain.
When food is consumed, carbohydrates break down into simple sugars (glucose) as food is digested. As this glucose is digested, blood sugar levels begin to rise as glucose enters the bloodstream. The more concentrated in glucose foods are (think candy vs. oatmeal), the more quickly they will spike blood sugar levels and in turn trigger insulin. Insulin is responsible for managing the amount of glucose present in the bloodstream, so as blood sugar rises it will work to remove excess glucose from the bloodstream and send it to organs, and tissues and store any excess as body fat. The body can only handle so much glucose at one time, so once our organs and tissues are topped up with glucose for energy, our body will store any excess glucose as fat. The issue with this process is that once all of this glucose is stored in your cell, your blood sugar will then drop too low again and send you into hangry mode.
Think of it as a rollercoaster effect. If you eat donut or drink a soft drink, you are sending a large amount of glucose into your bloodstream at one time, and way more than your body can use at once. Doing so will greatly spike your blood sugar levels, sending insulin into overdrive, working to store all of this excess glucose, until it has removed the excess from the bloodstream until blood sugar is at an ultra-low level. It is at this point that you end up craving more sugar to help increase your blood glucose levels so you have energy again. It’s a vicious cycle. The key to balancing blood sugar is supplying just the right amount for our bloodstream to use at one time.
What’s the problem with being hangry?
Unbalanced blood sugar is less than ideal for supporting energy levels and cravings, but it can also affect a lot of other negative effects on the body and its systems. This vicious cycle of dips and spikes in blood sugar triggers a cascade of stress responses in the body. Why? Because low blood sugar implies a lack of energy source for the body and brain, which causes stress on the body and the body will try and respond to solve it because your body is designed to help protect you. When blood-glucose levels drop to a certain threshold, the brain sends instructions to several organs in the body to release hormones that increase the amount of glucose in your bloodstream; primarily, the body signals adrenaline and cortisol which are stress hormones used in difficult situations. The issue is that your body is not actually in a real stress mode (i.e. – you’re not being chased by a tiger), you just can’t seem to put down your iced vanilla latte or you love your starchy carbs just a little too much. You are essentially continuously putting your body into a fight or flight response mode with a fake scare and this is incredibly taxing to your adrenal and hormonal health.
How to Avoid Getting Hangry
Fortunately getting hangry can be alleviated, you just need to know what to look for. So here are some simple and important tips to consider on how to avoid getting hangry.
1. Add Protein and Fat to Every Meal
Eating a 100% carbohydrate-based meal will put you on the express train to Hangryville. Adding a source of protein and fat to your meals is a good way to help balance your blood sugar by slowing the spike of glucose to the bloodstream; dietary fat helps to slow down the digestive process, and protein is the most satiating nutrient and will help keep you fuller longer. A simple breakfast of a bagel or cereal is not a well macronutrient balanced meal as it is completely carbohydrate-based, will spike your blood sugar, and will leave you hangry before noon. In fact, for most people even a bowl of oatmeal, albeit might be healthy, it is not well macronutrient balanced and will have you reaching for a snack by mid-morning. Alternatively, opt for a more satiating and balanced meal with protein and fats, like a breakfast of scrambled eggs with veggies and avocado to keep you going until lunch and even all afternoon.
2. Avoid Sweetened Drinks
Because liquids require next to no digestion, drinking a sweetened or sugary beverage is like sending glucose directly into your bloodstream and will quickly spike your blood sugar. Avoiding sodas and energy drinks might seem obvious, but this also includes items like fruit juices, fruit smoothies, vitamin waters and flavoured coffees. These drinks often have as much sugar as a standard chocolate bar, so your morning orange juice and vanilla latte might be causing your afternoon hangry moment and cookie craving.
Fiber-rich foods are forms of complex carbohydrates that take longer to be digested and absorbed by the bloodstream, therefore they do not spike your blood sugar and help keep you feeling fuller longer. Vegetables are the primary source of fibrous food and adding more to all of your meals and snacks will be beneficial. Beans, lentils and grains are also good sources of fibre, however, they should always be paired with a source of protein and fat as they do contain a lot of starch with can impact blood sugar. Fruit also contains some fibre, however, it should always be eaten in its whole format as dried fruits and fruit juices are incredibly concentrated forms of sugar that can spike blood sugar levels quickly.
4. Don’t Overdo the Refined Carbs
Going overboard on starches, even all-natural ones like grains, beans and lentils, for some individuals can just be too much glucose for their bloodstream to handle. Although these forms of carbohydrates are in fact whole foods rich in fibre, they do contain high levels of starch which will eventually turn into glucose in the body. In excess, they can lead to spikes and dips in blood sugar, so for some people, oatmeal for breakfast, lentils at lunch and rice noodles for dinner is just far too much. Additionally, although foods made of flours are technically made of complex carbohydrates, they act much more like simple carbohydrates in the body and can cause spikes in blood sugar. Items like crackers, cookies, and granola bars (not to mention donuts and pastries) are less than ideal choices because they are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream causing spikes in blood glucose. Whole grains like rice, oats and quinoa are always best eaten in their whole format, and not in food products made out of them.
5. Eat Regularly, Not Often
The cautionary tale of eating multiple small meals per day is fuel for the hangry fire. With stable blood sugar, you should easily be able to go 4-5 hours between meals without experiencing dips and spikes in energy or experiencing hanger. Eating three well-balanced meals of protein, fat and carbohydrates per day should help to ensure blood sugar is balanced. Avoid skipping meals and only eat snacks if you are truly hungry! Adding unnecessary snacks, especially sweet ones, will merely add more spikes to the blood sugar roller coaster and keep you in the hangry zone.