It happens to the best of us: You find yourself getting cranky, only to realize you’re actually emotional because you’re hungry. While plenty of people joke about being “hangry,” new research has found that it is actually a legitimate phenomenon.
That’s the takeaway from a study published in the journal PLOS One, which took a deep dive into the experience of being hangry (a term that has entered common colloquial use) in hopes of helping us all to better understand and cope with such feelings.
“Very little research has been conducted on the effects of hunger on our emotions, particularly outside the lab,” lead study author Viren Swami, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, told Health. “Hanger might seem intuitive, but it’s important to have research showing that it is real so that we can better understand why it occurs and how we can mitigate against its effects.”
Why It’s Important To Study Hanger
Though it may seem like a relatively minor issue, the reality is that if you experience hanger, it’s important to be able to put a name to the emotion, Swami said. “If I can label my emotions—’I am feeling hangry’—it can also point at ways to alleviating those emotions—’I should eat,'” he explained.
And as Swami pointed out, there’s been a dirth of research focused on the experience, manifestation, and consequences of being hangry, particularly in everyday settings. To rectify this, researchers had 64 volunteers complete a questionnaire for 21 days that required reporting their levels of hunger and anger at different points in time each day. And since the effects of hunger are unlikely to be limited to simply triggering feelings of anger, researchers asked participants to also record whether they experienced hunger in conjunction with other emotions as well–such as irritability, pleasure, and arousal.
After crunching the data, researchers discovered that participants reported higher levels of anger and irritability than anything else when hungry. The findings were consistent regardless of a participant’s sex, age, body mass index (BMI), diet, and typical anger levels they experienced.
Researchers concluded that the study results provide evidence that everyday levels of hunger are indeed associated with negative emotionality, supporting the overall notion that one can be ‘hangry’, the researchers wrote.
“The results of the present study suggest that the experience of being hangry is real, insofar as hunger was associated with greater anger and irritability, and lower pleasure,” the study said. “These results may have important implications for understanding everyday experiences of emotions, and may also assist practitioners to more effectively ensure productive individual behaviors and interpersonal relationships.”
What To Do When You’re Hangry
It’s crucial to not judge yourself when you feel hangry, particularly because so many people experience this emotion, Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, told Health.
“There’s a lot of negativity when we talk about emotions,” Gallagher said. “If we can label them non-judgmentally—I’m feeling irritated, angry, or sad because I’m hungry—the better off you’ll be at controlling those emotions and doing something to help them.”
The upside of hanger compared to some other emotions, however, is that you can do something about it pretty quickly.
“Sometimes when you’re feeling a certain way, like being sad over a loss, you have to just sit with it and ride it out,” Gallagher explained. “But there is an emotional connection to not eating and sometimes, if you just eat, those negative emotions can go away. Hanger is like an alarm system for your body.”
If you tend to experience hanger regularly, Gallagher recommends focusing on eating three healthy meals a day, along with snacks in between, if needed. “Start there and see how you feel,” she said. “Some people don’t look at eating good meals as an important element of self-care but it’s important to make sure that it’s a baseline for your day.”
Swami acknowledged that some people may find his research “intuitive, trivial even,” but said it has “important implications.
Being able to label an emotion by putting feelings into words–such as hangry–can help individuals regulate those emotions, the study said. This “affect labelling” may help reduce the likelihood that hunger results in negative emotions and, by extension, behaviors.
“No one should go hungry, because clearly hunger can have negative emotional outcomes,” said Swami.