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Woman hangry at work.

Why we get hangry

What causes us to become "hangry"? Hangry is a combination of hungry and angry that you've likely felt at some point, whether you were stuck in a long meeting, sitting in traffic or hadn't had a chance to eat in a few hours. Hangry may not be an actual word, but the science behind this feeling is real.

"One of the symptoms of low blood sugar is being irritable and having anxiety," says Ellen Poindexter, a diabetes educator at Piedmont Fayette. "There is not enough glucose getting to the brain when your blood sugar is low."  

Your brain on hunger

Everything we eat is processed by the body and converted into glucose (blood sugar), though some nutrients are processed more quickly than others. Most organs in the body can function for some time without a steady supply of glucose, but brain function takes a hit when it doesn't receive enough. When you have low glucose:

  • Brain function may decrease.
  • Your concentration and patience can decline.
  • The brain sends signals to organs to release hormones, including adrenaline, which triggers our "fight or flight" response. This makes you more likely to feel grumpy or aggressive.

What to eat when you're hangry

You're so hungry you can't think straight, so what type of snack do you reach for - a candy bar or carrot sticks? The body craves salt and sugar because it's looking for a quick fix to increase its energy. Be warned: that candy bar could send you into a sugar crash before rush hour.

"Sometimes we can be so hungry, we reach for carbohydrates only," says Poindexter. "The best thing to do to prevent symptoms of low blood sugar is eat a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat. That way your meal sticks with you longer."

Common carbohydrate-heavy pick-me-ups include:

  • Cookies
  • Pastries
  • Muffins
  • White bread
  • Soda
  • Crackers made from refined flour

Examples of well-balanced snacks include:

  • Hummus and whole wheat crackers
  • An apple with peanut butter
  • 3 cups of popcorn with a stick of string cheese
  • Greek yogurt with fresh berries and sliced almonds

Carbohydrates - particularly simple carbohydrates that don't contain much fiber - convert to glucose quickly, giving you a "sugar high," but will leave you feeling hungry sooner than if you'd eaten a balanced meal. Fiber is key because it slows down the conversion of carbohydrates to glucose.

High fiber foods include:

  • Fresh fruits, like apples, berries and oranges
  • Vegetables, like artichokes, broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, carrots
  • Whole grain bread
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Nuts
  • Beans

Poindexter recommends eating a snack if your meals are greater than four to five hours apart to keep your blood sugar levels in check. Click here for additional healthy snack ideas.

Sometimes hunger is unavoidable, but whenever possible, keep a healthy snack nearby so you can stabilize your glucose and your mood.

For more helpful, healthful tips, click here.

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