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Watch out for 'food swings' when hunger, anger collide

You know how sometimes everyone is terrible and everything is the worst and nothing ever, ever, goes your way?

Chill out. You’re probably just hungry. Or, rather, hangry.

“Hanger” -- that’s with the hard /g/ sound -- or "food swings" are silly terms used to describe the treacherous intersection where hunger and anger collide. Ever stagger through a terrible morning, only to find yourself in much better spirits after lunch? Then you, my friend, have been hangry.

The cause of your “mad”-ness? Low blood sugar.

Marjorie Nolan is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She explains that “hanger” isn’t just a ploy by crabby people to excuse their moods (and snag some snacks); it has a scientific explanation.

 “When [blood sugar] is low,” says Nolan, “the hypothalamus is triggered and levels of several hormones such as growth hormone, leptin and ghrelin are affected.  This imbalance then causes a shift in neurotransmitters and suppresses serotonin receptors.”

Serotonin is a hormone that helps regulate mood and appetite. Cut off your body’s ability to process it, and prepare for some mood swings. Anger and extreme frustration, Nolan says, are common responses.

This is not to say everyone who skips lunch will turn into The Hulk before dinner. Blood sugar has to drop pretty low (from a normal range of 70 to 100 milligrams per deciliter to a level below 55 mg/dL) before hanger-causing moderate hypoglycemia sets in. That takes several hours of not eating.

And, says Nolan, there are other factors that may make some people more susceptible to “hanger” than others.

“For individuals more prone to having low [blood sugar], symptoms tend to be more severe,” she explains. “‘Anger’ as a result of hunger is in part, personality based.  If you are someone who is more prone to feeling frustrated or ‘moody’ to other life situations you are more likely to have this reaction when hungry.” 

Outside stressors --like work or family issues-- can worsen the problem.

 “If you are already feeling on edge,” she adds, “chances are extreme hunger is going to personify this.”

In order to keep your blood sugar stable and ward off hanger, Nolan suggests eating a combination of protein and complex carbs every 3 hours. (Cheese and wheat crackers or hummus on pita will get the job done.) 

And remember, next time you feel inexplicably angry, treat yourself to a snack before blowing up. Your brain and your coworkers might thank you.