It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and it’s shaping up to be a #flawless day. You went for a run with your best girls in the morning, luxuriated in a long post-sweat shower, and then hopped back into bed for some snuggle-and-then-some with your S.O.
But then it happens: Suddenly you’re snapping at every little thing, and no, you don’t want to go for a hike, or a stroll, or to see a movie, or back to bed, or to meet your friends for a game of Frisbee in the park. Just as you’re about to completely lose it, you realize what’s wrong: You’re hungry.
Why we get hangry
Ah, hanger. That scary feeling that creeps up as a result of being past the point of rational hunger and turns us all into the scariest versions of ourselves. “Timing is everything when it comes to your food,” says Lauren Slayton, R.D., founder of Foodtrainers in New York City. “Hanger means you likely waited too long after a meal, snack, workout, or wakeup for your next feeding.”
Hanger isn’t just in your head—it’s a physiological and emotional response to hunger. “The feeling stems from a drop in blood glucose, which typically occurs when we go too long without eating or consume too many simple carbohydrates at one time,” says Kelly Hogan, R.D., clinical nutrition coordinator at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital. Our brains depend on glucose in order to function properly, and when our blood sugar levels are low, cognitive function can be impacted, making it harder to think clearly, she says. “Then, the body tries to raise its own blood sugar levels, including the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline—both of which are linked to aggression, and may cause us to react more quickly in a less than desirable way.”
What to know the next time hanger hits
When you realize you need to eat ASAP, it can be tempting to reach for the closest, well, whatever you can find, be it three-day-old macaroni salad (no!) or a superfood-packed smoothie (yes!). But what you choose to consume matters. “Ideally you want something that’s going to sustain hunger and prevent the blood sugar from spiking too quickly,” says Hogan. So resist the urge to chow down on chips, candy, or other available-from-a-vending-machine snacks. “These typically consist of refined carbohydrates or lots of added sugars, which can momentarily cure the hangry-ness with a blood sugar spike, but will then result in a big drop in blood sugar, leaving you feeling lethargic and, eventually, hangry once again.” The ideal cure for the hangries will contain a mix of fiber, protein, and/or healthy fats. “Try to opt for something with at least two of these nutrients to help slow down digestion, prevent big blood sugar spikes, and sustain hunger longer by maintaining steady blood sugar levels.”
How to avoid the hanger pains
The best way to deal with hanger is, of course, to prevent it from happening in the first place. “Do your best to plan your meals and snacks and make sure you always have something on hand if hunger should strike,” says Dana Pitman, R.D., C.D.N., at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “When we’re starving, we crave those simple carbs that will boost the blood glucose really fast—think chocolate, bagels, pizza, or chips. And while those foods will work at first, you’ll unfortunately come crashing down almost as fast as the vicious cycle began.” Instead, opt for a nutrient-dense meal or snack to help curb hunger and keep you feeling satisfied longer, she says.