Food & Drink

Can You Really Be Hangry? A Doctor Told Us the Truth.

woman looking hungry
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Being hungry and angry at the same time is such a common affliction in America that we've actually given the phenomenon a name: being "hangry," a term that's joined other intolerable made-up words like Brangelina and Quesarito.

But is hanger something Snickers just made up for their weird ad campaign where Johnny Manziel teaches Zumba? We asked an expert who should know -- Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, who's done research on aggression and violence for nearly 25 years. Here's what he told us.

How are hunger and anger related?

Dr. Bushman sums this up in one handy phrase, "Aggression often starts when self-control stops."

But what do self-control and hunger have to do with each other? Allow him to explain how your brain works for a moment. "We know the pre-frontal cortex part of your brain is responsible for self-control. And we also know that it needs energy. Our brain needs energy to exercise self-control. Even though it's only about 2% of your body weight, it uses 20-30% of the calories we consume. And it gets those calories from food."

In short, the brain needs energy to exercise self-control, and when you don't have self-control, you get aggressive.

The hunger + aggressive behavior link

"Correlation doesn't imply causation" is the one fact everyone retained from attending four years of college. But Dr. Bushman and other smartypants teamed up for two separate studies that make the case for hanger being a real, verifiable thing.

The Sweetened Blood Cools Hot Tempers Study
Along with help from researchers at the University of Kentucky and OSU, Dr. Bushman recruited college students and randomly assigned them into groups. A great start to a study, if you ask us!

OK, so one group of students was served lemonade sweetened with sugar, while the other got lemonade sweetened with Splenda. Sugar has calories, which provide fuel for the brain. Splenda does no such thing. And as it turns out, people can't tell the difference between the two types of lemonade. Then the students were "given a chance to blast an ostensible opponent with loud noise through headphones." Damn, that's metal! And an aggressive behavior. What happened?

The Dr. explains: "The college students were more aggressive against a complete stranger if they drank the lemonade sweetened with Splenda." Splenda has no calories, and therefore they didn't have the self-control they needed to not be annoyed.

The Sweet Revenge Study
In this study, Bushman and other researchers recruited couples from across the country. Their hypothesis was that by studying the couples for 23 days, they'd discover that if one person in the relationship had diabetic symptoms (like fatigue), they'd be less likely to forgive their significant other if they were wronged.

Bad news: they were right. "As expected, diabetic symptoms correlated negatively with cooperative behavior, b = (-.16, t(176) = -2.17, p = .03, r = -0.16." DUH, RIGHT? No, seriously, that math is real. It continues, "type 2 diabetic symptoms related to less actual forgiving behavior."

Here's the bottom line -- if you're in a relationship with someone who's hangry a lot, don't expect an apology anytime soon after you get into a fight.

So is hanger real? Can you fix it?

Yeah, it's real. Dr. Bushman says, "I think the two studies combined are powerful evidence that being hangry causes you to behave more aggressively not only against strangers in the short term, but against loved ones in the long term. Together they're a very powerful package."

Fixing it is not as simple as drinking a ton of lemonade with sugar. They used lemonade in the study because they needed glucose levels to rise quickly. Sugar is actually a horrible way to combat hanger, as candy bars and the like "lead to high levels of glucose quickly, which fall just as fast. And they cause problems like obesity. And that can lead to diabetic symptoms." Which are not good.

The real solution is to eat healthy snacks. Carrots, nuts, apples. The good doctor says that "although they take longer to raise your glucose, it stays more stable for a longer period of time." Keeping glucose levels high and stable means you have self-control. It's a good thing.

Dr. B will leave you with one last nugget of hanger-related wisdom, "If you're going to have an important discussion with your spouse, you should definitely not do it on an empty stomach. Or with your boss or anyone significant. Or a complete stranger. It's just not a good idea."

Lee Breslouer writes about food and drink for Thrillist, and has a Lärabar on him at all times. Follow him to tweets written out of hanger: @LeeBreslouer.