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People become "hangry" when their blood sugar is low

The word “hangry”’ is one of the most recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary. It is defined as being irritable or bad tempered as a result of feeling hungry, and has come into popular use in everyday language in the past few years. Despite this, the phenomenon has not been explored scientifically outside of laboratory conditions.

A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE is the first to investigate how hunger affects people’s emotions in their daily lives. The research, led by academics from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in the UK and the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Austria, involved 64 adult participants from central Europe who recorded their feelings and levels of hunger on a smartphone app, five times a day for 21 days. This meant that data collection took place in the participants’ homes and workplaces and reflected the link between hunger and emotional wellbeing in a natural environment.

“Many of us are aware that being hungry can influence our emotions, but surprisingly little scientific research has focused on being ‘hangry.’ Ours is the first study to examine being ‘hangry’ outside of a lab. By following people in their day-to-day lives, we found that hunger was related to levels of anger, irritability, and pleasure,” explained study lead author Professor Viren Swami.

The results of the research show that people who are hungry are more likely to feel angry and irritable, and also to experience less pleasure from their daily lives. The effects of hunger were substantial, even after the researchers took into account demographic factors such as age and sex, body mass index, dietary behavior and individual personality traits. 

Being hungry explained 37 percent of the variance in irritability, 34 percent of the variance in anger and 38 percent of the variance in pleasure recorded by the participants. The research also found that the negative emotions – irritability, anger, and unpleasantness – are related to both day-to-day fluctuations in hunger, and to residual levels of hunger, measured using averages over the three-week period.

“Although our study doesn’t present ways to mitigate negative hunger-induced emotions, 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,” explained Swami. “Therefore, greater awareness of being ‘hangry’ could reduce the likelihood that hunger results in negative emotions and behaviors in individuals.”

The field work for the study was carried out by Stefan Stieger, Professor of Psychology at Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences. Professor Stieger said: “This ‘hangry’ effect hasn’t been analyzed in detail, so we chose a field-based approach where participants were invited to respond to prompts to complete brief surveys on an app. They were sent these prompts five times a day at semi-random occasions over a three-week period.”

“This allowed us to generate intensive longitudinal data in a manner not possible with traditional laboratory-based research,” he added. “Although this approach requires a great deal of effort – not only for participants but also for researchers in designing such studies – the results provide a high degree of generalizability compared to laboratory studies, giving us a much more complete picture of how people experience the emotional outcomes of hunger in their everyday lives.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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