Close-up Of A Hungry Woman Eating Sandwich Near Refrigerator

Learn How Hunger Works to Avoid Getting Hangry

Close-up Of A Hungry Woman Eating Sandwich Near Refrigerator

You walk into a restaurant. You’re famished. It’s in your eyes and growling loudly from your stomach. Once hunger hits, it can’t be reversed until you eat. The beast must be satisfied. And the server knows it from how quickly your eyes devour the menu and lock in on an order.

It’s easy for objectivity, rationality, and patience to go out the window as your body takes over. Your stomach—and brain, for that matter—kick start several processes that motivate you to fill your face with food as quickly as possible.

You know what’s to blame for the hunger. But what else is going on behind the scenes, deep within your body’s appetite control center? It’s time to find out.

Blame Your Hunger Hormones

Hunger can seem to strike out of nowhere. But it really starts with the flip of a switch that fires up the neuronal network in your brain—mainly within the hypothalamus. These nerve cells within the hypothalamus are gatekeepers for your brain. They’re the key to allowing the body to communicate and interpret hunger cues.

Depending on whether you’re hungry or full, these nerve cells either receive or block signals from various hormones. The two main hunger hormones are ghrelin and leptin—and insulin plays a role a little later on in the process.

When your stomach is empty, it sends ghrelin onto a pathway from gut to brain. Ghrelin is the message handed from your gut to brain saying, “It’s time to eat.” So, allowing signals from ghrelin released from the stomach to communicate with the hypothalamus increases appetite. Once you start to eat, ghrelin production begins to back off.

Leptin is ghrelin’s opposing force—hunger’s off switch. This hormone, which originates in fat cells, decreases hunger when it’s allowed to talk to the brain. It’s the signal your fat cells send when they have enough energy stocked up from a meal. And it tells your brain it’s time to stop shoving food in your mouth.

The decisions to block or allow entry happen at the opening of the blood-brain barrier of the hypothalamus. This area is an entry point where hormones released by the gut, pancreas, and fat cells (also called adipose tissue) can pass through to communicate with the brain.

It’s not a one-way street, though. Hormones secreted from the hypothalamus use this portal as an exit, traveling in the opposite direction, out into the body. This dance between hunger hormones—and those signals originating in your brain—is what balances your hunger and impacts your body’s energy reserves, your weight, and body composition.

As you digest, your hunger steadily decreases. That’s because leptin—and its appetite-diminishing effects—gains prominence. Insulin (another important hormone that helps carry energy to cells) decreases rapidly. This also helps suppress appetite. So after you eat, insulin and leptin team up to inhibit hunger and help bring about a feeling of satiety.

And there you have the hunger cycle—from stomach grumbles and salivation, to blissful fullness. Enjoying a satisfying meal when you’re hungry is one of life’s pleasures. But what about those times when you aren’t able to feed yourself right when hunger sets in?

Save the Day, Keep Hanger at Bay

A busy day, congested traffic, an overflowing email inbox. There are so many reasons you find yourself at the intersection of Hungry and Angry—better known as Hangry.

It’s not a place you choose to visit. And as soon as you arrive at hangry, you’re desperate to leave. That’s because hunger and the accompanying irritability is intensely unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unwelcome for you and anyone in your immediate vicinity.

While “hangry” is a newer word, coined to lend humor to an otherwise annoying situation, the hanger can be very real. Scientists agree there is biological and psychological validity to the state of hanger. One nutritionist, Sophie Medlin, even claims it as a bona fide emotion.

But what’s really going on? Hunger isn’t always accompanied by an emotional meltdown, so what brings about this extra reaction? Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found two factors determine hanger: context and self-awareness. The researchers conducted two studies to demonstrate this.

In the first experiment, participants were primed for a specific mood by viewing curated images associated with positive, neutral, or negative emotions. The images were shown to induce the corresponding mood. Immediately after priming, the participants were shown an ambiguous image and asked to rate it. The participants were also asked to evaluate how hungry they felt.

Results showed that after viewing negative images, hungrier participants were more likely to rate the ambiguous image as negative. The participants projected their negative feeling of hunger onto their subjective assessment of the image. Having a somewhat negative experience while hungry can skew your perceptions, making you report the image as more intensely negative. So, context matters.

The second experiment explored the other influential factor of hanger: self-awareness. Researchers required half of the participants to fast beforehand. The other half could eat as they normally would. Some participants were then asked to complete an assignment, in which they reflected on and wrote about their emotions.

Then all participants were given a tiresome computer task. During the activity, the program underwent a planned crash to evoke frustration. Study coordinators blamed the crash on the participants to further rile them up. Lastly, all participants were asked to fill out a survey to evaluate their experience and identify their emotions.

Researchers found that fasted participants who did not reflect on and write about their emotions prior to the computer task reported more negative feelings. They even reported feeling hateful toward the coordinators who blamed them for the computer crash. The results demonstrated that emotional self-awareness plays a part in being hangry.

So, if you’re aware of your intense hunger as it builds, you’re less likely to view it as a negative emotional experience. Alternatively, if you neglect to check-in with your emotions and you become hungry, you’re more likely to lash out in hanger at a frustrating situation.

Get Ahead of Hunger, Ride Out Satiety

Just because being hangry is a real possibility, doesn’t mean you need to experience it. Arm yourself with tools and plan to avoid excessive hunger—and potential hanger—altogether. There are three important steps you can take today.

  1. Understand the Glycemic Index

Glycemic index is a value assigned to a food based on how quickly your body can convert the food into usable energy, or glucose. Simple carbohydrates (think refined sugar or white bread) will fall on the high-end of the glycemic index. That’s because the energy within them is readily available for use by the body. More complex carbohydrates like whole grains and vegetables release glucose slow and steady so they fall on the low end of the index. It’s because they have more fiber to slow down the digestion process.

Those are the basics. You can dive deeper if you want, but you should be familiar enough with this concept to use it to your advantage! Here are some ideas.

  • Reach for foods on the low end of the glycemic index. These foods take longer to breakdown, meaning you avoid a quick spike of energy followed by a crash. That’s because low-glycemic foods provide you more sustained energy over time.
  • Pair high-glycemic foods with something on the lower end. For example, if you’re having a carb-heavy meal, add a colorful side salad. Skip the hearts of romaine and go for deeper greens. Spruce up the salad with other colorful veggies like bell peppers, carrots, or beets. The veggie boost will provide a healthy dose of fiber to help slow down the digestion of the simpler carbs. Or add some healthy fats or protein to further delay carb digestion.
  1. Start Your Day Right

As you’ve probably heard, breakfast is very important. When you skip breakfast, you’re almost asking for a one-way ticket to Hangry-town. Keep your belly full and your mind sharp by having a balanced meal to start the day. If your mornings are busy, consider packing a healthy snack the night before. Then if hunger creeps up before lunchtime, you have a go-to hanger stopper within reach.

  1. Protein is Anti-Hangry

Protein helps keep you feeling fuller for longer. So, it’s a great idea to examine what kind of meals and snacks you normally eat. If you find your meals are short on, or completely devoid of, protein, get creative.

  • Don’t assume that protein means meat. There are many meat-alternatives on the market. Whether it’s tofu, seitan, tempeh, or a mix of veggie proteins, the options are plentiful. If these alternative proteins are new to you, read up and consider adding one or two to your diet for some variety.
  • If you are a meat eater, vary your sources. Consider a new type of meat or fish. If you already eat a variety, switch up how it’s prepared. For example, if you enjoy turkey, ask your butcher to grind it and make your own burger patties. Your market should be staffed by butchers well-versed in different cuts, preparation styles, and even recipe ideas. If not, there are ways to accomplish these tasks at home.
  • Pair a healthy midday snack, like carrots, apples, or celery, with a nut butter. It can give you the perfect mix of savory and sweet while also providing you with a serving of protein.

If these tips are new to you, start slow. If you’re overzealous, you may find that the new habits are harder to adopt. Instead, pick out one that feels doable and start there. Once you’ve incorporated a new habit successfully, try adding another into the mix.

Not Today, Hanger

Pretty Chinese woman relaxing at home on the sofa.

“I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.” If you’ve never said this phrase, surely you’ve thought it. Moments of discomfort brought on by hunger, or even hanger, are common. But you can avoid them. With an understanding of your body’s hormones, some self-awareness, and meal planning, you can take on each day feeling well-fed and well-mannered.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.