Anyone who’s ever lashed out at a friend while waiting for a table at a restaurant or snapped back at a coworker during a meeting just before lunch can attest that “hanger”—the at-times hard-to-pin-down emotion that combines hunger and anger—is a very real phenomenon. But now, some new science is backing up the feeling, too.
Previous research has investigated hanger in the lab. But a laboratory setting doesn’t mirror everyday life, so researchers wanted to better understand the connection between hunger and anger out in the real world. To do that, they asked 64 participants in central Europe to track their emotions five times a day for three weeks using a smartphone app.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, hunger was associated with more anger and irritability and less pleasure—to a significant degree. After crunching the numbers, the researchers determined that hunger was responsible for 56 percent of participants’ varying feelings of irritability, for example.
“The results of the present study suggest that the experience of being hangry is real,” the researchers write in their paper published in the journal PLOS One this week.
Viren Swami, a social psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University and one of the paper’s co-authors, decided to study hanger after folks told him, on multiple occasions, that he was hangry and should do something about it, reports the Guardian’s Ian Sample. He wondered if hanger was even real, so he decided to run an experiment to see for himself.
It’s not totally clear what’s driving hanger, but the scientists have a few guesses. For one, being hungry may cause folks to view the world more negatively in general. Past research has also linked low blood sugar with increased aggression, impulsivity and anger, as well as the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
“Many of us are very sensitive to stress hormones,” Deanne Jade, a psychologist with the United Kingdom’s National Centre for Eating Disorders who was not involved in the study, tells New Scientist’s Clare Wilson. “We become overfocused on things. We can feel very twitchy.”
And though this research doesn’t propose any new solutions to the problem of hanger, it does help bolster what many individuals already intuitively knew: that they may be angry just because they need a snack, not for some other reason.
“Research suggests that being able to label an emotion can help people to regulate it, such as by recognizing that we feel angry simply because we are hungry,” Swami tells the Independent’s Kate Ng.
The good news is that once folks recognize that they’re feeling irritable because they’re hungry, there’s a simple solution to feeling better: grabbing a quick bite to eat.
“If people find themselves often very hungry and in a bad mood, they might need to assess whether they are eating enough during the day or whether they might want to change to smaller meals throughout the day,” Jennifer Cholewka, a registered dietician at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells Today’s Linda Carroll.