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Is being ‘hangry’ real? 1st-of-its-kind study looks at how hunger affects mood

Previous research examined the link between hunger and anger in a lab setting, but this is the first study to track "hanger" in the real world.

“Hangry” seems like the perfect word to describe the grouchiness some people exhibit when they're very hungry, but is it really a thing?

Yes, scientists now say. In an experiment that used data from 64 volunteers, European researchers found a clear link between feelings of hunger and emotions such as irritability and anger, according to a report published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.

The new study shows “that being hangry is real,” the study’s lead author, Viren Swami, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, told TODAY via email. “Feeling hungry is associated with greater anger, irritability and lower levels of pleasure.”

The likely reason is “we’re more likely to experience negative emotions when we’re hungry because we’re more likely to interpret contextual cues in a negative way,” Swami said.

While there have been some lab studies of hanger, this is the first research to look at the phenomenon in the real world, Swami said.

To take a closer look at hanger, Swami and his colleagues asked volunteers to record their levels of hunger and their emotional state five times a day for 21 days on a scale of 0 to 100 on a smartphone app.

For hunger, the scale ranged from “not hungry at all” to “very hungry.” Similarly, irritability and anger were rated on a scale ranging from “not at all” to “very.” The volunteers were also asked to rate their emotional state and alertness on scales of 1 to 100.

Swami and his colleagues also explored eating habits by giving participants a questionnaire at the end of the study period that asked about at behaviors such as emotionally induced eating, food consumption prompted by seeing others eat, and restrictive eating over the previous three weeks.

Overall, 58% of the volunteers said they usually had breakfast, 78% said they ate lunch, 84% said they consumed dinner, 48% said they snacked between meals and 9% said they got up at night to have something to eat.

Most, 53%, said they paid attention to a healthy diet very often or always, and 55% said they paid attention to their hunger pangs.

Swami and his colleagues found that everyday variations in hunger, as well as average hunger levels during the course of the study, predicted negative emotions. And the hungrier people got, the angrier and more irritable they became.

“It’s really cool that they captured this in real life,” said Susan Carnell, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

The findings weren’t a surprise to Carnell, because “there are increasing studies in psychiatry linking the gut and brain. It goes both ways. If there are gastrointestinal symptoms, they may be linked to anxiety or depression. The gut communicates with the brain through various pathways — various hormones, for example, and the vagus nerve.”

One thing the current study can’t do is prove that the hunger is causing the anger, Carnell said. It can only show there’s an association.

Practically speaking, “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,” said Jennifer Cholewka, RD, a certified clinically advanced nutrition coordinator at Mount Sinai Hospital.

For those who are frequently hungry, it might make sense to keep a healthy snack on hand, like a banana, apple or handful of nuts, Cholewka said.

Becoming aggressive when you’re hungry might have had evolutionary benefits, said Dr. Debra Safer, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine. In times of food scarcity, that aggressiveness might drive you out to search harder, she added.

People who suspect they might have hanger issues, could try writing down their emotional state and levels of hunger during the day, like the volunteers in the study, Safer said. Then they could see for themselves if their hunger and anger were linked.