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Health and wellness

Feeling ‘hangry’? Four easy ways to make sure you don’t ever again – by eating right

The secret to controlling your temper is diet, say doctors. When you haven’t eaten enough, hormone levels in your body change and can cause you to be short-tempered

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 October, 2017, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 8:05pm

Ever find yourself snapping at someone in the office or at home or shooting deathly stares at the waiter who is slow to take your food order when you are feeling angry, restless or anxious? That is the experience of being hangry, a state of anger caused by lack of food; hunger causing a negative change in emotional state. Many have experienced “hanger” first-hand or know someone whose temper is directly correlated to the loudness of their stomach grumbles. That our fuse is shorter when our stomach feels empty is no coincidence.

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The change in mood triggered by hunger is caused by changes in our hormones. Two main hormones – insulin and glucagon – regulate our metabolism and work to keep blood sugar balanced. Food is ingested, digested and broken down into glucose and transported into the bloodstream. This triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin helps transport glucose from the blood to cells, supplying them with energy, while bringing blood glucose levels back to normal.

Going too many hours without food triggers a drop in blood glucose levels. That signals the pancreas to secrete another hormone: glucagon. Glucagon basically has the opposite effect of insulin: it breaks down stored glucose, and releases it into the blood to bring blood sugar levels back to baseline. But stored glucose only goes so far. “Hanger” strikes if you do not eat something in time.

Serotonin – the feel-good hormone that regulates our behaviour and curbs cravings and suppresses appetite after we eat, especially carbohydrate-rich foods – also plays a key role in managing “hanger”.

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Most of the serotonin in our bodies, as much as 90 per cent of it, regulates intestinal movements, targeting the gastrointestinal tract. The rest regulates mood, appetite, and sleep, and it is also thought to contribute to feelings of pleasure, well-being, and happiness.

According to a University of Cambridge study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2012, serotonin levels have been found to fluctuate particularly when people are stressed out or have not eaten. This makes sense, as the rising and falling of our serotonin levels also affects the parts of our brain that allow us to control our anger. For this reason, when food intake is reduced, so are serotonin levels. The inaction of the intestinal system precludes serotonin release, and the consequences include anxiety, stress, anger and hunger – a hangry cocktail. Without enough to eat, the brain does not function as well. This leads to a loss of self-control, and more aggressive behaviour.

Hanger management

Having reviewed the science behind hanger, here are some ways to help manage it. Your brain and loved ones will thank you, too.

1. Don’t skip meals

This may be easier said than done, especially for busy Hongkongers, but it is definitely the most important on the list. Skipping meals provides our bodies the opportunity to go into “starvation mode”, also known as the fasting state. This dip in blood sugar triggers several hormonal changes in the body, one being changes in our serotonin levels. Moreover, skipping meals often leads to overeating later in the day, which can result in weight gain and its associated problems. If you don’t want three square meals, try eating small frequent meals throughout the day to prevent significant fluctuations in blood sugar and serotonin levels.

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2. Cut out processed foods and refined carbohydrates

Reaching for refined sugary foods such as biscuits, chips, doughnuts, and confectionery to curb your hunger can cause a spike in blood-sugar levels and a subsequent dip, leaving you tired, sluggish, and probably still hangry. Processed foods are often devoid of fibre, reducing their power to satiate, and are a prime source of added sugars including high-fructose corn syrup, which is linked to serious health issues, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A recent study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism shows that eating high-fructose corn syrup significantly depletes levels of circulating insulin and leptin, also known as the “satiety hormone”, while increasing ghrelin, the “hunger hormone” concentrations, triggering hunger and overeating. The next time you are hangry and craving something sweet, reach for a piece of fresh, whole fruit or a handful of nuts and seeds to sustain the supply of energy or sugar into your bloodstream and to keep your tummy fuller (and happier) a little longer.

3. Stop overeating

Constant overeating exposes the body to elevated levels of circulating leptin, a hormone that lets your body know that it is full. If your hunger levels are out of control, the more likely you are to overeat. It can be a vicious circle: if you overeat, the more likely your hunger levels are to get out of control. This high leptin exposure can damage the hypothalamus, the gland responsible for secreting our hunger and satiety hormones. It may become less sensitive to leptin, leaving the body unable to register that it is full, resulting in hanger.

4. Be prepared, always

One of the biggest reasons we experience hanger is because we leave home unprepared. Caught up in our busy morning routines, we forget to grab a snack. That leaves few options: take a stab at the office vending machine, or go hangry – and potentially take a stab at a colleague. Planning is key. Keep healthy, non-perishable snacks such as trail mix, granola balls or nut-butter sandwiches in your purse, briefcase, car, and/or desk, just in case Monday morning catches you off-guard. Keep a spare water bottle handy, too, to ward off the soda and crisps temptation.

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Keep your hanger in check as a first step in developing a healthier diet routine, happier relationship with food (and loved ones), losing weight, and reducing your risk of developing chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Michelle Lau is a certified nutritionist and nutrition educator, and the founder of Nutrilicious, a Hong Kong-based nutrition consultancy company