Feeling 'hangry' may be rooted in science and not all in our heads: New study

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The first clinical study to investigate how hunger affects people’s emotions found that feeling hungry is associated with greater levels of anger and irritability and lower levels of pleasure. 

That’s according to a recent report published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One from the Public Library of Science. 

“Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich, but my stubborn self decided not to and now I’m getting hangry,” American snowboarder Chloe Kim tweeted during the recent Winter Olympics.

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“Many of us are aware that being hungry can influence our emotions, but surprisingly little scientific research has focused on being ‘hangry,’” lead author Dr. Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom, said in a press release about the new study. 

“We found that hunger was related to levels of anger, irritability and pleasure,” said the lead author of a new clinical study. The group followed people in their daily lives. 

“Ours is the first study to examine being ‘hangry’ outside of a lab,” he also said.

“By following people in their day-to-day lives, we found that hunger was related to levels of anger, irritability and pleasure.”

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Researchers from the United Kingdom and Austria recruited 121 adults from central Europe.

Sixty-four adult participants, ranging from ages 18 to 60, completed the study. 

Some 81% of those sampled were women. 

Participants in a new study reported their feelings and levels of hunger by responding to regular prompts on a smartphone app to complete brief surveys.

Participants in a new study reported their feelings and levels of hunger by responding to regular prompts on a smartphone app to complete brief surveys.
(iStock)

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The study used an assessment method known as the “experience sampling method” to better understand how hunger affects the emotional outcomes of people’s lives.  

The methodology didn’t require a control group, as the sample size was sufficiently statistically powered for the study’s design, Swami told Fox News Digital.

Participants reported their feelings and their levels of hunger by responding to prompts on a smartphone application to complete brief surveys, which the study sent five times a day on a semi-random basis over a three-week period.

“We believe this is the first time that a link with negative emotions has been demonstrated with two different forms of self-reported hunger.”

The research found that hunger was associated with 37% of changes in irritability, 34% in anger and 38% in pleasure after controlling for variables that could influence the study’s result — including age, sex, body mass index and dietary behavior of the participants, the release indicated.

The study did not account for mental health issues or other triggers that may contribute to negative emotions, though it did control for trait anger, according to Medical News Today, which analyzed the study.

The new research noted that some situations are more likely to result in anger and irritability compared to others — such as being alone vs. being in a group setting, or working vs. having fun.

The new research noted that some situations are more likely to result in anger and irritability compared to others — such as being alone vs. being in a group setting, or working vs. having fun.
(iStock)

The researchers found that day-to-day fluctuations in hunger as well as residual levels of hunger (measured by averages over a three-week period) were associated with irritability, anger and unpleasantness.

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“We believe this is the first time that a link with negative emotions has been demonstrated with two different forms of self-reported hunger, [suggesting] that the link may be fairly robust,” the authors said in their study.

The researchers also measured pleasure and arousal by asking participants, “How pleasant do you find you current state?” and “What is your current arousal level?”

A “greater awareness of being ‘hangry’ could reduce the likelihood that hunger results in negative emotions and [behaviors] in individuals.” 

The participants’ pleasure responses ranged from 0 to 100, with 0 (very unpleasant) to 100 (very pleasant) — while arousal responses ranged from 0 (sleepy) to 100 (high arousal).

Swami explained that “arousal” relates to physiological arousal or excitement, rather than being happy, which allowed “a more holistic account of participants’ emotionality.”

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But unlike negative emotions such as irritability, anger and unpleasantness, the results were not significantly associated with levels of arousal. 

“Based on our results, it may be argued that it is the combination of negative states and high arousal that is linked to high levels of hunger, rather than arousal per se,” the authors said. 

The new study evaluated anger and irritability as single-item measurements.

The new study evaluated anger and irritability as single-item measurements.
(iStock)

“This may also help explain why high arousal states, such as anger, in our study showed a significant relationship with self-reported hunger,” the authors said.

The research noted some situations are more likely to result in anger and irritability compared to others — such as being alone versus being in a group setting or working versus having fun. The study is limited because it was not able measure the context of these situations.

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The authors suggested the experience of hunger may be translated into negative emotions through a variety of everyday situations that are perceived in a negative manner, according to Medical News Today.

So hunger may not reflexively lead to negative emotions — but the context of how people are experiencing hunger may influence their emotions and behaviors, according the medical news outlet. 

This new study suggests that feeling "hangry" may not just be in our heads.

This new study suggests that feeling “hangry” may not just be in our heads.
(iStock)

Another study limitation was that it evaluated anger and irritability as single-item measurements; researchers were not able to fully address the potential subtleties in the negative emotional experience.

The research suggests that having the ability to label an emotion can help people regulate it.

The researchers also didn’t measure physiological markers of hunger, such as the participant’s glucose level, noting such changes may also influence negative emotional states. Due to the small sample size, the study is not generalizable to a diverse population.

“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,” Swami said in a press release.

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“Therefore, greater awareness of being ‘hangry’ could reduce the likelihood that hunger results in negative emotions and [behaviors] in individuals.” 

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