Why Do We Get ‘Hangry’?

Why do we get 'hangry'? Is there a purpose for it?

I have a confession. I am one of those people, who, when they don’t eat, becomes an absolute grouch. Hunger could turn me into the Grinch on Christmas Eve! I get ‘hangry’. I always have, and so for this week’s post, I wanted to look into why people can get so angry when they haven’t eaten.

What Goes On In Our Body When We Don’t Eat?

Our bodies need energy, duh. That’s not new news. We’ve all heard the importance of getting a good breakfast in before work or eating three well-balanced meals a day or eating six smaller well-balanced meals throughout the day. Believe it or not, it is not because “Big Food” is trying to sell more food.

Nope, we need food.

Our body uses nutrients, like protein, fats, and carbohydrates to fuel itself for all the things we get up to in our lives. Whether we are finishing a puzzle, running a marathon, or hanging out with friends, we use energy.

When we don’t eat, we don’t have energy.

Specifically, our glucose levels decrease, and this causes a release of cortisol and adrenaline, our friendly neighborhood stress hormones!

If this is the first time you are hearing about cortisol and adrenaline, they play a massive role in our fight-or-flight instincts, as well as our overall survival. BUT, they are not so helpful when you’re waiting for your friend Stacey to meet you for lunch.

When we are hungry and low on sugars, our bodies release these stress hormones, and thus, we can get snappy, rude, or even incredibly mean.

A lot of us get hangry when we don't eat. This is because low glucose levels cause our bodies to release stress hormones!
From Seamless on Twitter: “Don’t blame me for what I said when I was hungry. https://t.co/ZFWiQmAh9F” / Twitter

The Evolutionary Value To Being ‘Hangry’?

We’ve talked before about how that pesky stress response, which can cause so many problems today, was actually meant for something way back when. You know, like fighting off bears or escaping from the not-so-friendly strangers you met on your travels.

When our cortisol and adrenaline spike, we have extra energy, and that energy is used to survive!

Well, imagine you are in the forest. You’re hungry. Somehow, you stumble across a basket full of fruit or bread or maybe even a full Thanksgiving dinner. You’re so close. You are salivating. It smells delicious.

And suddenly, this wolf appears.

You have to fight the wolf to get the food.

Even sitting at my computer right now, imagining myself in that scenario, I KNOW I would fight the wolf to get the food! I probably would lose, but my instinct would be to fight.

Thanks to the cortisol and adrenaline my body released due to the fact I was ‘hangry’.

Some Evidence

This type of interaction has been seen many times in nature! In one study, they observed the Appennine Chamois (a type of mountain goat) in two areas. One had lots of food, and the other did not have so much. Where there was lots of food, there was more young, less aggression, lower vigilance, and even lower testosterone and cortisol metabolites. Food scarcity caused the inverse effect, supporting the hypothesis that a lack of food makes foragers cranky!

Why might this happen?

Again, when there is a lack of food, we have to compete. When we have to compete, we have to be more aggressive to survive. ‘Hanger’ is just a part of that survival.

We could even look at it a different way. Historically speaking, how many wars and revolutions were preceded by famine? The French Revolution comes to mind, as does World War II. I’m sure there are many more than those two pivotal events!

While correlation does not equal causation, and anecdotal evidence is certainly not on par with a rigorous research study, I can say with 80% seriousness that there are times that I would have gone to war before I ate breakfast.

And maybe Captain America: Civil War could have been entirely avoided if they went and got some tacos before talking about the Accords.

Even Captain America and Ironman have had their fair share of 'hangry' altercations
Photo by Mateusz Wacławek on Unsplash

How to Prevent ‘Hanger’?

All joking aside, ‘hanger’ does not serve the same purpose it used to. We can all say some pretty hurtful things when we’re hungry, and while we can brush it off as a joke, that doesn’t make it okay. In fact, telling your buddy Stacey, “Hey, I didn’t mean to say your nose is the size of Mt. Everest, I was just hungry” is invalidating her real hurt feelings. Especially if you, as her friend, know she’s really insecure about her nose.

So how do we stop ourselves from getting ‘hangry’? How do we put the breaks on this evolutionary response, so we can exist positively in society?

As always, it’s pretty simple!

  • Eat well-balanced meals full of protein and fiber
  • Try to avoid sugary treats as your only source of energy (you will probably experience a sugar crash – not fun)
  • Have healthy snacks on hand for when your body does tell you it needs more energy!
  • Stay hydrated

Resources For Those Experiencing Food Insecurity

While we are very fortunate in Canada to have food available to us year-round, there are still many people who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families. In fact, 1/8 households in Canada are food insecure, and this number often increases around the holidays.

If you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, I hope you find the following resources helpful:

If you are from a food secure household, I encourage you to take this moment to consider donating to either your local food banks or one of these essential food security services.

Thank you for reading!

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